A lot of Indian films don’t stretch to address the wide scope that diversity stands for. Yes we have characters of different backgrounds and heritages, and yes we have stories pertaining to them, but it is very rarely seen for issues like disability and sexuality to be in the forefront. Margarita with a Straw brings it to the forefront, showcases it in its entirety and doesn’t sugar-coat the important aspects, it doesn’t brush it off with a comic interlude, it deals with it, in all the negative and positive reactions it would receive within a working class Indian nuclear family. And that is just one half of the film and story, the primary showcasing of disability and sexuality is boiled down to how the main character, Laila, holds herself and discovers who she is as a girl in a wheelchair who may or may not be bisexual. The film is a social commentary on the beauty of relationships and self-discovery; it is a voice for the marginalised and stigmatised, and taboo communities in a country yet to reach the highest point of a representative, progressive social and cultural order.
Laila, played by Kalki Keochlin, is a girl with cerebral palsy living in New Delhi, India, with her primary caregiver and mother, father and younger brother. They are a close-knit family with nothing but love and acceptance for Laila and her condition, something that is rare and or difficult to do in most families across the world. Her family as a whole exudes an image of cultural progression as her parents hail from differing background; her mother from South India and her father from the north. They are supportive in her desires to live as normally as she wants to, for instance her interest in music, her role in a college band and her choice to move to New York for studies. The only exception that her mother feels strongly about is the notion of love, to which she attributes being in love with boys, something she wants for her child someday but knows that it will be a hard path.
Feeling the pain of her first heartbreak over a boy in her class, Laila decides to transfer her studies to America, where she meets Khanum, played by Sayani Gupta, a blind girl from Pakistan, with whom she falls in love and thus believes she is a lesbian. She goes through the tumultuous stages of her youth life like any other young girl would, and one prevalent part of that is sexual discovery. Her realisation of her bisexuality, after becoming intimate with a classmate, called Jared, Laila enters that realm of ones youth where confusion settles and overtakes ones moral code. She doesn’t know how to deal with her feelings for boys and girls, she doesn’t know how to tell Khanum what she did, or even her family about who she is. The film beautifully picks up on these rites of passage moments all the while taking our focus away from her disability, sending the message to its viewers that her cerebral palsy does not stop her from living and discovering sexuality, love, relationships and ultimately her identity.
This is just one part of the film, where she immerses herself into the ups and downs of youth. The other parts demonstrate the relationships she has with her family and then the subsequent affects of her life in New York upon her family. The bond Laila shares with her mother, Shubhangini, played by Revathi, is one of two best friends more than a caregiver and patient, or mother and daughter. The attachment and love between them is so strong and warm that it becomes something of a curse when troubles knock on their door. Laila plucks up the courage to come out to her mother and is met with disapproval, but it is not about Shubhangini’s acceptance for her daughter’s sexuality, it is about Laila’s revelation. Whether or not you are accepted, you should reveal your true self because if not, it becomes a hindrance when trying to live your life happily, thus her coming out represents one step in her journey to taking control of her life and completely opening herself up to her loved ones. She doesn’t come out to her father or brother, just Shubhangini, and that bears a significant message in itself as she is the one person that understands her most, she is her right hand and the woman that has stood with her since birth. Later, Shubhangini falls ill and Laila discovers that she has relapsed from fourth stage colon cancer, of which she had no knowledge. From there Laila realises that there will be a time in her life, in the near future, that she will have to take control, lead her own life and become accustomed to being by herself, and she does just that. After her mother’s death, Laila understands and embraces the next chapter in her life, and with whom does she choose to celebrate? Herself. And how does she celebrate? With a margarita and a straw.
The film is a humanist approach to enduring life in all its good and bad moments, and coming out at the end having found a way to be content with life and all it throws at you. Laila lives without a care for the stigma and taboo connected to her condition, she kisses boys, she has crushes, she curses people who only see her chair and not her, and she feels heartbreak. She is no different, but her condition made her so. Personal freedom was replaced by dependability, but the end scene changed that and you see a young girl just taking off in her new life. The story is so pure and raw that you don’t have to directly relate to Laila, yes you could be LGBT, have a disability, or be Indian, but you don’t have to. You can just be a person trying to find yourself, your identity or your path in life. Escaping into this film for those few hours’ grips you enough to strike a change in yourself, or ignite the urge for change in general.