The theme for Feminist Film Festival Dublin 2016 was ‘Othered Voices’, exploring both literal and figurative female voices in film. Margarita With A Straw allows Laila, a zesty young woman who struggles with how others perceive her cerebral palsy, to find self-acceptance. The film was directed by Shonali Bose who based the story on both her cousin and aspects of her own coming-of-age, and this personal touch shines throughout.
When the film opens, Laila is a shy music student in New Delhi University, being pulled in opposite directions by her friend and fellow wheelchair user Dhruv and her ‘normal’ hip bandmates.
Laila is clearly struggling to accept her disability and in a particularly poignant moment, we watch as she crops her wheelchair out of her Facebook photos. She doesn’t appear to know how to reconcile her vibrant personality with her disability.
She allows herself to be swept into a relationship with Dhruv despite lusting after Nima, the singer in the band she writes lyrics for. Dhruv soon realises her interest lies elsewhere and harshly insists that dating someone normal won’t make her so. This issue reoccurs later in the narrative, and it adds to a much more nuanced depiction of discrimination than a film like this might usually go for, choosing to show internalised feelings of inferiority.
When Laila and her mother leave India so that she can take a creative writing course, it sparks a chain reaction of independence and discovery for Laila. In America, people don’t tiptoe around her disability. Her nurse announces during her interview for the position “You’ll have to wipe your own ass!”
Laila and her mother meet Khanum, a blind woman with mutual connections to them. From this point on, Margarita With A Straw hits its stride stylistically; Laila’s happiness with Khanum is reflected in the bright lush colours suddenly strewn across the mise-en-scene and costuming. The pair embark on a relationship marked with doubt for Laila, she is just discovering her sexuality and struggles to come out to her mother. It bears mentioning that Margarita With a Straw has been one of the first Hindi films to get a LGBTQ+ sex scene past censorship.
Unfortunately, a major aspect of Laila’s sexuality is other people’s denial that it exists, a frequent issue that people with disabilities encounter. This is somewhat balanced by the scene in which an enthusiastic shopkeeper sells her a vibrator and her numerous relationships but definitely a prominent issue. When she tells hot Brummie Jared about her past experience he exclaims “You mean you’ve had sex?” which reflects the common notion that people with disabilities can not or perhaps should not express themselves sexually.
According to Khanum, Laila’s mother is quite progressive but when she finds porn on Laila’s IPad she goes ballistic. Laila screams “This is my privacy!” and it drives home how little space she gets from her mother up until this point.
The film briefly but powerfully comments on how difficult it can be to adjust to taking care of an elderly parent. It does so by paralleling a scene of Laila being bathed by her mother with the reverse situation. Laila’s mother had been such a strong, somewhat stoic character that this moment resonates.
The film opens on a beat-up sky blue Volkswagen van with Laila in the back, and close with her smiling with her head out the window, facing the world. Margarita With A Straw is a beautiful film, and its awards are well-deserved.
This is not a coming-of-age story with disability tacked on, nor is it award-bait exploiting disability as a thematic device. Definetely worth a watch.(4 / 5)