I watched Margarita With A Straw at it’s New York City premiere at the New York Indian Film Festival (NYIFF). Follow them on social media, and if you’re in New York, check out the rest of the premieres happening all week long!
I’m not going to lie: I sat through most of Margarita With A Straw thinking this was going to be another film riding off it’s tragedy gimmicks: a young woman has cerebral palsy, is bisexual, her mom has cancer, and we’re going to pile those things on one after the other to keep audiences in their seats.
Fortunately, Margarita With A Straw doesn’t ride on those gimmicks, and never expected to. For director and writer Shonali Bose, it wasn’t about piling as much tragedy into one two hour period as possible – it was about writing from the heart. Shonali found a character in a person she cared about, empathized with her, and poured the experiences that were hardest for her to write about into a script. This is what keeps you from eye-rolling every time a new “tragedy” hits Laila’s life, what humanizes a character society never expects to be humanized through film, and what makes Margarita With A Straw the best film I’ve seen so far this year.
After the screening I went to, Shonali Bose said that if she was ever worried that Kalki couldn’t be 100% authentic and convincing, they would have stopped production right then and there. This made me feel a bit awkward: Kalki could never be 100% authentic in her role as a woman with cerebral palsy, because she doesn’t have cerebral palsy herself, so what the fuck is Shonali talking about? The day before the screening, I read an entire Twitter debate (#socialmediaftw) about the representation of LGBT with disabilities in the media – and Margarita With a Straw was naturally brought up. The actual LGBT disabled people engaged in the discussion were pretty much all united in their stance: casting an able-bodied actress to represent someone with a disability is not any more okay than casting a white actor in blackface.
As an able-bodied person, while I see their point, I also wrote it off to some extent – understanding that the star-power behind Kalki Koechlin in the leading role was going to fill seats in the theaters. Until there’s an already famous actress with CP – which frankly will never happen until we start writing people with CP into otherwise normal roles with some frequency – it makes sense to cast Kalki Koechlin in this role. It still feels a bit like blackface, but it’s also “supply & demand”: the demand to see Kalki Koechlin is much higher than the demand for a movie about a woman with cerebral palsy.
What is much less justifiable is the female cast opposite Kalki: Sayani is a talented, beautiful actress… but she definitely isn’t blind. They already had Kalki’s star-power to fill the seats, and Sayani was still a first-timer: so why did they still choose to cast someone entirely able-bodied to portray someone with disability? The only semi-reasonable explanation I can think of is that this is just what happens when you try to make a film in India – if Kalki is regularly playing ethnic South Asian characters, Indians are regularly faking foreign accents for films, and it’s still impossible to bring a wheelchair into the Taj Mahal, there might just be such strong societal biases against both blind & LGBT people that made it difficult for them to find an actually blind actress to cast in the role of Khunam.
I can’t speak to Kalki’s authenticity in the role of Laila other than to trust that Shonali, writing about her cousin, both meant what she said about wanting the character to be authentic and knew what cerebral palsy would authentically look like. What I can speak to is how touching the scenes were in which Laila expected to be treated differently and then was treated like any other person, the scenes in which Laila used social media as a safe space in which she could BE “normal” by angling and cropping every single one of her profile pictures in such a way that you could never see her wheelchair, and the scenes in which she uses her disability to her advantage in whatever ways she can – like to get a cute boy to help her with her assignments, despite being perfectly capable of doing everything on her own. These are not everyone’s experiences with disability, but everyone with a visible disability does have to navigate this weird space between milking the disability and passing for “normal” when given the chance – a space Kalki navigates in the most authentic way possible, even if her exact voice and gestures are nothing more than the most authentic CPface you’re going to get from the media right now.
In the same way a woman in any given film is handed directly from her father to another man, Laila is handed from her mother directly to a girlfriend. The audience and Laila both are made to think that this is how it has to be: if Laila wants independence from her mother, she has to find someone else to take care of her first. She can cook an egg and have sex (and afterwards her leg can magically support itself on the bed! it’s a miracle! #thelittlethings), but she can’t really go to the bathroom – which really puts Laila in a difficult position.
After being handed from caregiver to caregiver, Laila is faced with this extremely shitty situation: she loses both her mom and her mom-replacement (read: girlfriend) in the exact same moment. She is forced, by kismat and the universe, to become independent – something she had always wanted to be, but never thought possible. Independence doesn’t make her “normal” in the conventional sense of the word, but it does make her normal in so many other ways. Most people, regardless of able-bodied-ness, have a weaning period from their parents, think a relationship will solve it, and then through some turn of events are forced to become independent and learn to love themselves. And most people, just like Laila, have to learn that they are worthy of being loved by someone else before falling in love with themselves (in the least narcissistic way possible).
For Laila, drinking a margarita with a straw is a good first step: it’s her first alcoholic beverage, it’s the first date she goes on, and it’s the first step she takes towards independence (by ordering a margarita without specifying that she needs the straw, and then pulling out her own straw and pouring it into her own conveniently-packed cup). Margarita With A Straw is a good first step towards representing disability in media, by beginning to show a disabled woman as a sexual being without making it the butt of some low form of comedy. It’s a good first step towards showing disability not as a plot gimmick entirely in itself, but as simply a characteristic of the leading character that influences how they deal with the very real problems that are presented to them. In an ideal world, we would only cast disabled actresses in disabled roles – but Margarita With A Straw is a nice step in that direction.