Shonali Bose’s Amu, which briefly graced the theatres in 2005, dramatised the journey of a woman orphaned during the Hindu-Sikh riots of 1984, one of the bloodiest pogroms in the history of South Asia. No books, no documents, no records were available in the public domain, which could lead Amu to trace back her roots, her parents, or any relative who might have been alive. The erasure of this riot from ‘official records’, done at the behest of the State, was repeatedly emphasised on by the film, bringing to the fore the significance of fiction in standing in for history which is more often than not fictionalised. My point in referring back to Amu while reviewing Bose’s latest Margarita with a Straw is to bring home the fact that storytelling is an important social responsibility in order to turn the gaze towards those who are largely invisibilised by history. ‘Margarita with a Straw’ functions as a metaphor for those who are perceived to be rejected by life, but are eventual winners, if they have the will-power to put in that extra effort to change that perception. Drinking Margarita with a straw might appear odd, but it’s necessary to embrace that oddness, if one is willing to savour the pleasure of drinking it. And such will-power attributes one the agency to disrupt perceptions of normativity, inaugurates one’s entry-point in history. That’s the beginning of a struggle to surmount all forces that tend to invisibilise, marginalise or even erase one’s existence.
‘Margarita with a Straw’ challenges perceived notions of disability, not only by making Laila triumph over her bodily difference, but also, her sexual disposition, something she takes time to comprehend. Bose toes the line between the emotional and the sentimental admirably, pulling the strings at the right moment before things tend to cross over the edge. It might appear a little too ambitious to have two marginalised characters, Laila, a bisexual Hindu girl with cerebral palsy and Khanum, a lesbian Muslim girl with visual disability, as protagonists; it’s like packing too many discourses into one film. But, Bose manages to play around all these ‘minority’ identity markers, without being preachy.
The film’s triumph lies in breaking the taboos associated with the body and bodily desires, by deploying sites of two ‘differently abled’ bodies to pull apart the hypocrisies surrounding sexual desires, physical needs, and the lower bodily strata which are always cautiously absented from polite conversations. Margarita launches a subtle but powerful critique against middle class moralities and values, by locating discourses of sexual deviancy, physical disability and ethnic differences within a heteronormative middle class family, the foundational unit of the nation. By so doing, it brings to the surface several liminal identities and desires which are hidden within the interstices of the nation, unregistered and unrecognised. By turning its gaze on these interstices, the film challenges the perceived notions of normality, and claims rights for those citizens of the nation-state who are either dismissed patronisingly or are completely elided over in nationalist narratives. Laila showing the middle finger to the judge of the music competition, who self-aggrandisingly patronises a physically disabled lyricist, is a defining moment in the film, which packs in it a strident protest against sympathetic marginalisation of any kind.
It’s interesting how Bose brings out the vulnerabilities of relationships, the importance of letting go when things do not work out, and the impossibility and perhaps, the undesirability, of erasing differences. Laila’s bisexuality devastates Khanum, who, despite all her progressiveness, fails to forgive her for that one sexual encounter she had. It’s remarkable how Bose refrains from promoting monogamy and the necessity of modelling homoerotic relationships on heterosexual ideas of coupledom. Rather by freeing Laila from Khanum, Bose makes a defining statement on queerness as irreconcilable with all forms of normativities.
Kalki Koelchin performs Laila with panache, while Sayani Gupta credibly animates her visual disability by bringing to her eyes a muted stillness. Revathy marvellously underplays Laila’s mother, bringing to her character a rare dignity. Kuljeet Singh as the affectionate father is another performance to recognise.
As I watched Margarita with a Straw in a practically deserted theatre in the morning show, I felt like having the perfect date with myself. As Laila sips on the Margarita smiling into the mirror, I thought what could be a better date than one with oneself. As the credit rolls, I was filled with a sense of triumph, which is a rare feeling when you walk out of a theatre alone, with families and couples and groups of friends making a ruckus behind you.
Watch the official trailer, here: