Pride Month Review: Margarita with a Straw (2014)
Margarita with a Straw is a film about a young woman, Laila, exploring her sexuality while away at college. It also happens that she has cerebral palsy, which means she often uses an electric wheelchair for mobility. After experiencing heartbreak at her university in Dehli, she petitions to study abroad in New York. While there she meets a young activist, Khanum, and the two women start a relationship. Their bond frays as Laila struggles with how to come out to her parents and especially her mother. The film stars Kalki Koechlin, Revathi, Sayani Gupta, Hussain Dalal, Tenzing Dalha, Kuljeet Singh, Malhar Khushu, and William Moseley. The film is directed by Shonali Bose and Nilesh Maniyar and written by Bose, Maniyar, and Atika Chohan. The film is streaming on Hulu and is available for rental and purchase on digital platforms and as physical media.
So often the lens of the coming out story is filtered through a handsome white boy. We see the "normal" representation first, but what Margarita with a Straw does, and brilliantly so, is to show that there isn't one face of queer culture. Queer people aren't all without cerebral palsy or blindness or anything else. Queer people are as diverse as all of humanity.
What I love about Margarita with a Straw is that it never shies away from the idea of sex drive. It's something often pitied in those living with disabilities by a mainstream audience and Shonali Bose and Nilesh Maniyar have come out to say that people who operate wheelchairs have urges. People with cerebral palsy have urges, blind people have urges, and those urges may not be heterosexual. The sex scenes portrayed are done as they would be in any film depicting people living without disabilities.
There's an incredible shift, too, in these scenes. It's done in such away that the sex scene between Laila and Khanum is far more gentle. Laila still questions her sexuality, but she knows she's attracted to Khanum. It's less of a dance than when she's with Jared who's uninhibited by labels. She's failed here before and she tries a bold move to get Jared's attention. Even as Jared is loving and gentle as they start, Laila's still scared because Jared doesn't know how to interact with her body and it becomes a sort of violence as penetrative sex often is. It plays on her face after they finish and as they cuddle.
I like that there is this dichotomy within the film. Bisexuality is misunderstood often because of the internalized homophobia we all feel and because we can pass as heterosexual. That plays out on Laila's face as she fights to understand her own urges and worries about the one person she loves most in the world, her mother, finding out that she is different from many others in another way. Her own internalized homophobia is also represented by her internalized ableism. The reason she chooses Jared is because he "sees" her both physically and in the way she wants all the boys to see her.
Of course, this depiction is also biphobic. Because of our internal struggles, the push and pull of our desires, it can look like we're all wishy washy and unethically non-monogamous. Laila's struggle and her cheating on Khanum is certainly something that happens, but if the audience doesn't connect Laila's internal struggle with her external actions, she's reinforcing the stereotype and reinforcing biphobia.
The entirety of the film and its drama, as well as its comedy, wouldn't work if there wasn't a sensitive portrayal behind it. Though, it must be stressed that neither actress, Kalki Koechlin nor Sanyani Gupta, live with cerebral palsy or blindness. While I may have been enamored with the performances, there's still a pall over the film for that reason. Their actions are performative and not natural. So while I praise the film for exploring this facet of human sexuality, people living with disabilities still struggle to get their stories told with representation by a person from their community.
Margarita with a Straw is a beautiful tale of a woman trying to make her way in the world. It has deep layers of doubt and struggle, but triumph and heart. I recommend you see it and after watching it, I highly encourage you read about how people with disabilities have viewed the film. I recommend this one by s.e. smith on Bitch Media.