I saw “Margarita, with a Straw” with a great amount of curiosity and expectation. The performances were top notch, the credentials of the makers and all involved are bonafide. But the film did not work for me. In parts. And that is where the problem lies.
I want to talk about the film from two, no three perspectives because I think it is important. I want to reflect on the film from my own point of view as a woman with a locomotor disability who has been unashamed of her sexuality, and from the point of view as a member of the community who is largely unacquainted with issues related to disability and sexuality, but who is deeply empathetic. I also will try to wear my health activist lenses for a moment and try to interpret the message from the point of view of someone who has fought aggressively for the rights of everything that is marginalised, oppressed, suppressed, and less understood.
Swinging from acknowledging and portraying the sexual needs of one or two disabled young women, this film traces the arc all the way to disabled pornography as a show-and-tell for the ‘normal’. Remember those well made porn films, with a story, where the entire action takes place within a clever plot?! I was very hard pressed to differentiate this film from those. After all, why do we see porn? We see others make it, the different ways in which they make it, circumstances under which they make it, and different partner combinations making it. Same here. It was like an episode from F.R.I.E.N.D.S without the explicit sex scenes, and the friends here are either in a wheelchair or physically challenged in some other way. Because in F.R.I.E.N.D.S anything that everyone does is cool and normal. So we are told.
The whole point of the film is about Laila and her coming to terms with her libido, and her winning ways to claim love (sex), unsuccessfully or successfully. I am totally cool with Laila’s promiscuity. But what about Laila? Who is she? What does she love? Who does she love? What does love means to her? What are her aspirations, fears and world-view? She was like one of those hyper hormonal adolescents I know who are so uninteresting. For a writer who gets accepted into an American College on a scholarship for Creative Writing, she has very little to show for her depth in her personality and her quest for life and love. I came away knowing very little about her. Truth be told, if Laila were a real person of my acquaintance, I hardly think that I would be friends with her. What was Laila’s passion? The film does not reveal and so the film is very uni-dimensional in that sense. Was Laila endearing? I think not. Was she inspiring? Hmmmmm. She needn’t be. Is she just a girl with normal feelings trapped in a body bound in a wheel chair? I think the issue is not so simple. And that is where the film lets me down.
The other problem I had was in the strategic decision to dove-tail a same-sex relationship within a disability context. Did you ever wonder why there aren’t any protests? Surely all the right-wingers can’t be fashionably cool about an occult depiction of a lesbian relationship suddenly. There is enough provocative material in the film to keep the saffron, green and white brigades restlessly happy for weeks. Why are there no calls for bans? I think I can take a guess and put forward an over-simplistic explanation. Two negatives cancel each other. Two non-normals make an appeal to a normal. It’s an allowance.
I was worried about Laila contracting some STI or getting pregnant. I would have been interested in knowing how Laila perceives her risk of getting infected or her concerns about having an unwanted pregnancy. She negotiates no protection whatsoever. Surely that is ‘normal’ sexual behaviour.
On the way back from the film, my friend Olga couldn’t help exclaiming whether the New York encounter where Laila’s white male classmate Jared has sex with Laila could not be classified as ‘abuse’. Then another friend with us in the car deconstructed the situation and said that Laila had not only consented, but she was the one who made the initial move. The explanation was sufficient, but I could not help being concerned about Laila and her scope for abuse, given her vulnerability and her openness to experiment.
For me, Revathy was the real rock star of the film. She brought a beautiful depth to the many layers of her role as a mother. She is the mother we see every day providing unstinted care and support with joy and pride to their disabled child. Parents of children with disability are the real heroes. A special child makes any mother an Amazon. As I punch my keys now for this blog, my eyes are shrouded in tears remembering my father, now gone to be with his Maker, and my mother, who was in every way dissimilar yet representative of Shubhangani Kapoor.
Laila’s mother, Mrs. Kapoor is the protagonist for me. She made everything possible. Though her own value system was unfamiliar with ‘different’ relationships she accepts Laila and her choices unconditionally on her death bed. 10,000 points for Revathy. I am yet to see a finer portrayal of a mother on screen. She just slid into the role, and gave such a mature, deeply heartfelt essay. Revathy has been involved with the cause of disability for more than 15 years and her instinctive insight into the complex issues shows.
Of course, all the rest of the cast did a superb performance, chiefly Kalki and Sayani. I have seen so many films with the protagonists in wheelchairs, believe me, it is very difficult to differentiate mimicry and imitation from acting. However, because a disability is a novelty, it tends to be easy to pull it off convincingly, by contorting the face and the various body parts, and by talking with a lisp and a slur. I still stand by my firm belief that there were better performances over Redmaynes’s portrayal of Stephen Hawking this year, and that his winning the Oscar was a bit of a disappointment for me. The most authentic depictions of disability to date in Indian cinema, have been by Kamal Haasan. I couldn’t help but remember his memorable Chappani, a man with spastic hemiplegia (a type of cerebral palsy) in “16 Vayadhinile”(1977). Such an endearing character Chappani was.
Of course the character of Laila was at a very hormonal stage in her life and needed to grow. In the last scene where she has a date with herself sipping a Margarita with a straw, was perhaps her coming of age moment. But her growth and journey so far were very awkwardly and superficially done.
Something about disability on screen tugs at our heartstrings. The more emotional buttons we push, the better received the fare, when all other parameters are reasonably taken care of. I think ‘Margarita, with a Straw’ is one such tug. I only wish that this translates into respect and attention for the needs of disabled woman in real life.