A film about disability evokes sympathetic interest.
A film about bisexuality stirs more curiosity.
In this case the sexuality of the disabled excited filmmaker Shonali Bose. This charming film offers a deep emotional core and strong drama, consciously stirring away from political correctness, overt messaging or melodrama.
The drama centres around a student struggling with cerebral palsy and sexual preference.
Kalki Koechlin plays Laila, the resolute young student in her wheelchair, trying to share a normal life with her friends. She writes lyrics for the college band, sneaks into porn sites while doing her prep, chats on the net with the band leader for whom she has a crush.
However, her desire to be normal is crushed by a public embarrassment as is her heart broken by the band leader.
Supported by her mother (an utterly convincing Revathi) Laila wins a scholarship to New York.
After falling into a student demonstration, Laila is instantly befriended by the blind Khanum (Sayani Gupta) and they enter into a same sex affair. Khanum shows the city to Laila, they hang around in night clubs and spend intimate time in Khanum’s apartment.
Laila’s curiosity about sex leads her to a brief encounter with a male classmate as well.
Later when she confesses to Khanum, it leads to a breakdown in their relationship.
Back home in Delhi, Laila’s mother is sinking rapidly in a cancer relapse. The lighthearted feel of the first half now turns into darker yet predictable zones as the anchor of Laila’s life, struggles for breath in hospital.
At the end, the film is about a young girl who has to forge life alone, as her mother dies and her girlfriend leaves. From a sheltered life with her parents this teenager learns to take on life independently. The last shot of Laila in a new hairstyle, ordering a Margarita by herself in a Delhi pub, is supremely confident and loveable.
Sonali Bose’s script and direction work well in contained drama. The intimacy between mother and daughter, as in the singing scene or in the bathing scene, are deeply moving.
The tender yet fraught ties between Khanum and Laila could have been better graphed, yet watching two challenged girls find love and sex is a huge step-stone in Indian cinema.
The cinematographer offers a low key, realist frame but explores intimately loving details of two well loved cities, New York and Delhi.
But the star is Koechlin’s Laila, at once vulnerable and proud, curious and shy, instantly loveable and offering several shades of a character.
Revathi plays the mother with disarming candour working around awkward moments when she finds dodgy porn sites on Laila’s computer or when her daughter confesses that she is gay.
Winner of the NETPAC award in Toronto, Margarita boldly pushes the Indian context of normalcy and exploration of sex.
Writer-Director Shonali Bose (Right) with her cousin Malini Chib
Writer-director Bose explores Laila in her world with dignity in this surprising yet predictable, coming of age story. Inspired by her own bisexuality, her cousin sister’s life and dedicated to her son’s memory, Margarita is an intensely felt personal journey on which Bose is joined by the viewer.
At the London Film Festival screening, Bose was joined by her cousin Malini Chib, lead actor Kalki Koechlin, producer Nitesh Maniyar.
The director spoke of her choice in making this film for a larger audience, “ We have had several test screenings with mainstream people – who are not really interested in disability and gay rights – but they are drawn into the drama 10 minutes into the film.”
She is hopeful the film will get an audience and is reluctant to cut the sex scenes for the India audience, where homosexuality is still illegal.
Bose hopes the film will contribute to the debate over section 377 of the Indian Penal Code and is prepared for right-wing protests over her film.
“As long as people can see the film and talk about such issues, I am ready to face it” says Bose, recalling a similar situation when right wing vandalism led to the withdrawal of Deepa Mehta’s film Fire, which also dealt with same sex love.