If you are into cocktails, you know Margarita is hardly ever served with a straw, but who is to say you can’t have it with a straw? Who sets these standards of normality? What is normality? When life throws a lemon out at you, make lemonade? That might be the “normal adage” but don’t doubt that you might as well slice wedges of that lemon to spunk up your cocktail – have it with a straw, if you may. The magic, after all, is in the concoction - not the goblet, glass or straw.
I don’t think the highlight of “Margarita with a straw” is that it is the story of a patient of cerebral palsy. Neither is it her unusual journey of discovering her sexuality.. I think the biggest achievement is how “normal” the story is.
Sex and handicap have so far both been terribly misunderstood and/or misrepresented in our movies (and perhaps our society). Let’s recall what Bollywood has us believe mostly:
- Handicap in bollywood – a good human being, who is tragically handicapped and the big bad word is mean to this person for no fault of his/her. Poor he/she lives a life of suffering and sympathy is the least you can give him/her.
- Sexuality in bollywood – (usually means homosexuality) and is the butt of all jokes (pun intended). So a gay angle in mainstream Bollywood is usually intended to provide comic relief (?) and almost always is physical comedy – to evoke laughter over dressing or mannerism. At best, it titillates homophobia (remember kantaben!).
But then who are we to call anything a flaw. Perhaps there are no flaws, simply facts - which we all accept and get on with life. So what would a mother do, if she found her child was challenged physically? Brood? Perhaps momentarily. But, Brood forever? Nope. She will take it in her stride and do what she must to make sure the child does not feel the pinch.
So welcome to Laila’s (essayed remarkably by Kalki) life – different, but raised normal - A girl whose dreams do not show any signs of the struggle that her mortar skills do. A musician, composer and writer, in her late teens, who Skypes and messengers with her boycrush, even writes him a song in his languages, only to get her heart broken. But she is a today’s educated girl – who can dabble between software, men and even porn, at her will and has no shame asking a desi dukaandar for a vibrator.
With crushes and sexcapades behind her, her story takes a defining turn when she is accepted in New York University. A lot changes for her and for her Aai (the ravishing, refreshing, rare, Revathi) in the Big Apple. For starters, Aai no longer needs to carry a manual ramp in her non-cosy van, for the developed country is equipped to give her daughter the wings she never imagined. But old habits die hard – in her brief stay in New York she still shadows her daughter without her knowledge only to make sure she is fine. As a confident, yet worried mother returns to India, the brave, yet newly independent daughter stays on to pursue her dreams and live her life.
While academic flight is underplayed, it is the unfurling of Laila’s innerself, that forms the crux of MWAS. When she meets Khanum from Pakistan (Sayani Gupta) in New York, you can sense sparks flying. Make way for Hindi cinema’s most unconventional coupling - one a patient of cerebral palsy and other with no eyesight. Both women. Chemistry crackles and couple starts to live together. But is Laila sure of herself? Is she as committed as her partner?
In the last leg of the story, the couple of New York arrive in Delhi to make a few announcements. Attempts are made, and Aai, misunderstands bi for baai – and can only empathise that all women are but baais at home – dealing with chores day in and day out. A determined Laila makes it but obvious in the next attempt but has little chance to converse. For beneath the fighter exterior, Aai is losing her battle against cancer.
The protagonists real battles are finally not about her physicality or her sexuality, they are about her family, her infidelity, her personal choices. Does she tell her partner the truth? Does she choose convenience over companionship? Career over family?
Margarita with a straw is more than a film, it is a perspective. Sexuality is not a situation, it is a fact. If you accept that your child has cerebral palsy, why not accept a child who discovers he/she is gay/bisexual? Cerebral palsy can not be cured, but as a parent (and society) you can try and make the environment more conducive to help the person lead a normal life. Is it a lot to expect the same for a person with uncommon sexuality? For everything that is uncommon is not unnatural.
To say so much about this film is to mean without saying that it excels in all departments, and superlatively so in performances. Revathi’s portrayal of Aai is as real as it can get – angry, loving, caring, sometimes doting and nosey, she is the typical Indian mother, an epitome of affection. Both Sayani Gupta and Kuljeet Singh (as Laila’s father) deliver memorable characters for what they bring to the screen.
But the movie belongs to Kalki Kochlin – who makes Laila very three dimensional, very believable. She works effectively to nail the body language and voice without ever making Laila a caricature. You can see her inner struggle flash on her face and can feel for her everytime she struggles to move or to communicate or make a decision. This is definitely a performance of an international standard.
Kudos to director & writer Shonali Bose, who not only breaks stereotypes but sets a new benchmark of sorts. She has more than pushed the envelope in Bollywood. MWAS is a bold, daring, refreshing and very important film. It breaks conventions and asks you accept what you mustn’t question, and love without conditions.
Do not have fixations of what is right, what is acceptable or what is normal. And the next time you have a Margarita, (or even a filter coffee for that matter), remember you can also have it with a straw ;-)