It’s never been an easy path for films surrounding issues of disability. They either veer towards misguided sentimentality or turn out to be downright manipulative fluff. Some of the even worse films defeat the purpose of showcasing the plight of differently abled people by insulting them instead of doing the opposite. Disability has seldom been properly understood by filmmakers, and their lack of insight into the subject often comes across in their films. So even though their intentions are noble, the final product often turns out to be a heavy-handed attempt to address a serious issue without the skill to do so.
Most times, it’s a case of a ham-fisted endeavor to extract sympathy from audiences. There’s either a blaring song to wrench your guts or sobbing faces breaking the fourth wall. Even the good films fall into this trapdoor. Take for example Taare Zameen Par - as good as it was, it had both of those aforementioned elements. Can you imagine the film without the ‘Maa’ song? Would it have the same emotional heft without that song? Probably not, because the song in the film does most of the work, the direction and the acting become secondary entities. That also holds true for the climax of the film – without ‘Tu Dhoop Hai’ the ‘triumph’ at the end would not have the same emotional punch. The need for commercialization of a film in India further takes away its quality, and pandering to lower common denominators takes center stage, rather than delivering a heartfelt story that feels genuine in both intention and execution.
Therefore Shonali Bose’s Margarita with a Straw had a lot of ground to cover and obstacles to avoid. It succeeds beautifully. Halfway.
Right from the opening scene it becomes clear that this is a very different film from what we’ve seen in India before. Laila (Kalki) is in a Matador van driven by her Mom (Revathy), and is accompanied by her dad (Kuljeet Singh) and her kid brother. The dad starts singing and the kid makes a side splitting sarcastic joke. It’s like a scene out of Little Miss Sunshine. Laila, a college girl has cerebral palsy that binds her to a wheelchair but not to the ground. She slurs while talking but is a kickass lyricist for a rock band. She also has a crush on the band frontman but has no idea how to tell that to him, because why would the most popular guy on campus date a disabled girl?
It’s the perfect recipe for emotional manipulation or kitsch. But director Bose is such a talent there’s not an ounce of manipulation or kitsch to be found here. Every scene is executed with solid craft - there are long takes, silences, and not a shred of background music. And with Kalki delivering a terrific central performance you can’t take your eyes off the screen. You don’t see Kalki pretending to be a disabled person, you see Kalki completely disappearing into a character you love and care about, without the easy aid of helpful background music and montages. Every tick and slur in Kalki’s body language is carefully calibrated, and Bose has clearly had extensive hands on research. The results are pretty much a very talented director clashing against an actor who’s done a ton of homework.
The attention to detailing and nuance extend to the elements other than Laila as well. There is sensitivity and authenticity in the way other people in the film converse with Laila, and even with each other. There are bits of comedy as well that hit just the right notes, keeping in with the subdued tone of the film.
The film goes even further - it explores the situation of a disabled person when it comes to the uncomfortable topic of sexual mores. Laila watches porn, uses a friend to assuage her frustration and even has sex with a woman. Exploring a woman’s sexuality in an Indian film is itself taboo, so going this far in a Hindi film feels like a triumph in itself. And Bose explores the scenario with tremendous maturity in her tasteful shots. Through Laila the film renders a few unsettling questions – how fair is it for a disabled person to be a burden to her caretakers? Is it possible for a disabled person to be in a relationship with a ‘normal’ human being?
Laila gets into a relationship with Khanum (Sayani Gupta) a very beautiful woman who is blind, and it is at this point the film reaches its peak by asking some dreaded questions – are both these women in a relationship with each other because men don’t find them attractive or desirable? Can disability only be accepted by disability? Is it ok for Laila to explore her sexuality by sleeping with a man once to make sure she’s a lesbian, and not a heterosexual forced to be in a homosexual relationship due to her disability? And how would the conservative parents of a disabled Indian girl feel when they get to know their daughter is a lesbian? Acceptance of disability in society is problematic in itself, but a disabled lesbian daughter is too much to take.
At this point, which is ten minutes after the interval, you’re sure that this is the best film of the year because by now it has explored a ton of extremely bold topics with exquisite sensitivity. Call it the curse of the second half, but a scene pops up that shows Revathy’s Mom character losing her hair, and it single handedly derails the film. Unfortunately Bose fails to figure out a proper resolution to the already numerous and heavy duty conflicts at hand, and adds one more conflict to the story - the Mom character develops cancer.
So instead of dealing with Laila’s disability, or her lesbian relationship, or her confusion in her sexuality, or her cheating on her girlfriend for a man, or her trouble with her parents accepting her girlfriend, there’s one more conflict of cancer thrown in. None of it adds up, and the film begins indulging in melodrama, and doing exactly those things it had avoided previously, like caricaturist melancholy vocals at the Mom’s funeral. A great deal of the second half is spent in ruing the mother’s death, but her character was never developed enough in the first half to make us care about her. On the other hand Khanum disappears from the movie without any resolution, as does the man Laila sleeps with. Plot threads are left hanging and the film unfortunately becomes Blue is the Warmest Color with disability and cancer.
To add the final nail in the coffin the film ends with a truly ridiculous literal message of ‘love yourselves’, followed by an overused Rumi quote. It’s frustrating beyond belief. It’s also shocking that the film has been through a script lab, I would imagine someone from the lab would have pointed out the gaffes in the film, considering they are so basic and so glaring in nature. It doesn’t matter when a film that is rubbish to begin with ends up in a whimper, but a film that shows such great promise as Margarita with a Straw did becomes an infinitely exasperating experience. Clearly, even a deeply personal story, and the tools to execute it on a high order of filmmaking are not enough to deliver a satisfying conflict resolution.