Margarita with a Straw is an insightful coming-of-age story about how a young woman with cerebral palsy explores her sexuality.
The focus on sex differentiates Margarita with a Straw from other stories of young people overcoming obstacles. The point of writer-director Shonali Bose’s narrative isn’t just to uplift the audience but to shine a light on an often ignored aspect of the lives of young adults with disabilities.
Laila (Kalki Koechlin) is in many ways a normal college student. She’s cheerful and outgoing. She’s interested in pornography. She writes lyrics for a rock band. She teases her best buddy, Dhruv (Hussain Dalal), for leering at women.
But Laila’s cerebral palsy distances her from her friends without disabilities. Her wheelchair limits her mobility; she spends a birthday party eating cake alone in the kitchen while the rest of the band sits out on the balcony. A speech impediment hampers her ability to communicate quickly in person, so she’s more fluent chatting online.
Dhruv, who also uses a wheelchair, levels a biting criticism at Laila, charging that spending time with “normal” people won’t make her normal. She’s devastated when her confession of romantic feelings is rejected by Nima (Tenzing Dalha), the handsome singer in her rock band.
The rejection spurs Laila to seek new adventures, and she enrolls at New York University. There she meets Khanum (Sayani Gupta), a beautiful, blind international student. Khanum — a lesbian — is the first person to express sexual desire for Laila, and Laila enters into a romantic relationship with her.
As happy as Laila is at finally finding love, she’s only been interested in men to this point. Her own confused feelings are coupled with concerns about admitting the truth to her parents.
Laila’s mother (played by Revathy) is not only Laila’s caretaker, but also her confidant. But Mom fears Laila’s blossoming interest in sex, changing the subject when Laila first mentions her crush on Nima. Whether it’s a fear of her daughter growing up or a fear of Laila being hurt, Mom is not ready to accept that her daughter is a young woman. The word “bisexual” is not in her vocabulary.
Koechlin’s commitment to her role is remarkable. Her accent is impeccable, and her every movement conveys how difficult mundane tasks are for those afflicted with cerebral palsy. While I support the idea of casting actors with disabilities to play disabled characters, I suspect that a casting notice for a “performer with cerebral palsy willing to participate in sex scenes with both men and women” wouldn’t find many takers in India.
Revathy’s performance is moving, but Mom’s role in Laila’s life comes to dominate the narrative as the movie progresses. The story is about a young woman finding her own identity outside of the shadows of her parents, but the way Laila is forced to do so feels unfair. The ending scene is well-intended but a little corny.
Nevertheless, Bose’s story is an eye-opener. Just because raging hormones don’t top the list of challenges faced by young people with disabilities, it doesn’t mean they’re not an issue.