A couple of weeks ago I was lucky enough to get a ticket to the London Film Festival premiere showing of Margarita, With a Straw at the Leicester Square. It was with some anticipation that I went, the film had just won NETPAC best Asian film at the 39th Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF), about a young disabled woman with cerebral palsy loosely based on Malini Chib whom I happen to have met.
The film was not just about disability but covered intersectional issues. This film is very timely for me as I am preparing for an event Disabled Women’s Right to Occupy this Friday in London. This film helps to grasp some of the complexities by focusing on the journey of self discovery for a young disabled woman in disability and sexuality, homosexuality and bisexuality, politics and straddled two worlds, east and west. It dealt with relationships, barriers and attitudes. A packed film crammed with issues that had not been juxtaposed together before. Some of the relationships were wonderfully portrayed – for instance, that with her mother – who is also her carer, who had to let her become into her own person in her own right. She fought for Laila to go to the US to study because the colleges were not accessible for her. It reminded me of my own mother who insisted I had the same educational opportunities as my siblings in going abroad inspite of all the unknown factors. Then there was the discussion on ‘normalcy’ – Laila gets accused by her Indian man friend of seeking normalcy by going iut with a non disabled man. Her girlfriend accused her of taking advantage of her, using her as a ‘carer’.
The access issues whether for a wheelchair user or a blind girl were well portrayed, no maudlin pity there. There is a great scene where Laila managed to fry an egg on her own. Some discussion was made by activists I know that the roles should have been played by disabled actresses. While I would agree that that would be the best if it was possible, however, it was also explained that the controversial themes of the film made it difficult for the director/producers.
“I don’t know if depiction of bisexuality would be a problem. Hopefully we are at a stage where we accept these things more. We are talking about them. Aamir Khan is talking about them on Satyamev Jayate, so hopefully we should be OK,” said Kalki Koechlin, who plays the lead character of Laila in the film.
Bose said it wasn’t just the release of the film that presented a problem; there were obstacles in making it. Studio Viacom 18 Motion Pictures declined to fully fund the film over concerns about whether Bose would pick a bankable-enough star.
“I was asked which star I would be casting, because that is what sells in India. I took a loan and paid for the film out of my own pocket,” she said. “But now that it is all behind me, I cannot wait for the Indian release. Hopefully, we can contribute to some of the conversation.”
During LFF Q&A Shonali Bose said she had auditioned several disabled actors as that seems the right thing to do. She said she didn’t think any of them were the right age or up to the task to convey the complexity of Laila’s character as she wrote it. She also said she had the access to enough disabled people and organisations to do a reasonable call out.
A great deal was made off the assistance and inspiration from her cousin, Malini, who helped Kalki Koechlin to prepare for the role. Credit was also given to ADAPT ((Able, Disabled, All People Together), formerly The Spastics Society of India)
Koechlin also spent “16-hour-days on wheelchair” regularly for a month, making eggs and cleaning up the mess. She observed small characteristics, such as how Chib would wrap her arm around the wheelchair armrest for support, and how her sentences would be broken up because she was often out of breath. She also learnt why persons with cerebral palsy would not pronounce “T” sharply—because it was an effort to roll the tongue muscle all the way to the back of the palate. Koechlin underwent a month-long acting workshop on the Grotowski method that pushed her to observe her own physiological reactions—shallow breathing while angry, for instance—to achieve “complete honesty” of emotions. Yet, something Chib said reminded Koechlin that “at the end of the day, I would never really know what it’s like to have cerebral palsy”. “Chib had said, ‘You get to leave the wheelchair. I don’t’.” Koechlin even saw videos of Maysoon Zayid, a TED fellow, whose talk about being a stand-up comedian of Palestinian origin, and someone with cerebral palsy went viral (TED is a global gathering to discuss cutting-edge ideas). In the video, Zayid says that able-bodied people are regularly asked to play persons with disabilities and that needs to stop. “Hollywood has a sordid history of casting able-bodied actors to play disabled characters,” she said. That’s not an easy debate, admits Koechlin.
In an interview I happen to chance on, Koechlin said one actor she admired was Daniel Day-Lewis. I wonder if that had an influence on her when she chose to accept the challenge of this role. The actress who played the blind girl was not neither but it was said that her role as a Pakistani/Bangladeshi lesbian was too much taboo for many Indian actresses.
However I loved the movie – I love how Kalki Koechlin portrayed the character, cerebral palsy apart, it was her beautiful smile, the way she conveyed a young woman who was hungry for life and love and not afraid of taking risks. I wish the film is widely available now so that other friends can watch it too. I was also sorry that my photos I took with Kalki did not work on my iphone, it was just too dark.
There were gems in it, for example when she came out to her mother and told her she was ‘bi’ and her mother thought she said ‘bhai’ a Hindi word. Her conservative mother was really shocked. There was also a scene where they had a fight and Laila claimed her privacy – a scene familiar for any parent child relationship.
After the film, I had dinner with Malini, her friends and Gregg Beratan (Director of ADAPT), someone I had got to know from Twitter. We had a great get together. Malini was very happy with the film – it owed a lot to her.
Bose said :
“I’m so confident about the Indian audiences accepting the film because it’s fast-moving and emotional,” she says. “It’s not an ‘arthouse’ film, which I could have made if I had done it in a different style, but then it would have found a smaller audience. We tested it on a lot of mainstream viewers – people who are not interested in disability or gay rights – and after 10 minutes they got drawn in.” Last week, there was a similar reaction at the film festival preview. And there was one person who particularly loved it: guest of honour on the red carpet Malini Chib, the film’s inspiration, who was back in London to hit the pubs with her cousin.
(from the Guardian)
I want to congratulate Sonali Bose for tackling so many issues successfully. During question time I asked her why she set the other part of the film in New York not London, she said she knew New York better and that it would be more authentic. And that for me is the film in a nutshell, I could see its authenticity.
Koechlin also spent “16-hour-days on a
(Able, Disabled, All People Together), formerly The Spastics Society of India