As this film begins, hazy Indian street smoke partially clears to show us our main characters. Laila, a girl with cerebral palsy, sits in the back seat, gazing out the window in what is to be one of many journeys for her in Margarita with a Straw. Music mixes with busy road noise, and we are brought into an exciting and enchanting world.
Margarita with a Straw (Shonali Bose, 2014) is a Hindi-language coming-of-age film, centering around Laila. Relying somewhat on her parents by necessity of her disability, the film follows Laila’s journey of independence and self-discovery. She moves to New York City for university and there meets and falls in love with Khanum, a blind female activist. Throughout the film, Laila grapples with ideas of identity, sexuality and loss.
Top Tip: Chill out a little, because this film is more light-hearted than you might expect
The film’s structuring is, at first, a little jarring. What has been marketed as the main plot for the film, the action in New York City, isn’t reached until more than 30 minutes in. At first, if you haven’t read Netflix’s description, you might think that the film is set only at Laila’s high school. Though I appreciate character and context introductions, there is an entire introductory subplot, where Laila crushes, confesses love, and is rejected – and it all feels a bit like an episode of a cheesy high school drama. There are other structuring issues further on, but we’ll get onto those later.
In spite of this, it must be said that the acting in Margarita with a Straw is, generally, strong. There are certainly no off-putting weak spots, and many of the leads’ acting talents shine through, Kalki Koechlin as Laila being a particular standout. She is expressive and playful, surprising us with her reactions often, though never to the degree that becomes unbelievable for her character.
Many reviewers praised Koechlin’s ability to portray cerebral palsy, as she herself does not have it; to me, this approach distracts from any depth in Laila’s character. Bose wanted to cast an actor with cerebral palsy in the main role, but couldn’t find anyone, as there are apparently no female actors with the condition in India, and any amateurs she found didn’t meet her standard. She had a similar reason for casting a non-blind actor, Sayani Kupta, in the role of Khanum. We can talk about how bad an excuse this is until the cows come home, but at the end of the day, if she hired actors with the same disabilities that they were portraying, then we wouldn’t be talking about it. Convincingly portraying someone with cerebral palsy when you don’t have cerebral palsy should be the baseline for an actor who chooses to take that role.
The film can be praised in this regard when it comes to creating three-dimensional characters: they extend beyond, between and around the realms of their respective disabilities. Koechlin as Laila is compelling and complicated: she challenges our perceptions, and draws us into the story. Her facial expressions in particular are so vivid, and she can tell a whole story, explore a whole emotional arc, without saying a word.
Britney Line Time: “I don’t need permission / Make my own decisions / That’s my prerogative”
Rather than limit the characters, the respective disabilities of our main couple open them up to a higher level of intimacy in their relationship (which, in true Sapphic style, escalates quickly.) Even a normal activity like going swimming (sadly not in open water) becomes more intimate: they help each other change into their swimming costumes, and hold one another for support in the water. And this is even before we reach the sex scene.
The first time Laila and Khanum explore touch with one another is, by necessity, slower and more intense than you might expect to see, and this only heightens romantic and sexual tension. Laila touches Khanum as if this were the only touch that ever felt important to her. Music retreats from the soundtrack and we focus instead, as indeed Khanum is accustomed to doing as a blind person, on subtler sounds: soft breaths (I said breaths), the brush of fabric, the murmuring cicadas outside the window. It is quiet, sensitive, and beautiful. Later, as we bathe in the afterglow, music returns to the scene full of warm and complex textures.
Biggest Gay Mood: giving your gal pal a head massage.
And nothing else……. unless……?
There is a focus on the sensory throughout any scenes involving the two lovers. One moment where Khanum applies lip gloss for Laila by kissing it onto her mouth is particularly queer. The cinematography encourages our perception of the sensory from Laila and Khanum’s point of view: for example, when they go to the bar together, and Laila orders the titular margarita with a straw. In this scene, the camera stays focused on the two girls when Khanum speaks to the waiter: we never actually see the waiter, instead just hearing his looming voice, bringing us into Khanum’s experience.
Unfortunately, not all of the story directions are successful. Laila makes some unearned and unnecessary choices which never really have much pay-off. Many unfortunate behaviours and plot devices are implemented seemingly just as a reason to push Laila’s self-growth. It felt almost like the film didn’t believe enough in her character; it seemed obvious to me that she would have got there on her own. Overall, the storyline was rather sporadic, and, as mentioned, the structuring questionable.
Margarita with a Straw is, at its core, about movement and stillness. We travel far with Laila, the lengthy physical journeys ー through India, and to New York City and back ー reflecting the emotional ones. But there is also time to be still. The film ends (and this is not a major plot spoiler) with Laila sitting down, staring at herself in a mirror. It’s a bit of a heavy-handed metaphor, but she ends her journey with a pause and a moment to (literally) reflect.
The film’s title really is a very appropriate one. Laila is, at heart, a playful person. The margarita with a straw she orders at the bar becomes the first time she’s drunk alcohol, but she jumps right into this without restraint. Yes, she needs the straw for practicality purpose, but she doesn’t let it stop her from having a good time. Despite life’s struggles, trials and journeys, it’s always worth spending some time with yourself, and a margarita with a straw.