From a Bendy Straw to a Twirly Straw

Growing up Disabled, Transnationally

in Girlhood Studies
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  • 1 Maulana Azad National Urdu University shilpaa.anand@gmail.com

FILM REVIEW

Shonali Bose. 2014. Margarita, with a Straw. India

Coming of age, as complex as it is, is even more so if one is living with cerebral palsy, and is bisexual and dependent on one’s middle-class Indian care-giver mother! Laila (played by Kalki Koechlin) in Margarita with a Straw (hereafter, Margarita) has all this complexity in her life as a girl in her late teens growing up in middle-class Delhi. Her life as a young woman with cerebral palsy is a coccooned one, but it has its share of clandestine sexual exploration in the back rooms of the college biology lab with wheelchair-using Dhruv. The frontroom Laila we meet moves about the junior college in her motorized wheelchair, falls in love with the lead singer of the college band, and has her heart broken by him. Does he reject her because of her disability? Is her heartache different because hers is not just a girl’s heart broken by a guy, but a disabled girl’s heart broken by a non-disabled so-called normal guy? These questions are not conclusively answered and that is what keeps the film from falling into the trap of a typical overcoming-disability narrative.

The film captures the particular Indian flavours of being disabled in an overly caring middle-class family and home where, it seems, as Cohen (1998) has pointed out in a different but related context, disability is not an individual experience but appears to belong to a familial body. Their daily lives are intertwined with Laila’s needs and accommodating them to such an extent that her mother’s connection with her seems to transcend the limits of an emotional bond in becoming an aadat (a habit), as one of the songs in the film’s soundtrack describes her.

In contrast to this familial self that Laila has known all her life is the Americanized independent-individual self into which she learns to grow when she moves to New York to go to university. Laila is settled into an apartment in New York by her mother who stays with her for a while before leaving her in the care of a professional caregiver whom she lets go once her romance with a young woman blossoms.Watching her selling her grandmother’s gold necklace to buy her ipad, breaking several eggs messily before the contents of one fall perfectly into the skillet, and finding the potential of a sexual encounter in everyday proximity with the scribes assigned to her for writing assitance, we see Laila growing into a transnational disabled woman. Before her mother leaves New York she discovers that her daughter has been surfing porn sites on her laptop and, to her utter dismay, Laila tells her that she has invaded her privacy. Her mother was clueless about the fact that Laila had begun to explore her sexuality when they were in Delhi. Laila’s mother’s exasperation is caused by her inability to comprehend how a girl she bathes and grooms can have a private life that does not include her.

At New York University, she meets part Pakistani, part Bangladeshi Khanum, a blind woman, on the picket-line of what looks like an anti-racism demonstration. In subversively invoking typical features of a Bollywood film, the director has Khanum literally falling into Laila’s lap in the post-demonstration teargas-infested chaos. Khanum’s boldness and Laila’s diffidence come together in a glorious lesbian romance of jazz, margaritas, picnics in the park, and nightly love-making.

The film rather sensitively frames two distinct disability experiences within the circle of the lesbian romance. In a museum in New York when Khanum guides Laila’s hands to experience a tactile way of looking at the exhibits, this turns into a sexually charged moment as Khanum moves her exploring hand up Laila’s arm to her face. When Laila flinches, Khanum asks her to relax saying that it was her turn to look, tactiley, at Laila. Khanum’s admiring touch replaces a sighted person’s desirous gaze and confuses Laila who has probably learnt in her sighted world to associate desirous touching only with derisive categories of abuse that include being groped or being felt-up. It is also possible that she flinches because she is surprised that anyone can find her desirable. In all of Laila’s previous sexual encounters, it is she who had initiated the touching. Tracing Laila’s face with her fingers Khanum, using a Hindi word that connotes bitch but doing so here with awe and affection, exclaims, “Kamini! You’re so pretty dude!” This is also the scene that problematizes presumed binaries, such as those between the categories of disabled and normal rather effectively. While both of them are categorized as disabled, there appears to be a yawning gap between Laila’s experience of living with cerebral palsy and Khanum’s life as a blind girl. Laila’s flinching at Khanum’s touch is also indicative of her being unfamiliar with, or ignorant about what it means to be blind. In another moment when they are lying in the park in New York, Laila enviously comments on how perfect Khanum’s body is, telling her that she could be a model. This moment is perhaps reflective of how Laila thinks of her own body as imperfect in a way that conflates the ideal feminine body with the non-disabled one. The moment presents a disabled young woman’s yearning for a non-disabled body.

