I first saw the wonderful Margarita with a Straw at London Film Festival in 2014, and it has stuck with me in a way that few films do. So while I’m hugely disappointed that the film has not gotten the significant theatrical release that it deserves, I’m delighted that it is now available on demand… and particularly just at this moment, because Margarita is the absolutely perfect antidote to the disability pity porn that is Me Before You.
Laila (Kalki Koechlin) is 19 years old and goes to college in Delhi. She’s smart, musically talented, sweet, honest, and has lots of friends. When she gets accepted to New York University, she’s incredibly excited to go. Her dad (Kuljeet Singh) needs a little bit of cajoling, but not too much; he and Laila’s mother (Revathy) are kind, generous in all ways, and hugely supportive of their vivacious daughter and her ambitions. So off she goes to New York to a creative writing program, where she develops a huge crush on supercute British student Jared (William Moseley: The Chronicles of Narnia: The Voyage of the Dawn Treader) and falls into her first serious relationship with Khanum (Sayani Gupta), a fiery Pakistani activist Laila meets at a street protest as she is exploring the city.
Margarita is a remarkable movie for so many reasons: It’s frank about a young woman’s interest in sex. It’s open about Laila’s attraction to both men and women — Khanum is a woman, for those not familiar with the name — and funny and lively about the gentle path she takes to discovering her bisexuality once she out from under the very conservative expectations of her family and the Indian culture at large. Laila’s boldness and adventurous spirit, as well as the fearlessness with which she explores her sexuality, makes her a marvelous role model for younger girls, who only vanishingly rarely get to see Laila’s like onscreen.
But here’s the thing. Here’s what makes Margarita even more extraordinary. Laila has cerebral palsy. She can manage a bit with a walker but mostly uses a wheelchair to get around. Her speech is sometimes difficult for others to understand, particularly those who don’t know her well… which makes traveling halfway around the world to a foreign country she’s never even been to before and immersing herself in a new school an even bigger challenge and a bigger risk for Laila.
But Laila is not defined by her disability. Though she is sometimes condescended to by others onscreen — to which she reacts with her characteristic verve and nerve — the movie treats her as a whole person for whom her physical condition is only part of who she is. (The biggest indignity Laila faces, at least seemingly to her own mind, is having to share her bedroom in Delhi with her little brother [Malhar Khushu], who’s about 10 or 11 years old. No teenage girl should have to put up with that!) Her wheelchair gets stuck in New York’s snow sometimes, but this movie is mostly about all the same sorts of sex and romance and relationship difficulties everyone has. (Is the awkwardness that results when she tries to flirt with someone because her speech isn’t being understood? No: it’s the usual awkwardness of flirting when the flirtee simply isn’t sure at first that he’s being flirted with!) Laila faces a few more obstacles than some people, but her problems are of the “growing up is hard” kind, the “figuring out who you are is hard” kind. And her story is touching and sometimes heartbreaking precisely because of the universality of her experiences here: when someone you’re attracted to doesn’t reciprocate; when you’re smacked in the face by the fact that the enormous mistake you made might just ruin a romance you desperately didn’t want to ruin.
Bollywood star Kalki Koechlin, who plays Laila, is not disabled, though writer-director Shonali Bose — who was inspired by a cousin who lives with CP — did attempt to find an actor with CP who could handle the demands of the role, not only the physical ones but the artistic ones, and wasn’t able to do so. (There will likely be debate about how reasonable that is.) I had to do a bit of digging to discover that Koechlin is able-bodied, because I would not have guessed from her performance: she is utterly convincing as a young woman who struggles with her body. But just as Laila as a person is not defined by her disorder, neither is her body as the physical manifestation of her personhood. There is sensuality here! Bose does not depict Laila’s body as a problem but as, you know, her body, a thing that brings Laila enjoyment. (Needing help undressing can be sexy.)
The degree to which disability is so not the central point of Margarita is perhaps best seen in the fact that there’s another character here with a disability, and for both us the viewers and Laila, it is not the first thing we notice about that character. It doesn’t even become apparent until quite a way into Laila’s initial encounter with this other person. By that point, it’s too late for disability to be a defining characteristic.
It’s an incredibly brilliant bit of direction — or misdirection — on Bose’s part. She fools us, in the best possible way, into seeing past whatever bigotries we might bring to the film. But even more importantly, this is Bose steadfastly refusing to indulge the typical cruel pity that movies about people with disabilities often wallow in. Laila does not want or need anyone’s pity. She doesn’t care, in fact, what you think of her at all. She is too busy getting on with her life.