By Shambhavi Saxena for Youth Ki Awaaz:
The trailer for Shonali Bose’s new film Margarita with a Straw is out, and it’s the last few seconds of it that really drew me to her protagonist, Laila Kapoor, played by Kalki Koechlin. Feisty, spirited and unafraid of loving, Laila is a complex individual navigating relationships, school, social activism and all of life’s highs and lows. Laila is a rare subject for a movie, as a young woman with cerebral palsy. And Bose demonstrates beautifully how diverse characters are no less than the ones we see constantly in film, and that we really ought to be seeing more of them. The director and lead actor of the film talked to Youth Ki Awaaz about the inspirations, challenges and responses that drove Margarita with a Straw, which won the NETPAC Award for World or International Asian Film Premiere at the 39th Toronto International Film Festival last year and is slated for release on 17th April, 2015 in India.
Shambhavi Saxena (SS): The film is inspired by your cousin Malini; what has been her response to it?
Shonali: Malini loves the film. She saw many drafts of the script. Other people who I’m close to have cerebral palsy. I had young people with cerebral palsy give me their opinions on the authenticity of what I’m doing. We had a screening in London and Malini did the Q&A, because I’m here in India.
SS: What prompted you to do this role?
Kalki: The script (which had won best Sundance Script). I got it via email from Shonali and I really didn’t know anything about her then. I finished reading it and called her back in the next half an hour and said I loved it and I’m extremely nervous to do it. What I love is the ordinariness of the story. When we talk about a subject like disability, we often see a film which is about a genius like Stephen Hawking and Christy Brown who’ve done amazing feats despite their disability. And this was just an ordinary teenager going through teenage problems who just happened to be in a wheelchair. That was original, and very real and flows very well in the story.
SS: Is it correct you spent two months in a wheelchair?
Kalki: During the shoot, I was in the wheelchair all the time and that was two months. But before that, while prepping for the film for six months, I would do riyaaz of the scene in Laila’s character. I had to get used to that, along with the research and spending time with Malini.
SS: How did that influence your performance?
Kalki: Hugely. It’s a good thing that you asked that. A lot of my attention was on the physicality of my performance. I did a lot of research and prep to get that right. But I didn’t take into account the psychological effect it has. That only happened when I was in the wheelchair and went out publicly during or just before the shoot. I stayed in character all the time. A lot of the co-actors didn’t know who I was. There were some who did. They would stare at me and “what’s wrong with her?” The crowds in Delhi were very uncomfortable and awkward around me. It was frustrating. People gave me pity looks. I found myself having to be the one to make a joke and break the ice, which is something Malini does too. Able bodied people are more disabled in that sense. We tend to be more awkward about it. Because of the lack of education about disability, especially in our country, there’s this sense of pity. Also, the infrastructure – not being able to go anywhere. There was that difference while shooting in Delhi and in New York. During my lunch break in New York, I could just zoom off on my wheelchair. Nobody would bother me, and people were very friendly and helpful. But in India, nothing is disabled friendly – the sidewalks, buses – you’re stuck in a corner, waiting for help.
SS: Earlier the kissing with Khanum and the peeing scene was objected to by the censor board. Why do you think there was such discomfort about it and how did you respond?
Kalki: I wasn’t there, but Shonali told me they wanted to cut down the 12 second scene to 3 seconds. We are so unexposed to same-sex relationships in our cinema, and we don’t talk about it openly. Margarita with a Straw shows it in a very real way, like there’s silence instead of romantic music, and captures a real and awkward moment between two people. It does cause discomfort for people who are opposed to same-sex relationships. The reaction to the peeing scene was just a lack of education, obviously. Anybody who’s in a wheelchair has to have somebody to help them go to the bathroom. Malini is 40 years old but her father has to help her go to the bathroom and take her underwear off. Shonali prevented the cut by explaining this to them.
SS: The only cut then made to the film was to the 16-second sex scene. What was your experience with the Central Board of Film Certification’s Revising Committee?
Shonali: There were many more cuts than that, including a scene where Laila holds up her middle finger which I felt very strongly should remain in the film. But they cleared all of that, they didn’t cut a single frame or single f-word. In the 16-second heterosexual sex scene, they said cut it by 50%. I needed time to try some edits, but they said “No, you have five minutes to make that decision”, which is really tyrannical and ridiculous! If I’d wanted zero cuts, I’d have to go to the Tribunal, which can take 30 days – and we’re locked in for an April 17th release! All our marketing is out and trailers. I don’t live in India and have to go back to America on the 26th of April. They asked me to make that decision in five minutes, when I’ve spent one year in post-production. It was very aesthetically made, so I really object to that one cut, but the good news is when I made the edit we managed to make it work very smoothly. The Indian audience is going to see an uncensored film – the 8 second cut is imperceptible. We applied for an ‘A’ certificate so there should be no cuts. Why should you decide what adults see? They themselves said that even the sex scenes were shot very aesthetically. There’s no nudity, nothing inappropriate for an adult audience. It’s outrageous. The middle-finger scene was more controversial than the sex scene. Here, my character is in a wheelchair, she’s being publicly humiliated, and this is her act of rebellion. They said “No. Eighteen-year-olds should not see this obscene gesture”. And they made a very strange remark: “ladies ladies ko kaise dikha rahein hain?” Now, if my own son disrespects someone, I’d scold him. We don’t endorse everything our characters do. I mean there’s violence, death, people killing, robbing, they rape, but it’s the narrative that makes the character do certain things. My character is in a very specific situation when she shows the middle finger – but they said “show it with her eyes”. Another member added that cinemas don’t check IDs and that young people would see this. Is it my fault that they don’t enforce this rule?
