Shonali Bose’s Margarita, With A Straw is about Laila, a gawky, limpid-eyed, stubbornly wilful girl bound to a wheelchair because of cerebral palsy. Defying the possibilities that this one-line descriptor opens up, it is a beguilingly unstressed film. Bose does not drill in lessons on disability; she does not romanticize or demonize disability for dramatic results; and her lead actor Kalki Koechlin does not play the part like it is an acting stunt.

Koechlin, last seen in a wishy-washy Barbie mock-up in last year’s Happy Ending, does not merely work out minuscule variations of one erratic note or tic for her character, as actors playing characters with disability often do. Remember Dustin Hoffman’s Raymond Babbitt in Rain Man (1988)? Unforgettable (and with savant syndrome, or Asperger’s syndrome, not cerebral palsy), but entirely and relentlessly an actor’s showcase role. Hoffman chipped at it with a petulant sameness. Laila is as tender as she is self-serving, and Koechlin tries to bring alive the irrepressible human being on that wheelchair while being committed to the character’s behavioural truth. The story is Laila’s inner journey, not her disability or the actor’s portrayal of disability.

Bose has a light touch on the material, never preachy, never letting go of the tragic limitations that Laila’s condition imposes on her, and with enough room for humour. Coupled with Koechlin’s translation of that treatment on screen, it is a film suited for all kinds of audiences—as it happens, the acid test for any film releasing in Indian theatres.

Laila, in her late teens, lives with her father (Kuljeet Singh), mother (Revathy) and younger brother (Malhar Khushu). We meet Laila at an age in which she is acutely aware of her sexuality, and secretly surfs Internet porn. The family is somewhat like the sturdy van the mother drives all four of them around in—tenacious, roomy and comfortable. Laila’s backbone is her mother, a finely nuanced portrait of maternal fortitude and fire by Revathy. Laila is smart and connected. She is almost always on chat, composes music online, and sells gold to buy an iPad. She is truthful and adventurous. While on a scholarship to study creative writing at New York University, she meets Khanum (Sayani Gupta), a visually challenged Pakistani girl, and they fall in love.

Bisexuality, emotional courage and the pain of loss are Bose’s spindles for the story. The setting is important in as much as it shows how a city allows a person with disability freedom and confidence of mobility. We see that Delhi is far behind New York, but not through dialogues or long-drawn scenes.

The director, who has also written the story, is working inside out: How does Laila, fond of the occasional margarita, find herself, and what happens to the two women heartbreakingly close to her? How far can Laila go?

Margarita, With A Straw released in theatres on Friday.

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