Disability, sexual preferences complicate growing up in remarkable Margarita with a Straw

A Coming of age drama

Written and director by Shonali Bose

Laila (Kalki Koechlin) has issues that few college students have to deal with. She was born with cerebral palsy, and is confined to a wheelchair. Even writing and talking takes some effort.

But in many ways, she’s doing surprisingly well. She has friends at the college she attends. She does well academically. She’s part of a rock band. She can’t play an instrument, but she writes the lyrics and handles the small soundboard.

In one heartbreaking scene, her band wins a competition. But their victory is short-lived as the teacher announcing the awards admits that they won because of Laila’s disability.

But condescending adults isn’t her biggest problem. No one, including the hot guy in the band, sees her as a sexual being. She desperately wants to have a lover, but it doesn’t seem possible.

This takes place in Delhi. India is a pretty conservative culture when it comes to sexual matters, and she doesn’t feel comfortable discussing them with her loving but not totally understanding mother, or with anyone else in her middle-class family.

Then a scholarship allows Laila to study in New York. There she meets another young woman of her age, Khanum (Sayani Gupta). Khanum is blind but otherwise able-bodied. She’s also a sexually-experienced lesbian. The two become lovers, and Laila discovers that she’s bisexual.

When Laila returns to India, she brings Khanum as a “friend.” Coming out will not be easy.

Margarita with a Straw depends entirely on Koechlin’s performance, and it’s one of the best I’ve seen this year. As I watched it, I assumed that the filmmakers had found a brilliant young actress with cerebral palsy—and one with the self-confidence to do some pretty intimate sex scenes. But after watching the film, I looked up Koechlin on the Internet, and discovered that she’s a famous Indian actress, able-bodied, and about 12 years older than the character she played. She fooled me completely. Philosophically, I would have preferred someone who actually had the character’s disability, but I can’t fault what Koechlin did with the role.

Laila grows up considerably over the few months in which the film is set. I think a lot of people who see it will grow up a bit as they watch it. They’ll certainly enjoy the experience.

Margarita with a Straw will not get a large release in the Bay Area. Only two theaters will screen it–the Cine Grand 7 in Fremont and the Camera 12 Cinema in San Jose.