Independent Indian Movie Sheds Light on Disability and Sexuality

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Kalki Koechlin plays the role of Laila, a college student with cerebral palsy in Margarita with a Straw. Image courtesy of The Scene Club Dubai.

BY Anna Yazijyan

DUBAI (Nov 2) Forbidden love, a relentless struggle for happiness and a desire to live a “normal” life form the crux of Shonali Bose’s award-winning film Margarita With a Straw.

Seen by many as controversial, the movie is an emotional and inspiring story about Laila (Kalki Koechin), a girl with cerebral palsy who faces many challenges in her bid to gain acceptance in society, both in India and abroad.

Margarita With a Straw, which received the NETPAC award at the 2014 Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF), was shown for the first time in the region on Thursday, with a two-day exclusive screening by The Scene Club at Dubai Knowledge Village.

Margarita With A Straw screening at Dubai Knowledge Village, organized by The Scene Club .

The Scene Club organized a screening of “Margarita With A Straw” in Dubai. Image courtesy of The Scene Club

Shown as highly intelligent and with a good sense of humour, Laila receives a scholarship to New York University, where she meets Jared (William Moseley) who is assigned to be her study partner. Then, life introduces Laila to Khanum (Sayani Gupta), a self-confident young blind woman of Bangladeshi-Pakistani origin, who plays a pivotal role in shaping her sexual identity.

On including the sex scene in the movie, Koechlin told The Indian Express in May this year that she felt it was important to do so. “We’re exposed to scenes where everything is like a James Bond film, beautiful and sweltry, everybody is golden skinned and sex just happens. But, that’s so not how it is…”

During a question and answer session following the film’s showing, co-director Nilesh Maniyar, described the movie as having been  “extremely politicized.” He was referring to scenes in the film about anti-racism protests in New York, whose backdrop forms the movie’s storyline.

Co-director, Nilesh Maniyar, speaking at Dubai Knowledge Village, before screening his film. Courtesy of The Scene Club Dubai.

Co-director of “Margarita with a Straw” Nilesh Maniyar described the film as “extremely politicized.” Image courtesy of The Scene Club

Koechlin’s portrayal of Laila as a disabled woman with a steely will and adventurous spirit had a strong impact on the audience. Her performance of a young insecure woman who is on the brink of giving up until her enthusiasm to experience new helps her overcome her physical limits, was lauded by all.

Koechlin spent considerable time preparing for this role, including spending time in a wheelchair. “I got the real psychology [of] cerebral palsy only when I sat in the wheelchair,” she told the newspaper. “So, right before the filming started for about two weeks and during the whole film, I stayed in the wheelchair most of the time, as much as possible. So, that sense of not being able to get up whenever I wanted, having to depend on others to take me somewhere, or to get me lunch or a bottle of water, that dependency was frustrating. Also, people tend to stare a lot and are quite awkward around people with disability. Some also tend to infantilize you and you think I’m a grown woman, so treat me like one. All those frustrations came up only when I was spending all my time in the wheelchair,” she said.

Her sensitive portrayal of a person with disabilities was especially note worthy.

“Bose and Koechlin never lose sight of the emotional core of the piece and … you can feel its insistent pull on the tear ducts at key points,” said The Guardian in its review of the film.

Margarita, With a Straw is a thought-provoking coming of age film with twists and turns that are likely to warm even the toughest of hearts.

UAE residents waiting for the controversial film to start at Dubai Knowledge Village. Courtesy of The Scene Club.

The film left a strong impact on the audience in Dubai. Image courtesy of The Scene Club

Bose is not the first Indian director who has raised awareness on sexual orientation and identity in cinema. Deepa Mehta’s 1996 internationally acclaimed film Fire, which portrayed a same sex relationship between two women, was released uncut in India. It only ran for three weeks before Hindu fundamentalist groups deemed it obscene, immoral and offensive to Indian culture and Hinduism.

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