Margarita, with a Straw is an intensely personal tale fictionalised for film

  • Anirudh Bhattacharyya, Hindustan Times
  • Updated: Sep 28, 2014 11:57 IST

In September 2010, Los Angeles-based filmmaker Shonali Bose lost her elder son, Ishan, to a freak accident with an electric razor. He was just 16. She entered mourning and then gradually emerged from it, with an idea for a script that would, conversely, celebrate life. Work on that script started on what would have been her son’s 17th birthday.

Four years later, that rudimentary idea has turned into a feature, Margarita, with a Straw , a film that had its world premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival or TIFF and should be in Indian theatres in early 2015.

Bose’s journey through the concept and realisation of the film was, at several levels, deeply personal. That the principal character, Laila, suffers from cerebral palsy is drawn from the experience of Bose’s cousin, Malini. That Laila undergoes a process of sexual awakening, is derived from Bose’s personal history.

The joy of living: Director Shonali Bose and heroine Kalki Koechlin at the international premiere of Margarita, With A Straw, at Toronto.

“When I was 19, I had a relationship with a woman. I am bisexual. At that time, I didn’t know it was gay or anything,” she says, quite candidly. She later married and recently separated from filmmaker Bedabrata Pain with whom she co-wrote the film, Chittagong (2012).

Also read: Chittagong and Bollywood politics

It gets personal in other ways as well. Bose studied at Miranda House and Columbia University, and the cities of her education are the locations for the film – New Delhi and New York. In that sense, Margarita is an intensely personal tale fictionalised for film. “I subconsciously went to every piece of my life, and indirectly put it in,” says the filmmaker.

These connections aren’t surprising given her filmmaking backstory. Her debut feature, Amu (2005), dealt with the anti-Sikh riots of 1984, a time she was living in Delhi. After her stint in New York, Bose went to the University of California, Los Angeles’ film school and the protagonist in Amu is also from UCLA. Her penchant for bringing the personal to the screen were established then.

Not quite maudlin
Bose has a prior association with TIFF. The festival’s artistic director Cameron Bailey watched Amu at its screening in Berlin and invited Bose to the 2004 festival. As he said, “She’s evolved as a filmmaker and she’s drawn both from what she’s learnt in her craft over the years and her personal experience.”

Margarita itself deals with complex issues. It’s possibly the first Indian film to riff on the theme of bisexuality, adding a layer to the drama. And, yes, it’s not timid about exploring sexuality. Bose said that her producers, Viacom 18 Motion Pictures, have assured her they’d rather take an A certificate than have censors take the scissors to scenes inherent to the story.

Given its subject, Bose could easily have succumbed to structuring a tearjerker, making good with the maudlin. Instead, the character of Laila, played by Kalki Koechlin, isn’t searching for sympathy. “She’s got this joie de vivre, she overcomes everything,” Bose says. Her co-writer Nilesh Maniyar adds, “Far beyond being bechara, she’s cheating on one person.”

Margarita, is at its core, a film about optimism despite adversity, as Bose said, “It’s coming from my life philosophy and how I’m as a person. I wanted empathy.”
Koechlin is a revelation and is critical in making Margarita a powerful and poignant cinematic experience. She went through a three-month boot camp of sorts studying those affected by cerebral palsy, and most importantly, undergoing speech therapy, in reverse almost, to recreate slurring speech patterns. With Margarita, she’s gone to a new level as an actress.

Stirred not shaken
Bose’s script for Margarita had won the Sundance Mentor Global Filmmaker Award and went to that festival’s lab, for doctoring it into a screenplay. But Bose wasn’t interested in making a film that would only explore disability since that seemed to her more like a documentary project. “It was just not interesting to me, to talk only of awareness,” she says. So she brought into it autobiographical elements, her own sexual course, for instance.

Meanwhile, the film will travel to Busan, Korea, London, and to festivals in the United States and India before it opens in theatres. That, in itself, is something Bose looks forward to. Her debut feature, Amu, faced major obstacles in securing an Indian theatrical release since it dealt with the anti-Sikh riots.

There were whispers from critics that Margarita ought to have been India’s entry for the Oscars in 2015. But the selection process is mired in factors beyond merit, and it isn’t a matter that Bose is likely to fret over. For now, she’s focused on getting a timely and trouble-free release in India, which, in itself, will be a triumph of sorts.

The germ of the idea for Margarita came nearly a decade back as Bose was having a drink with Malini in a London pub. Bose, who turned 50 this year, has grown as a person and filmmaker since that sincere discussion and the result is a stirring movie.

From HT Brunch, September 28

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