SS: Have there been any negative reactions from any section of society?
Shonali: The Examining Committee (EC) upset me so much as a filmmaker. Later, three women met me in the washroom and said it was a very emotional film, but their hands were tied by the moral guidelines given to them, so they suggested I go to the Revising Committee (RC) who would clear it. My anger isn’t towards these individuals, they were only doing their jobs. The government of India shouldn’t have this kind of system – there were 5 individuals who were not evolved enough to understand certain things, but even they were touched. What was unexpected was that eight RC members (much older traditional Maharashtrians) watched it and said “What a film!” I was just glowing with joy. They were asking how come it hadn’t been selected for a national award. This just wowed me. I was thinking, “Please can my marketing team hear this?” Not just the youth, older people too are loving it!
With Deepa Mehta’s Fire, problems started after the release. Her movie was cleared, and it was running in theaters when the VHP caused trouble. So we have to wait and see with Margarita with a Straw. Our country has these fringe elements. It’s not just homosexuality, I mean PK faced it too, right? And I love the way people spoke out saying, “You don’t represent Hindus, we all love the film!” The fringe elements who get so much media coverage misrepresent Hindus, whereas I feel like we’re quite an open, embracing kind of society. It’s a matter of law and order and they should be controlled. Even if they attack me, I welcome it! I would love to have a discourse on the subject of homosexuality.
SS: In Seeing Like a Feminist, Nivedita Menon talks about how de-sexed the disabled female body is, that “in North Indian Punjabi families, girls are not allowed to sleep in the same room as their male cousins, but disabled girls are under no such prohibitions”. What was your experience exploring disability and sexuality through the character of Laila?
Kalki: We never see a disabled female protagonist. So many films on disability have male protagonists. So I found this really exciting to explore along with the idea of beauty and what it is. Here’s Laila who’s searching for acceptance of herself. She goes on this journey of sexuality, and wants to find love, and ultimately she does, but she’s made to feel like she’s not attractive because of the way society has been constructed. She needed Khanum, a blind person, to tell her she’s beautiful. The film doesn’t try to highlight disability or homosexuality. These are feelings we all feel. Within five or ten minutes of the film, you forget about the disability and see Laila as a human being. We tend to look at the disabled as different from us, as having separate feelings, and we just have to break that down and ask ‘who is this person?’, ‘what are her personality traits?’ She’s naughty, she’s chalu, she really messes up in the film, and she’s not like some sort of angel. That brings out a sense of honesty and innocence in the film. When she’s exploring sexuality, it’s with curiosity. You know like how you practice kissing on your hand, it’s that kind of thing.
SS: What was the one interpersonal relationship you were most eager to develop on screen?
Shonali: Laila and Shubhangini – the mother-daughter relationship. Even with Amu, although the film is about genocide, there is a very strong mother-daughter story there. I think it’s come from my own writing. In both films, the characters are 19 years old, and from Delhi University. All of these things happened to me – whether it was ’84, or falling in love with a woman, and losing my mother, which was very deep and painful for me. I started writing Margarita on my son Ishan’s 17th birthday, after I lost him. The mother-child relationship is very precious to me, both as a child and as a mother.
SS: Unlike the urban American guy at the centre of a lot of films about growing up or just growing in general, Laila seems to be the ‘unlikely hero’ we’ve all been praying for. Is Margarita with a Straw a game-changer in how people are represented in widely consumed visual media?
Shonali: Yes. She’s an empowered young woman who knows what she wants, and she’s not naive. Queen had that empowerment, but Laila is different. For instance, she goes into a shop to buy herself a vibrator, and that’s very radical and cutting edge. I watched this video of young women talking about taboo subjects like masturbation and it was really interesting for me to watch. So far we only see this with guys. We never think of young women and what they think and feel. It’s very honest – we don’t get to see honest characters, especially honest young girls.
SS: It’s being touted as ‘that film where disability and lesbianism intersect’. What according to you is the true focus of the film that will draw in audiences regardless of who they are?
Kalki: Margarita with a Straw is about loving yourself. Laila’s journey is about coming to terms with herself, but first of all always looking for validation from outside. We live in a world where other people’s opinion of us and opinions of beauty affect whether we’re accepted as ‘normal’. Ultimately it’s life’s challenges that make you grow up and sort of come to terms with being responsible for yourself and loving yourself for who you are inside. Laila goes through this journey, and life hits her pretty hard. It’s only when she’s looking at the important things in life that she comes to terms with loving herself. And I think that’s something all can relate to. It’s a coming of age film. But it’s light hearted and comic, rather than dark and depressing.
SS: Is there anything you’d like to say to the audience of Margarita with a Straw?
Shonali: People keep asking if I’m showing it dubbed. I think because I called it MWAS, people think it’s an English film, but it’s a highly entertaining Hindi masala film. Two of the five songs are on YouTube. Just because it won awards, people think it’s an ‘art house film’, and I hate that term. There’s only two kinds of cinema: good cinema and bad cinema. Not commercial and art house. I think it’s important that people support such cinema especially on opening days, because we don’t get money to make such films. If you don’t support us on Margarita, somebody else isn’t going to make a film on a fresh, interesting subject. They’re going to be like “look how that film flopped”. Producers, financiers and distributors always say “Indian audiences are not ready so we can’t give you the money”. That’s the myth. The youth have the power to change that. Box office is the youth – older people go second or third week or buy DVDs. I really want the support of the youth. This film is entertaining and you won’t be disappointed.