OTR Review: 'Margarita, with a Straw'
By: Melissa Jones
On The Rocks, the UK’s largest student led festival has a plethora of events on this week, from the mainstream to the extremely niche. Indian Independent Film Week may not be on top of everyone’s list but it undoubtedly should be. St Andrew’s Indian Independent Film Week began with Shonali Bose’s highly acclaimed and ground-breaking Margarita, with a Straw, a bittersweet film centered around the coming of age of a young woman.
Mention Indian cinema to anyone, and they’ll immediately think of Bollywood; the glitz and glamour of its actors, the extravagantly romanticised plot lines and numerous, highly choreographed dance routines. And, as entertaining as India’s international export of Bollywood films are, they present a skewed, sanitised version of Indian culture. In the past ten years, independent film making has thrived in India, finally allowing directors to move away from the pretense of Bollywood, leading them bravely onwards to tackle some extremely sensitive issues. In recent years, Indian society has progressed dramatically prompting governments to tackle contentious issues including the legalisation of homosexuality. In this period, Indian Society has begun to examine itself in various ways, including its production of independent film. Recently and unfortunately a highly right wing conservative government had reversed a lot of this progression including the legalisation of homosexuality. However, within cinematic circles, independent films are highly valued as providing nuanced insights into disability, the LGBTQ+ communities, prompting, discussions about issues that are difficult to raise without conflict.
The concept of ‘coming of age’ spans across every art form, from literature and opera to cinema. To this day The Graduate remains a timeless classic whose final scene remains one of the most referenced and academically discussed scenes in cinematic history. More recently, a cinematic adaption of The Perks of Being a Wallflower reintroduced the film style for a new generation. The film is noted for its exploration of mental health and LGBTQ+. As a 21st century audience we thrive off a Bildungsroman, identifying with the traits, hopes and fears of the protagonists. Shonali Bose utilises this convention not only as a strong basis for a plot line but equally as a method of exploring both explicitly and subtly some of India’s most sensitive issues.
The film encapsulates all the conventions of any Coming of Age film; In the course of the film, Laila, a young woman attending college in New Delhi goes on journey of self-discovery in which she transitions from a girl living with her family, to a young woman with a strong sense of independence. While this may seem as conventional as any other ‘coming of age’ film, Margarita, with a Straw is markedly different for any audience. Laila has cerebral palsy, and despite this disability, she is determined to have the experiences that any other intelligent, able bodied woman is able to have during the course of university; academic success, a strong social life, acceptance and sexual discovery. Shonali Bose explores these issues with a vulnerability, humour and warmth, and always with sensitivity. For example, in the early stages of the film, we see Laila experimenting with the cropping of a photograph of herself on social media in order to present herself as ‘normal’. This subtle scene demonstrates Laila’s desire to be appreciated for who she really is beyond her wheel chair.
Despite its merits, Margarita, with a Straw is flawed. It is uplifting to see that Laila does not suffer socially due to her disability. She is well loved by her friends and family and has a wide support network. However, in a society that struggles to contend with disability, one cannot help but wonder if this is an entirely truthful depiction of disability in India. The plot too, is insubstantial at moments. The sudden gaining of a scholarship in New York seems like an all too easy a method of removing her from her troubles in India. But, without the relocation of the drama, the audience is unable to compare and contrast America and India’s attitudes and approaches to disability. On the other hand, Laila’s relationship with her blind girlfriend Khanum is portrayed beautifully, exploring with delicacy, Laila’s discovery of her sexuality. Laila’s relationships with both disabled and able-bodied men are too, are portrayed with a sense of sexual empowerment for those who suffer from a physical disability. Albeit, at times it feels at times as though these episodes are idealised, under rosey coloured hues.
As uplifting as Margarita, with a Straw is, it is not an easy watch, exploring issues that both affect humanity deeply, such as death of a loved one, to topics that are rarely openly discussed, such as the sexual desires of the disabled. The Independent Film Indian Festival should be hugely commended for choosing such a thought provoking film to begin the week with, and I highly encourage people make the effort to attend future screenings of Indian films.