For the second consecutive year, an Indian entry was adjudged Best Asian Film at the Toronto International Film Festival. After last year’s Qissa, Margarita, with a Straw has wowed audiences and jury alike at Toronto, if the constant buzz on Twitter is anything to go by. Lead actor Kalki Koechlin’s performance as Laila, an aspiring writer living with cerebral palsy, is so masterly that when she walked into the post-screening Q&A, statuesque as ever in a Sabyasachi couture outfit, there was reportedly an audible gasp of surprise from many who had simply assumed the role had been played by a real-life wheelchair user. What marks Laila out as different from the winsome (and decidedly straight-laced) creations who have inhabited other ‘Indian woman discovering herself in the west’ narratives like English Vinglish and Queen, is the fact that she is equipped with a full-blown sexuality that refreshingly doesn’t kowtow to her physical impairment. Intriguingly, she chooses both male and female partners, and the film’s two-minute promo perhaps packs in more lesbian adventurism than several decades of Indian film, in which queer women remain woefully underrepresented. Director Shonali Bose has openly spoken about how she has drawn from her own bisexual relationships and her cousin’s journey with cerebral palsy. It would be interesting to see whether Laila’s sexual fluidity is allowed such fervid expression because her own ostracism leads to a rejection of the labels (and behaviors) that ‘able-bodied’ people box themselves into so easily. Margarita, with a Straw brings to mind Waaris Hussein’s Sixth Happiness, a 1997 film which dealt with the equally indiscriminate sexual awakening of a young gay Parsi writer (Firdaus Kanga) afflicted with brittle bones, who also resolutely refused to play the victim.
Koechlin with Revathy in Margarita, With A Straw