Disabled girlhood, the film confirms, involves learning about one’s sexuality in between and blurred by the lines labelled normal and disabled. On two separate occasions Laila’s disabled friends and lovers reprimand her for desiring what appears to count for her as normality in her wanting to be with and desiring able-bodied friends and men. These lines continue to blur her experiences with Khanum and create underlying tension throughout the film. Laila in a later moment in the film, to which I will return towards the end of this review, tells Khanum that she cheated on her and has had sex with Jared, the blond scribe she is assigned at the university, only because he is sighted. That blow hurts Khanum as much as any other sighted person’s comments on her blindness would have done. But what Laila does not say but is implied in her need to be made love to by Jared, is her desire, as a person with cerebral palsy, to be validated by a sighted person.

Those who think that the two girls come together because they are both disabled base this on an imagined homogeneity between and among different disabilities. Having one kind of a disability does not necessarily preclude ableism towards another kind.

One of the most common reactions of Indian movie-goers to the film is that it is a bold film to have been made and released in India. Middle-class and urban audiences thought the film was doing things for which India was not yet ready. Was the film bold because it was about queer sex? Was it bold because it shows a young woman masturbating? Was it bold because it shows a disabled woman wanting and enjoying sex? It is very likely that the responses of the movie-goers involve one or all of these reasons.

Sadly, many disabled people in India were excluded from seeing Margarita, this bold film. While the very title of the film sets it up as a film about equal access, even if it is access to a margarita, a drink not usually consumed through a straw, as a possible theatre-going experience for wheelchair users, blind people, and sign-language users, the film remained largely inaccessible. Although the film crew had unequivocally participated in a campaign called “Mumbai Rising for Disability Access,” wheelchair access in India is a complex matter, as is pointed out in the film. While most public spaces in the country are inaccessible to wheelchair users, the solution to this is quite readily available when people willingly offer to lift wheelchairs! And the film quite accurately represents this peculiarly Indian way of making public spaces accessible. As Laila’s troubled expression when her chair is being lifted up the college stairway conveys, wheelchair users who wanted to see the film when it was released in theatres were anxious that their only access to the film would include that embarrassingly typical mode of Indian access.

Ironically, the film, it appeared, went out of its way to become accessible to non-disabled movie goers by carrying subtitles only for Laila’s speech, a way of talking that would be considered undecipherable to so-called normal ears. In an interview, Kalki Koechlin stated that the speech she finally adopted was not as garbled as Malini’s (the inspiration for the character Laila) just so the audience could follow her more clearly (Singh 2015). If the whole film were subtitled, not only would it have become accessible to deaf viewers but this would also have prevented the film from highlighting Laila’s differences in an exclusive way.

Laila returns home for a summer vacation and brings Khanum with her; this, she hopes, will also be the summer of her coming out to her mother as bisexual, but the summer gets complicated. Her mother’s cancer returns, Laila becomes her care-giver, and the coming out is a rocky one. Her relationship with Khanum ends when she reveals that she had cheated on her with Jared. Her mother dies. The film ends with Laila going out to a roof-top restaurant in Delhi. Before she goes Laila gets her hair styled, puts on an orange dress, and gets her father to give her a ride in her mother’s mini van to the restaurant where she sits at a table opposite a mirror. She orders her margarita, and pulls out of her bag a new kind of straw, a twirly one as opposed to the usual bendy one she uses, that matches the stylishness of her hair and her clothes. The ending of the film is an affirmation of Laila to her own self, through neither the caring gaze of her Indian mother nor through the Americanized and adoring eyes of her former lesbian lover. The Laila she affirms to herself combines the one who is still dependent on private transport that her family facilitates and the one who is independent enough to out by herself and order an alcoholic beverage.

Margarita is a film about many transitions and makes a case for the fluidity that marks growing up, moving out, and gaining an identity—all significant in the life of a young woman. Laila learns to live her life as one in constant transition between the protected life and the precariously lived one, between being disabled but ableist, between knowing her needs and not giving into them, and, most importantly, between being a desi (literally, a local in Hindi but it connotes being Indian) in New York and being an independent disabled girl in a world of Indian familial bodies. This film offers the scholarship on girlhood and disability in transnational contexts an opportunity to explore the ways in which girlhood and disability constitute each other in relation to different impairment categories, in different cultural contexts. Margarita enables us to consider and reflect theoretically on living that is at the same time gendered, corporeally different, and sexualized as well as geographically and conceptually transnational.

References

Girlhood Studies

An Interdisciplinary Journal

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