Margarita With A Straw opens like director Shonali Bose’s 2005 film Amu did. On a long drive. In the first scene, a lilting, breezy sequence on a crisp Delhi morning, we accompany four people in a large, blue matador. The mood is unlike the frenzied journeys in the perky yellow matador of Little Miss Sunshine. There is some measure of solemnity to this trip.
In the matador sits Laila (Kalki Koechlin), craning out of the window, her face catching the breeze. Her South Indian mother Shubhangini (Revathi) is in the driver’s seat, sitting next to her Sikh father Baljit (Kuljeet Singh). There's also her younger brother Monu (Malhar Khushu).
Laila, who has cerebral palsy, is initially left to us, to our devices. The camera lets us stare at her, like we would at any differently-abled, disabled person in our midst. As we stare, taking in her “abnormalities”, the differences, one by one all the normalities flee and she becomes an embodiment of our assumptions — assumptions about what a cerebral palsy girl “should” be, what she can’t be, what she can’t do.
And as our own normalcy grows, larger and larger, dwarfing Laila to a sum of her palsies, sadness rises with guilt. And then empathy. It’s a musical sequence designed to make us fall in love. And we do. More and more, as we get to know her. But only till the film's interval.
Laila is a college-going kid in Delhi who has studied music, is the lyricist of her college band and nurses a secret crush on the band’s lead singer.
She is loved, by her family and friends. But there are moments when she has to fend for herself. And it's in these moments — like when we share her discomfort as she is being carried upstairs in college, in her wheelchair, or look at her staring through a window at the band rehearsing — that we are let in on what goes inside her.
We see that she wants to grab the normal, the mundane, the routine. That she has the gall and gumption to expect no less from life than the heartbreaks, thrills and experiences of others around her. She wants it all — the affair, the sex, the experimental kiss, masturbation, the thrill of buying a vibrator.
Laila gets all the normal disappointments, only for her they are filtered — as they are for us and her family, friends — through her “difference”, her disability.
We feel the pain of thwarted desire as her eyes well up at the hint of rejection, we too are appalled when she's given the first prize in a competition as consolation for being handicapped, and rejoice when she reacts like only the very spunky do.
Speaking in a kind of emphatic drawl, Laila utters short, crisp sentences, honest words from the gut. Or gestures. She speaks her mind, which is sharp, quick to pick a gesture, take offence. And that makes her cool. Very cool. But this is the only sort of inwardness Laila is allowed — joy and sadness. Simple and emotional, but limiting.
Laila has a wheelchair-bound friend, Dhruv (Hussain Dalal), who likes her. But she’s not into him. In any case, she is off to New York University on scholarship, to study creative writing. Her mother goes along, to settle her in. In New York, Laila meets Khanum (Sayani Gupta) from Pakistan — an annoying, self-possessed blind girl who has her chin turned up at the world.
Khanum’s personality is edgy with an inherent aggression and self-assuredness that seemed artificial, put-on. Sexual exploration brings the two together, and they get closer when Shubhangini leaves. Thereon the film takes a strange turn to go totally maudlin, of a level that would make Karan Johar proud and weep.
And then, just so Laila can spread her wings, her caretaker has to die. Only then can she take flight. Boring.
The film’s screenplay is intelligent initially, when it is exploring Laila’s identity, desires and waywardness despite being confined to a wheelchair. The film’s power in the first half lies in shattering myths, i.e. our misconceptions. It surprises, delights and even shocks us, like when Laila feels herself in her wheelchair to climax. In these bits the film is true to its title — Laila, forced to carry a straw for a sip of anything, demands nothing less than a margarita.
It’s an emotional journey, and an exploitative one. But it works. Essentially because there are several scenes that are funny and touching, and let us share her intimate moments. We also get to know her mother, whom Laila calls Aai, but it's at the expense of all other characters who are interesting and we are keen to know them, but are not allowed the opportunity.
Later, with the entry of Khanum, the film becomes too cliched and dull, though there are one or two nice moments, like when Laila tells her mother, “Aai, main bi(sexual) ban gayi hoon”, and invites the mother’s lament about how she too feels like a maid servant. What ruins the film is the strange, tragic twist and the terribly pretentious end — a life-affirming self-hug that was all too forced and facetious. It’s a kind of narrative and catharsis unique to caucasian females who routinely set off on self-discovery journeys. It's entirely predictable, self-satisfied and irritates me no end.
Kalki Koechlin is not entirely convincing, but she is charming, adorable and we want to be with her. In the parts where the film works, it’s more because of her effort than the director’s. She stays in character as much as she can, till the director decides to send her on a drink, smile, love journey.
She deserved a better second half, as did we.