Oct 17, 2014

24FPS @ LFF 2014: Margarita, With A Straw

Dir: Shonali Bose
The view we get of modern Indian cinema in the UK is so dominated by the handful of  mainstream Bollywood films that get released here that it can be hard to realise that there is an independent industry there, producing films that are perhaps better suited to export for more general audiences.  Margarita, With A Straw may be a flawed example, but it's certainly an interesting one.

Laila (Kalki Koechlin) is a bright, pretty, 18 year old girl with a talent for music, living in a middle class family in India.  She is also confined to a wheelchair because of a severe case of Cerebral Palsy.  When Laila wins a scholarship to study at NYU she and her mother (Revathy) relocate to the US.  While studying there Laila meets Khanum (Sayani Gupta) a fellow student, who is blind.  The two fall for each other and begin a relationship that could be complicated when Laila has to tell her family she is bisexual.

If there is one overwhelming reason to seek out Margarita, With A Straw then it is Kalki Koechlin.  Apparently she's a major Bollywood star, but I had never seen her before.  I came away hugely impressed.  The details of her performance are so well observed and authentic that I had to do some research to find out whether she was genuinely disabled.  Koechlin brings an effortlessly charming and endearing presence to Laila.  There can be a tendency for either scripts or performances attempting to portray disability to talk down to disabled characters; to assume that they are more different from able-bodied people than is in fact the case.  In this case neither writer/director  or Koechlin make that mistake.  Laila is a well drawn character who has thoughts and feelings that are as complex and treated as just as valid as those of any other character.  

Beyond this, Koechlin gets the tone just right.  It is very easy for a performance like this to fall in to caricature (see Rob Lowe's cringemaking turn in Square Dance for a particularly egregious example) but Koechlin treats the challenges of playing disability much as it seems Laila treats the fact of being disabled; as a part of her reality, but one she's not going to allow to stop her from expressing herself.  On this evidence Koechlin is a real talent and someone I'd like to see more of.

Outside the fact of the physical challenges its main character faces, the story of Margarita, With A Straw is a pretty standard LGBT film narrative. Laila has previously seen herself as straight but falls for a gay character in Sayani Gupta's Khanum; a fun loving girl who compliments Laila well, something also reflected in Koechiln and Gupta's chemistry.  It also hits pretty standard tropes in its coming out story, with Laila worrying about how her parents will react, not without reason, as Khanum has been disowned by her family, this conversation hints at some deeper cultural comment about how sexuality is viewed in India, but the film never really digs into that theme.

Familiar as it is, the story is largely charmingly told.  Revathy is excellent as Laila's concerned and caring mother and their close relationship is nicely drawn, warm, and often quite funny.  You can see exactly why Laila falls for Khanum, thanks to Sayani Gupta's vibrant performance, and she also brings some emotional resonance to the developments of the relationship in the third act, rushed as they are.  

That third act is the film's major issue.  There are bits that clunk earlier in the film; Laila's crush on her British typing aide (William Moseley) falls especially flat and the visual style is never especially dynamic, but the twist that signals the third act comes out of nowhere and is rushed through with unseemly haste.  The reason for this is easy to see.  The mass of dedications on the film suggest that this is a very personal story for writer/director Shonali Bose and that few, if any, of the events are wholly invented.  The thing is, compressing events set over about a year into under two hours sometimes jams too much incident together.  Add in an abrupt change of tone, and your story can quickly lose credibility.  That's exactly what happens here.

Margarita, With A Straw is flawed, but it's warm and engaging despite its problems and whatever else you think of it, it is worth seeing purely for Kalki Koechlin's exceptional performance.

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