Filmmaker Shonali Bose hopes to take gay issues out of the closet with her next
An Indian director is hoping her new film will throw a spotlight on gay rights in a country where homosexuality remains taboo and little progress has been made on repealing a colonial-era law banning gay sex. Margarita, With a Straw, which premiered at the Toronto Film Festival in September, tells the story of a teenager with cerebral palsy who is unabashed about her sexuality, much to the horror of her middle-class, conservative mother.
Director Shonali Bose, who lives in the United States and identifies herself as bisexual, said the film comes from two personal experiences - that of exploring her own sexuality and the life of her cousin, who suffered from cerebral palsy.
Bose, 49, said she hoped the film would contribute to the debate over Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code, which forbids homosexual sex, and eventually lead to sexual legitimacy for homosexuals, bisexuals and lesbians. "I am ready for right-wing protests when my film releases. Bring them on. As long as people can see the film and talk about these issues, I am ready to face it," the film-maker said in an interview.
India's Supreme Court has refused to decriminalize homosexuality. Last year, it overruled a decision by a lower court to declare sexual intercourse between same-sex partners as legal, saying it was up to parliament to repeal such a law.
Many homosexuals remain in the closet and society's attitude towards the gay community is reflected in mainstream cinema, which hardly touches on these topics. Margarita, With a Straw shows Laila, a teenager with cerebral palsy, falling in love with another woman. This, said Bose, represents an attempt to understand the situation from all sides.
"In the film, Laila's mother has great difficulty coming to terms with her daughter's sexuality, and when the film screened in Toronto, I had so many Indians coming up to me and telling me they loved it, so I know I have struck a chord somewhere," said Bose, who worked on the script for two years.
"We always look at the disabled with so much empathy, so hopefully when you are presented with a prickly topic like sexuality from their point of view, audiences might be more accepting than if it was told from the point of view of a normal person," she said.
In spite of the accolades and a tentative release date set for India early next year, Bose knows her film is not for everyone. In the past, the few Indian films that have dared to depict homosexuality without caricaturing it have faced protests and boycotts. Margarita, With a Straw must first make it past the censors.
"I don't know if depiction of bisexuality would be a problem. Hopefully, we are at a stage where we accept these things more. We are talking about them," said Kalki Koechlin, who plays the lead character of Laila in the film.
Bose said it was not just the release of the film that presented a problem; there were obstacles in making it. Studio Viacom 18 Motion Pictures declined to fully fund the film over concerns about whether Bose would pick a bankable-enough star.
"I was asked which star I would be casting, because that is what sells in India. I took a loan and paid for the film out of my own pocket," she said. "But now that it is all behind me, I cannot wait for the Indian release. Hopefully, we can contribute to some of the conversation."