It's Complicated: Disability, and Representation in “Margarita, with a Straw”

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Margarita, with a Straw (2014) is a difficult film, and not necessarily for the reasons that viewers might assume. This Indian drama revolves around Laila (Kalki Koechlin), a teen who goes to the United States to study abroad, falls in love, and is drawn back to India by family drama. That may make it sound formulaic, but two things make the film unique: Laila has cerebral palsy and uses a wheelchair for mobility, and she falls in love with a blind woman.

Viewing this film as a white, American, disabled, and queer person brought up some complicated issues for me. The lenses through which I viewed the film are radically different than those of its creators and primary audience. While there is English dialogue in Margarita, with a Straw, it is primarily in Hindi and is, as filmmaker Shonali Bose says, “an out-and-out commercial Hindi film.” I can assess it as a film, as a disability film, as a queer film, but it also has an important cultural context—the disability justice movement in India has not progressed as far as its American counterpart in many ways, and the environment for queer Indians is very, very different from that for queer Americans.

Much of my struggle with this film comes down to an issue that’s being widely discussed in the United States at the moment: Who should play disability? Disabled people argue that we should be playing ourselves, that allowing nondisabled people to play at disability is offensive and tends to contribute to offensive depictions as well. With so few roles available for disabled people in the first place, and many of those characterized with painful tropes and stereotypes, it’s upsetting when disabled people don’t even appear to be considered for them. According to a Ruderman Family Foundation report, 95 percent of disabled television characters are played by nondisabled actors.

Kalki Koechlin does not have cerebral palsy, and Sayani Gupta, who plays her love interest, Khanum, is not blind. These two facts bubbled constantly in my consciousness as I watched the film, as did Bose’s snide remark about getting “flak” for casting nondisabled people (she claims that having an actress with cerebral palsy was very important, but that they were all put off by the sexual content).

Had the actresses been disabled, my reaction to the film would have been very different.

As it is, it hits numerous important high points of disability media: This is a film that centers sexuality and is unapologetic and unashamed about it. Laila is a teenager, and she’s interested in sex, and she most certainly has it. While the people around her scoff at her sexuality and express confusion, she is secure in her identity as a sexual person. Disabled sexuality is so stigmatized that disabled people are typically desexualized in media, which makes the depiction of actual sex onscreen, let alone queer sex, revolutionary, whether you’re in India or America.

The film also deals with the minutiae of daily life that can become frustrating or even life threatening for disabled people. It also addresses things that many people, regardless of their disability status, encounter in life, stressing the point that disabled people are part of the world. We see Laila struggle to cook on her own in the United States,  having been fed by her mother throughout her life—an issue that is universal, experienced by disabled and nondisabled people alike as they start living on their own. We see her enjoy a relatively smooth ride on accessible public transit in New York City. We see staffers at her college in India expressing irritation and frustration as they carry her up a flight of stairs because the elevator is broken. We see Khanum reminding her not to move things while she’s cooking.

These scenes are interwoven through the film in a way that is, for the most part, graceful; there’s little pity porn to be found here, and there’s no inspiration porn, either. These are just people going about their lives, navigating the world. In many ways, they represent the platonic ideal of depicting disability: They are whole people living whole lives, and disability is an important element of their experience, but it’s not the sum total of who they are.

And yet there’s the constant reminder that this is a performance for the actresses, who get to shrug it off between takes, and at times, that creates a vaguely creepy, voyeuristic tone. When we see Laila’s feet under the table, toes bent in contractures, it feels oddly performative and wrong, staged specifically for the audience to goggle at. And in an extremely troubling sequence, the film sexualizes a toileting scene in a way that made me, as a disabled viewer, extremely uncomfortable, given the exceptionally high rate of sexual assault and abuse endured by women in positions like Laila’s, women who need assistance with day-to-day activities.

Though queer sexuality is at the heart of this film, Margarita, with a Straw still stumbles here as well. We see Laila and Khanum fall in love with each other in a rich and authentic relationship, but Laila is also drawn to Jared (William Moseley), a fellow student. As she uncovers her bisexuality, though, Laila doesn’t just acknowledge that she’s attracted to people of multiple genders and even other specific people. She also cheats on Khanum in a hurried sex scene with Jared, in the process reinforcing a toxic biphobic notion: That bisexual people are incapable of being monogamous and represent a sexuality out of control, having sex with whoever they feel like, whenever they feel like it.

This is a common and fraught attitude in the United States, where there are so few bisexual characters that our expectations for them are a bit outsized. In India, where queer sexuality is a highly taboo topic culturally and artistically (Bose expressed surprise at how well the film was received by the censors), even fewer characters present experiences of bisexuality to the public. It’s not the filmmaker’s responsibility to present a perfect object lesson to the viewer, though the film is definitely pitched as a “social problem film,” which suggests that it is at least attempting to moralize. But it’s a troubling thing to encounter, especially in the midst of a film that is, in many ways, so thoughtful.

In some ways, Margarita, with a Straw poses more questions than it answers. I cannot respond without respecting its cultural context, but I also wonder what overarches culture: It’s too simplistic to say that I found it offensive because of the nondisabled cast, but it’s also true that I am reluctant to praise the things it does well because of this singular inescapable problem.

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by s.e. smith
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s.e. smith is a writer, agitator, and commentator based in Northern California.

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