Powered by a staggering performance from Kalki Koechlin as a 19-year-old with cerebral palsy,Margarita with a Straw is that rare Indian film that mostly eschews melodrama to give us an honest, sensitive portrait of disability, and the sexual awakening of an Indian teenager. Co-writer and director Shonali Bose tells a heartfelt story applying dignity and grace, making us care for her protagonist without ever asking us to pity her.
Laila (Koechlin) lives with her loving middle-class family in Delhi, and is unwilling to let her condition determine how she must lead her life. She spends her time writing music for her college band, and like any young woman her age, she’s curious about sex, which makes her mother nervous. When Laila gets her heart broken by a boy that she has a crush on she embraces the opportunity to make a fresh start, accepting a scholarship to New York University. Here she meets and befriends Khanum (Sayani Gupta), a young blind woman of Pakistani and Bangladeshi origin, who subsequently becomes her lover.
Brimming with a level of authenticity rarely seen in popular Hindi cinema, the film is unafraid to explore touchy themes like female desire, and the sexual drive of disabled people, an idea that even fewer filmmakers have been brave enough to address. Laila’s journey of self-discovery, her struggle to accept her bisexual identity, and her anxiety over coming out to her parents are all nicely conveyed through effective scenes that benefit from perceptive dialogue and consistently convincing performances. Revathy brings subtle intensity to her role as Laila’s supportive but wary mother; watch how she is suddenly overcome with concern during a light-hearted scene when Laila reveals to her in the bath that she has feelings for a boy in her college.
Bose never beatifies Laila in the manner that many films do with their differently abled characters. We get a flesh-and-blood protagonist complete with warts and all; Laila can be selfish and hurtful like anyone her age. She can be manipulative too. It’s Kalki Koechlin’s pitch perfect performance that humanizes Laila. Not only does she accurately portray the character’s disability traits – the slurred speech and the rigid movements – she also gets fully into Laila’s head, and imbues the character with an emotional strength that never feels out of place.
Koechlin has an undeniable chemistry with the beautiful and feisty Sayani Gupta playing Khanum. A scene in which Laila reveals to her that she has betrayed her, is one of the film’s most heartbreaking moments, and excellently performed by both actresses.
Despite some bumps in its final act, Margarita with a Straw strikes just the right tone. There are unexpected moments of humor, a coming-of age story that feels uncompromised, and a protagonist whose disability slowly fades away in the background as you begin to see her as a ‘normal’ person navigating the tricky journey of adolescence.
I’m going with three-and-a-half out of five for Margarita with a Straw. Don’t miss the film, or you’ll miss what is likely one of the year’s strongest performances by a female actor.