In her hunt for her Majnoon, Kalki Koechlin’s Laila hops borders and sexualities. Does she succeed? The best thing about Shonali Bose’s Margarita With A Straw is that it often makes you forget that Laila has cerebral palsy and uses a wheelchair.
Bose, who has co-written the busy screenplay with Nilesh Maniyar, ensures that Laila’s love life, rather than her inability to move about unassisted or speak clearly, remains in the foreground. The opening sequences rapidly establish that Laila writes lyrics for a college band and has a crush on dishy singer Nima (Tenzing Dalha) as well as a boyfriend on the side, Dhruv (Hussain Dalal), who also uses a wheelchair.
Bose’s second feature after Amu (2005) is set in a similar community of affluent, liberal, deracinated, reasonable and tolerant Delhiites. This subset is both real as well as the ideal. Laila is blessed with a caring and wealthy family, supportive friends, and a college atmosphere where students barely notice that she is wheeling around in their midst. This is how it should be, suggests Bose, whose story draws on the experiences of her cousin, disability rights activist Malini Chib.
Thus Nima is more surprised than jolted at Laila’s feelings for him. He merely looks puzzled and even a bit guilty. Nima’s tone dictates the rest of the movie, which makes Laila’s disability just one of the factors on her journey towards self-realisation. There is no room in Margarita With a Straw for anything but the taboo-busting idea that Laila is just like anybody else, to the extent that she has no shortage of willing sexual partners from both genders.
Laila’s exploration of her sexual needs hots up when she moves to New York City to study, meet visually challenged activist Khanum (Sayani Gupta), and allows her latent bisexuality to surface. Even here, Bose keeps the emotions in Zen zone. Laila’s response to Khanum’s overtures is mildly curious, at best, and any raised eyebrows are strictly on the other side of the screen. Her mother Shubhangini (Revathy), otherwise the epitome of understanding, briefly recoils with what appears to be horror, but the movie is more interested in piling on other distractions, and this moment passes.
Laila’s quest for self-realisation is never so intense that it is a threat, but her hunger is unmistakable. Much of the action is framed from the point of view of somebody sitting in a wheelchair, and this is also the filmmaker’s default position. Bose stays away from the everyday difficulties of being differently abled as well as the overcompensating heights of achievement suggested by Hindi movies on the subject.
It is neither bathetic nor misleading, but the movie doesn’t always achieve its balance between these two default states. The tensions that usually accompany the decisions that need to be taken on big life choices – being independent, studying abroad, choosing a girlfriend rather than a boyfriend – never quite emerge. Potentially interesting dynamics, such as the relationship between Laila and her mother, remain on the surface. The various plots strands are awkwardly braided together, particularly towards the closing moments, but the task of creating warm, funny and likable characters who are carriers of deeply radical ideas has been achieved by then. Bose is matter-of-fact about the love-making scenes, but that does not make them any less unusual or far-reaching.
Laila is a compelling heroine and is winningly performed by Koechlin with solid backing from Gupta and Revathy. Laila endures turbulence with no more than a mild crease in her forehead, and this is how Bose wants it to be. Neither being differently abled nor being bisexuality is the end of the world, she says; in fact, either state might inspire amazing and unforeseen adventures.