Margarita With A Straw was originally called 'Chhoone Chali Aasman', a title that sounds like it could've been directed by Nagesh Kukunoor or (*gulp*) Aamir Khan. The words appear in the final minutes of MWAS, as a song, and I couldn't help wondering that perhaps the original title would have prepared me better for the film I was watching.
Which is not to say that the film is some sort of melodramatic mess. Far from it, in fact; Margarita... , the sophomore effort of Shonali Bose (Amu) displays a lot more restraint than most of its contemporaries. Starring Kalki Koechlin as Laila Kapoor, a young college student with cerebral palsy, the film is a coming-of-age tale that treats its subject with the sensitivity it deserves without becoming heavy-handed.
However, its attempt to straddle different kinds of aesthetics and varying levels of subtlety -- from admirable to very little -- prove to be its undoing somewhat. It puts the movie in no man's land and takes it closer to its original, cheesier title than to its current, more aspirational one.
From left: Shonali Bose, Kalki Koechlin, and Nilesh Maniyar (co-writer) at the 58th BFI London Film Festival
Laila lives in Delhi with her parents and attends college. She's good at writing, so she's helping write lyrics for the college band -- mainly because it is fronted by her crush, Nima (Tenzin Dalha). She has one close friend, Dhruv (Hussain Dalal), who is also wheelchair-bound. One day, they make out in the library, but for Laila, he is second choice.
In one scene, she's shown masturbating (albeit from a distance) in the room she shares with her brother, one of a handful of scenes that comes across as genuine despite its apparent audacity. In sharp contrast are the scenes in which she's interacting with Nima's band. Why on earth would they let her man the sound console? Live sound engineering isn't exactly the same as 'DJing' at your friend's house party, you know. The song they play for a battle-of-the-bands competition ('Dusokute') sounds too well-produced for any college band on earth and, for heaven's sake, filmmakers, please stop depicting rock concerts as though they're rave parties with guitars.
(Mini-rant over. Moving on.)
We also see her life at home with her caring and concerned mother (Revathy), her quiet, subtly-dominated father (Kuldeep Singh); and her younger brother. Her mother drives the family around in a bright, green Matador van, presumably because it's the only vehicle that will allow for Laila's wheelchair. They're middle-class, but we don't hear any sob stories that begin with "We don't have the money... ".
Things start moving along when Laila gets a scholarship to New York University and leaves in the middle of the semester. The contrast, with New York's broad pavements and superior accessibility making it a bit of a haven for her, is a little too stark. Where is that famous 'rude New Yorker' stereotype when you need it? Everyone, especially the good-looking British boy in class (William Moseley from The Chronicles Of Narnia movies), is super-nice to her to the point of unbelievability.
It is at this point where the film enters Blue Is The Warmest Color-meets-The Kids Are All Right territory, when Laila runs into Khanum (Sayani Gupta), a blind woman of Pakistani-Bangladeshi origin at a protest rally. We never see Khanum at any such do again, but the two start getting close to each other. One day, at a museum, Khanum and Laila share a moment of sexual tension. Eventually, this boils over and the two are in a relationship. Laila's mother, who had come along to take care her, goes back to India for reasons I didn't quite understand, since her daughter is shown to be quite dependent on her. However, from the movie's point of view, this is a good development because it gives Laila and Khanum the opportunity to live together.
The above comparison with two well-regarded films isn't simply because of the lesbian angle; Margarita... plots a graph that's similar to those movies between Laila and Khanum (were the characters deliberately named as a tribute to the Pakistani singer Zubaida Khanum, who once sung a song called 'Laila'?) and the path their relationship takes.
This brings us to the main problem with the movie: the story itself. Laila's sexual awakening, which is what the film primarily focuses on, isn't given enough depth to warrant its importance in the journey we're taken on. Further complicating the matter is that Laila isn't the protagonist we want; in fact, she's only the protagonist because the film is trying hard to make her one.
The film's emotional core, therefore, is Revathy, whose character and performance are both more compelling than Koechlin's. This is not to run down the latter's efforts, of course. She's put a lot of hard work into this role, inspired by Malini Chib, who is Bose's cousin. Fortunately or unfortunately, depending on whether you see this as an asset or a liability, it shows. Apart from these two, while the supporting cast is largely competent, Gupta's slightly uneven performance sticks out.
The sex scenes, censored for Indian audiences, are nevertheless effective, with Bose maintaining tight close-ups to show the characters' emotions. Certain scenes are shot with some amount of authenticity, especially when it comes to sound design. The film restrains itself in many scenes that other movies would've drowned in background score gravy, and that is definitely commendable.
However, by the end, one wishes that we really got to know more about Laila than the movie is already telling us. Her journey stops being compelling at some point because -- apart from coming across as selfish, immature, and needy -- the film doesn't really justify her strengths at all.
The protagonist we want to root for, her mother, is unfortunately relegated to being a supporting character we end up knowing very little about. Even so, the film's most emotionally satisfying moments belong to her. I can only imagine what Revathy would've done with a fully-fleshed-out role.