Margarita, With A Straw: Breaking bad
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No one thinks of disabled people as people who have sex. It was a simple statement made by Anita Ghai, a disability rights activist and a wheelchair user, that made this writer sit up amazed by this blind spot, during a discussion on gender and sexuality rights two years ago. Film director Shonali Bose had her “Aha” moment while celebrating her first cousin, Malini Chib’s birthday in a London pub eight years ago. Chib works with software services company Tata Consultancy Services and has cerebral palsy—a neurological condition caused by brain injury which results in loss or impairment of motor function. Bose asked her cousin, who is younger by a year, what she wished for and Chib replied that she wanted to have sex. That statement caught Bose by surprise too, and prompted the 49-year-old film-maker to make Margarita, With A Straw, which debuted at the Toronto International Film Festival last month, where it also won the Best Asian film.
She admits that this matter-of-factness about disability derived from the way the cousins grew up. “We spent all the holidays with each other, and none of us was treated differently. She was not given a special platform, and we all welcomed that. Her point is, don’t give me charity, give me access,” says Bose, who was therefore amazed that she hadn’t thought about her cousin’s sexuality, despite their closeness. Though Bose tried to downplay intercourse that night at the pub—“it’s not all that it’s made out to be,” she told Chib—the incident remained etched in her memory.
However, it was only in January 2011 that Bose took pen to paper and began writing a script for Margarita. By February, she shared it with her co-director and co-producer, Nilesh Maniyar, with whom she had discussed the idea and storyline before. “I didn’t know what cerebral palsy meant. I had to google it,” Maniyar says over email. The script underwent 42 revisions, including a few after it won the Sundance Institute Mahindra Global Filmmaking Award that took Maniyar and Bose to the newly established Sundance Institute Screenwriters Lab in India, in Mumbai.
Koechlin, who has played a part of a sexually marginalized character before (Chanda in Dev D), went through a rigorous six months of research and physical training to play Laila. “I got in touch with Malini and spent time with her. I learnt a lot observing and talking to her,” says the actor. She also took sessions with a physiotherapist and a speech therapist at ADAPT (Able, Disabled, All People Together), formerly The Spastics Society of India, which was started by Chib’s mother in 1972, after Malini’s birth. Koechlin also spent “16-hour-days on a 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.
“As an actor, it is a challenge and my job is to put myself in the shoes of another character.” Koechlin, who defines herself as “a woman unwilling to being labelled a faithful heterosexual”. Said that Laila was also many other things: a teenager with raging hormones, for instance. “The film is interesting because it’s about all of us: having reality hit us, one way or another and then having to decide that we have to grow up.”