In early 2013, a shooting schedule for ‘Margarita With A Straw’ took place in New Delhi. Kalki Koechlin, who plays the role of Laila Kapoor, a woman with cerebral-palsy, had decided that while the schedule was on, she would spend her entire time on the sets being in character, barring absolutely unavoidable situations. So, she spent all her time in a wheelchair. Her speech was unintelligible. People on set were constantly running around fetching food and water for her.
A tailor (or ‘dress dada’ in film parlance) working with the film’s costume department, who had previously also worked on Koechlin’s debut ‘Dev D’ (2009), was left thoroughly confused.
“He kept asking people, ‘What happened to her? Poor thing. Was she in an accident?’” says Koechlin, with a laugh. On the final day of the shoot, to the tailor’s shock, she got up from her wheelchair and resumed walking and talking normally.
Cerebral palsy, a non-degenerative disease characterised by movement disorders, is not an oft-discussed or documented condition in India, which is why the tailor could be forgiven for thinking that Koechlin had perhaps suffered a terrible mishap. This is despite the fact that, according to available data, the occurrence rate for cerebral palsy is between 1.5 to 2.5 people per 1000 live births in the entire country.
Koechlin, however, insists that ‘Margarita With A Straw’, which releases on Friday, is not about the disease as much as it is simply about coming of age and dealing with one’s sexuality. “It [‘Margarita With A Straw’] has gay people, straight people, people of different religions, different regions — one character is Assamese, for example,” she says. “These aren’t agendas or plot devices — this is just how multi-layered and varied real life actually is.”
The film isn’t about the wheelchair, she insists. The same feeling had crossed her mind three years ago when she read the film’s script for the first time, which Shonali Bose (the film’s director) had emailed her. “I raced through it in one and a half hours,” she says. “That was a pretty great sign.”
‘Margarita With A Straw’ focuses on young Laila who is dealing with the pangs of young love and discovering her sexuality. Kapoor’s character is based on 48-year-old Malini Chib, Bose’s real-life cousin. Chib, whose CP was caused by a loss of oxygen during birth, is a renowned disability rights activist and the author of ‘One Little Finger’, which she wrote over the course of two years while typing with just one finger.
“I got in touch with her [Bose] and said that I really want to do this but I am absolutely terrified of the role and you have to give me time to prepare for it,” says Koechlin. After auditioning for it, she asked for three months to prepare and ended up getting nearly a year as her shooting schedule for ‘Yeh Jawani Hai Deewani’ came in the way. In the interim, Bose auditioned nearly a hundred actors — abled as well as disabled — but finally settled on Koechlin and even pushed the shoot of the film to accommodate her.
She first met Chib at the Bandra centre of ADAPT (Able Disabled All People Together, formerly the Spastics Society Of India), of whom the latter is co-founder. The two exchanged numbers and decided to spend time one-on-one as Koechlin realised that Bose’s presence might inhibit their interactions.
They would go on to meet once a month after that. The first time Koechlin started getting a sense of what Chib went through regularly was when they went out for a movie together. “We went to a multiplex, [Inox in South Mumbai] that is supposed to be accessible for everyone,” she says. “It was — until we got to the entrance of the theatre which had three steps. We had to ask the staff to help carry her wheelchair just for that part. I remember understanding then how needlessly humiliating this must be.”
Her own prejudices and presumptions were also challenged. One night, the two went out to a chic restaurant for dinner and Chib ordered a whiskey-soda. “I remember being surprised that she ordered a drink,” she says. “I then realised that, just like everyone else, I too was guilty of treating her like a child. And this is a woman with two masters degrees.”
The two became fast friends even as Koechlin began imbibing what her reality was. She stayed over at Chib’s home in Colaba and saw how her body language changed with environment. She observed how she spoke and performed everyday tasks. She even helped her go to the bathroom.
All this was through observation, but Koechlin did take down notes when they visited Chib’s physiotherapist and speech-therapist. “Learning how to speak accurately like a person with CP was hard,” she says. “The trick is to get the breathing right. They [people with CP] usually have weaker lungs, so they tend to speak in shorter sentences because you run out of breath. Sometimes you end up pronouncing certain words louder than others. It’s a bit like someone holding your tongue while you’re trying to speak.”
When she wasn’t meeting Chib, Koechlin spent a lot of time reading up and watching videos on YouTube that showed CP-sufferers performing routine tasks such as putting on make-up. “I have, like, 6 books on it from friends who heard I was doing this role,” she laughs.
That immortal Robert Downey Jr line from ‘Tropic Thunder’ (2008) — “Never go full retard” — definitely played in her mind more than once during this process. “Friends were constantly asking me, ‘Are you sure you’re going to be able to pull this off?’” she says. “I was constantly terrified about screwing this up very badly and coming across as insensitive or comical or something.”
However, in the end, she placed her faith in Bose, knowing that she wouldn’t let her cousin be misrepresented on screen. They even had an agreement to shelve the film if her performance didn’t turn out as expected.
From left: Kalki Koechlin, Malini Chib, and Shonali Bose at the 58th BFI London Film Festival
Since its completion, the film has garnered a fair amount of acclaim on the film festival circuit. It premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival in September 2014, winning the NETPAC Award for World or International Asian Film Premiere. In late November, Koechlin won 'Best Actress' at the Talinn Black Nights Film Festival in Estonia. Reviews in various international publications (such as this one from The Hollywood Reporter) have unanimously praised her performance.
Early industry buzz about her performance has been overwhelmingly positive and Koechlin is excited as well as nervous about how the film will be received, especially given its depiction of lesbian as well as heterosexual sex. “I’m hoping I don’t have to switch my phone off at some point,” she says, with a laugh that's only slightly nervous.
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