Margarita with a Straw: Indie Gem of Pure Content and Character with an Empowering Social Message

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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.

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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.

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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.

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Is British TV Underrated?

That all depends on what you class as ‘British TV’ and what does that even mean? Is there a bad connotation attached to the word ‘underrated?’

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America has given us a long list of greats when it comes to TV, covering a wide array of genre and form, from The X Files to Dallas, Cheers to Charmed and Twin Peaks to Seinfeld. And we cannot argue that the profundity of Hollywood has sent the film industry straight into our hearts, minds, and, of course, our pockets. In the face of film, TV always tended to drop and play around in the shadows, with a crossover between the two, in terms of story, cast and crew, just not being feasible and/or desirable. But now, TV has risen out of those shadows and made its own majestic mark in the showbiz, entertainment world, striding alongside film, shoulder to shoulder, stealing its actors, actresses, directors and producers, re-building film’s failed attempts into shows followed so intently by audiences it becomes part of their daily life to catch the latest episode. Now lets not diminish the power of the movies just yet, everyone wants to be a big-time, a-lister movie star, but what will they always remember? Where they got their start. For most of the latest crop, and even some from the past who always found their way back, that start was in TV! Just look at Julia Louis-Dreyfus; found fame on Seinfeld, went on to star in her own sitcom, The New Adventures of Old Christine which was cancelled after a very successful five seasons and once again rose to undeniable, unbeaten fame with the still going strong, Veep. She had film roles in between her TV, but always came back, that’s true loyalty to an industry still trying to flourish in the background of Hollywood. There are many more actors and actresses like Louis-Dreyfus, and because of them, the incredible talent in the writer’s rooms, and most notably in this era, the different viewing platforms, TV has risen to become one of the biggest, baddest industries across the world.

 

But, is it all because of American TV? Not a chance.

 

Some would believe it to be so, especially with most of Britain’s talent jumping ship and finding work across the pond, but that’s their prerogative, a person has to build their career somehow. Even writers, directors and producers have to join forces with their American counterparts in order to make their dreams a reality. It’s all part of the big rat race that is showbiz, and, to put it simply, life. This article isn’t predicated on picking at America’s successful TV industry and all the people behind it like a ratty child throwing their toys out the pram. No, it’s about the other successful TV industry and the many other people responsible for doing it – British TV. It is transcending boundaries and pushing past limits to create and present great stories, characters and messages to its viewers. Some examples are; Midsomer Murders, Peaky Blinders, Prime Suspect and Spooks, Goodness Gracious Me, Cold Feet, Only Fools and Horses and Absolutely Fabulous. These shows all represent Britishness – a way of life Britons can identify with, stories that most can discuss with friends or at parties and say; ‘did you see the latest Cold Feet? That reminded me of the time I…’ or even ‘just re-watched the first series of Spooks, it puts things into perspective…’ They are all still talked about, watched and enjoyed, but if you were to mention one of these names to someone abroad, would they know them straight off the bat? Maybe not these examples, but I can bet any money that if a person dropped these show titles, they would know: Downtown Abbey, The Night Manager, The Crown, Doctor Who, Sherlock, The Office, and why is that? Two words. US backing. So the moral of this article is that British TV has become lost to the power of the American dollar, and the solely British TV of today, like Mrs. Browns Boys, Citizen Khan, Mount Pleasant, Victoria, Death in Paradise and Vera, are going unnoticed by most of the world despite being brilliant in their own right. Thus, wouldn’t you say British TV is underrated?

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Victoria (2016-present)

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Only Fools and Horses (1981-2003)

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Spooks (2002-2011)

We can’t fault those British TV shows that are backed by the States because they are brimming with all the good things TV has to offer; immersive storylines, identifiable characters, socio-political and cultural messages the world needs to have thrown in their faces. And a bonus perk is that these American-backed British shows are winning in the critical acclaim race, with The Golden Globes, SAGs and Emmy’s opening their doors to these British actors/actresses and creators by awarding them with the highest honours. Claire Foy is a recent Golden Globe winner for her work in The Crown, as is Tom Hiddleston for The Night Manager, and in the past years we have seen Wolf Hall win best Mini-series. We know it’s not all about accolades and critics and ratings play a big role in the success of a show, and from pulling in a viewership of 1.6 million, The Night Manager brought a surge of 70% since its premiere. So there work is obviously good as its applauded by the bigwigs and the people tune in to watch. But it’s not completely British, and the ones that are just seem to be hovering in and out of the shadows. Whether they want to come out of the shadows or not, whether they want America to shuttle them towards the limelight or not, they are definitely deserving of worldwide recognition, slots that are being filled up by other shows, and all because they have a foot in its success. Does that sound slightly nepotistic?

