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Celebration of life

In a first, a Bollywood commercial flick delves into a differently abled person's sexuality

By Kundan Pandey
Published: Sunday 31 May 2015


Margarita, with a Straw Shonali Bose (Vi a com 18 Production)

MARGARITA, WITH a Straw, directed by Shonali Bose, of Amu fame, is a smoothly flowing and surprisingly comforting film despite the fact that it deals with the differently abled, a topic with which most of us are not comfortable. The movie flows smoothly because Laila, the main protagonist played by Kalki Koechlin, does not stop at anything and does things with gay abandon. Doing this, she also forces viewers to engage in her routine struggles, rather than feeling pity for her motor-skill disorder.

What comes out is a moving and uplifting portrait of an individual who is determined to live life to the fullest. Here, viewers find an astonishing resonance with their own lives. Her odds do not matter to her when it comes to her desires or putting in efforts to give them a shape.

Margarita, With A Straw, is also unique in that Laila’s sexual needs take as much importance as any other needs of her life. Despite the fact that she needs someone’s help to complete her daily chores, she follows her sexual desires.

imageShonali Bose, who directed the movie, says that depicting the sexual needs of a differently abled person was doubly challenging. “In our society, sex and sexuality is taboo. Parents don’t discuss sex with their kids. Teachers do not discuss it in classrooms. Yet the population is continuously increasing. It means people are engaging in sex but are pretending it does not exist. Within this context, when it comes to the differently abled, people feel they should be happy because they are getting food, because they are going to school. Relationships are a far-flung idea for them.”

In her brilliant performance of a physically-challenged girl, Koechlin is extremely convincing and clear. Credit must be given to Bose who gives equal space to all of Laila’s identities – whether as cerebral palsy sufferer or as a bisexual.

“It was a journey of self discovery as an actor, of where the body and mind can be taken with rehearsal and concentration. As a woman, I am very lucky to play such a powerful and lovable protagonist,” Koechlin told Down To Earth.

The film has pushed the debate of mainstreaming differently abled people a step further. At present, when people see differently abled persons, the first expression is of sympathy. The special treatment that society metes out to such people, disempowers them. They should also be treated like any other normal person, says Bose. She is of the view that those who are termed differently abled are just as much human, with the same set of desires, ambitions, and skills. Even a normal-looking person can have some disability which is not noticeable easily.

The questions and the debate that the film has triggered, regarding the sexual desires of the differently abled did not occur to Koechlin while signing it. “I do not really sign any movie based on what reactions will come when it releases. As long as the story is truthful and convincing, it excites me,” she said.

While Bose may call her flick the first commercial venture to highlight the sexuality of the differently abled, there have been other attempts before hers, though not as mainstream. Arun Chadha’s 2011 documentary Mindscapes…of Love and Longing highlights several differently abled characters showing normal sexual orientation. It bagged the country’s 2012 national award for the best film on social issues.

Another documentary named Accsex made by Shweta Ghosh in 2013 showed four differently abled women talking about their growing-up years including professional ambitions, feelings about their self-image and romantic and sexual needs.

These films are taking the public discourse about impairment to another level. There have been changes, says Javed Abidi, chairperson of Disabled People’s International India (DPII).

People are more than willing to offer help if they see any differently abled person. And the credit goes to mass media including television, newspapers and cinema, says Abidi.

So is Indian, especially Bollywood cinema finally catching up on using contemporary development issues as lucrative plots for story telling?

“I don’t know. Sometimes it is, and sometimes it is going backwards. I think little steps have happened in cinema over the last few years to give progressive content, but there is a long way to go in mainstream cinema still. I do believe we have the audience for it,” says Koechlin.

For Abidi, the most important thing is getting the message about differently abled rights across to the government. The government has to decide whether it wants to keep them dependent on others or use them as a human resource, he says.

However, for Bose and Chadha, only society can bring about the change needed for differently abled people.

`I feel vindicated'
Margarita, With a Straw director Shonali Bose spoke to Down To Earth
Shonali BoseHow did the idea of the film Margarita, With a Straw come about?

I have a cousin called Malini who is a year younger to me. She was born with cerebral palsy. Malini is completely normal in every aspect other than motor skill. We grew up normally and did everything together. When we were teenagers, I was very much conscious of the fact that Malini was much more romantic than me and would fall in love all the time. Later, I got married and shifted to America. She shifted to London. She wrote a novel, One Little Finger. When Malini was 39, I asked her what she would want on her 40th birthday to which she replied she just wanted to have sex. That shocked me. Some years later, after I finished filming Chittagong, my aunt (Malini's mother) asked me to make a movie on Malini's book. At first, I said no. Then I realised that even world cinema has not looked into the sexuality of the differently abled. That is where the idea of the film came to me.

Did you have any apprehensions regarding the acceptance of such a subject among the Indian public?

As far as acceptability is concerned, I felt right from day one that this was a commercial film and not art-house cinema and was confident that Indian audiences were going to love it. I have been proven right by the amazing box office opening the film has garnered.

In the past few years, there have been a few attempts at raising issues of sexuality of differently abled people. How do you see these attempts?

I had not seen anything. So I thought nothing existed on the sexuality of the differently abled. The only thing I saw was a show of SatyamevJayate. I am happy to hear there was a documentary. But I have not seen it. Also, my film is the first ever commercial venture to highlight this issue. I agree that no other section of society is talking about these subjects.
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