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The Crown (2016-present)

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The Night Manager (2016-present)

This may sound like an ‘axe to grind’ article against America and its TV industry but it is actually a call for the hidden gems of British TV to be understood and recognised as primetime players in the big game that is entertainment. And one way that it has already happened is through the art of streaming, where Netflix UK & Ireland stream a wide array of inherently British TV shows, for instance, The Thick of It, Top Boy, Skins, Benidorm, Outnumbered, Blackadder, Whitechapel, the list is endless. It is a big step, but it makes you wonder if all these shows are on the US Netflix, or the European version, and the people who get to watch need to have a subscription, so is it a big step after all?

To counter my own point, is it better for these shows to remain as they are, because if they were to lose their underrated status, would they still be those very British TV shows they started out as? If the whole world knew about them, and they became high-ranking entertainment shows, would the market of British TV cease to exist as just that, British? A market of its own? These conversations tend to strike a chord, but they are also a double-edged sword. So what is the right answer? Is there a right answer? No, there is just an opinion, a POV, and this article is mine. I believe the un-Americanised British TV is underrated, but I also don’t have a solution that won’t taint its reputation as good, solid entertainment, so maybe being underrated is its power, its tool to be a constant in the industry even after its airtime has concluded, because they are the ‘indies’ of TV, the hidden gems that just need to unearthed by the lovers of Television. I mean, even America must have its own version of this; it can’t all be surplus ratings, prestigious honours and huge fan-followings.

There has got to a balance.

 

Piku: An Indie of India

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This is not the usual stuff of Bollywood films. Then again I would not even class it as within the ‘Bollywood’ industry. It is too real. You see blockbuster comedies and action flicks with terrible jokes and theatrical fight scenes, way too much for your eyes to take especially within 3 hours of screen time. Piku took a different turn, a crazy turn for Indian film.

Directed by Shoojit Sircar, it looks at the strained yet loving relationship between a dying father (Amitabh Bachchan) and his daughter (Deepika Padukone) who cares for him, with Irrfan Khan’s go-between character keeping the latter sane. As per old (I cant emphasize it enough) Indian tradition, the daughter should have been married off in her twenties, pure and obedient, but Padukone’s titular character is in her thirties, openly sexually active and argues and orders her father around. She is the feisty strong independent woman of India; an identity all should strive to be in a society still cornering women into a domesticated lifestyle, despite much change. Yes she cares for her father but not because she is a girl, but because she loves him and there is nobody else. Would she leave him in the lurch, to die alone? I would hope not, because then she lacks humanity, and would cinemagoers and film lovers root for a character that is inhumane? Yes she can be mean and destructive in the way she handles her father and everyone around her, pushing away friendship, isolating herself to work in the office AND at home, but does she not represent the life of a young woman with a lot on her plate? If you were a budding architect/full time carer for your sick parent and got a message in the middle of a meeting about your father’s daily bowel flow, would you not become sick of such behaviour? The very incorporation of that scene portrayed her fed up attitude with the crossover of her two lives and the comic lightening of a situation most people will go through themselves in life, whether they are the carer or the ‘caree.’

The film has many examples like this that give it a bittersweet comic element, like the chair (professionally named a commode) her father uses to go ‘potty’ as they call it. Bachchan plays the role brilliantly, any less would be out of character for him. He is a legend after all. (No bias here.) He fits into the role of a bratty old man, sick to the end, who is treated like a small child, fed by his daughter and forbidden from strenuous exercise like sitting down. It is ironic because in real life he is probably the fittest one can be at that age despite his many health scares and operations. He sounds like the typical elderly person who hates doctors and hospitals and refuses to accept he is ill, but in actual fact he calls the doctor over every day, has researched his health extensively and even educates others about what is wrong with him and even themselves. But he does it so they do not have to endure the pangs of old age so drastically as he is. As blunt and irritating his character can be, it comes from a place of love and care. And a sense of want shadows his bratty nature for he merely wants to see the world as he wants to before he bids it goodbye, which he finally gets when he cycled all around his hometown in Kolkata and passed peacefully in his sleep.

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This film is filled with subverted stereotypes and they work well within a society and film industry obsessed with tradition and ritual. Another thing about Piku is its lack of monetary investment, yes in the production sense, but also in the reception of the film. In Bollywood it has been known for the box office to be very important, if not the most, so for an independent/ semi-independent film to come out of the industry with blockbuster actors like Padukone and Bachchan, it’s always a pleasant surprise. Then again when Irrfan Khan is starring in the film, you immediately get the indie, or unbollywood feel. His career choices have moved more towards the unconventional and appreciated, with the likes of The Lunchbox, Qissa and Talvar, all three of which have been screened at prestigious international film festivals, like Cannes and Toronto. However, I still wouldn’t class it as an independent film for the considerable amount of financial backing it probably had from the film’s notoriously ‘rich in resource’ production company MSM Motion Pictures (part of Sony Pictures Networks India) and distributor, Yash Raj Films.

Overall a breath of fresh air from the usual ‘bollywoodness’ and I would place it with the like factor of Imtiaz Ali’s road movie Highway and Bombay Talkies, a compilation of shorts commemorating 100 years of Indian Cinema.