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strawBollywood movies are what dreams are made of: bright colours, dancing, and flashy heroes and heroines are the perfect formula for a blockbuster hit. Often times, Bollywood movies are criticized for being very surface level and not having the courage to explore themes and storylines that go beyond Salman Khan kicking down doors and beating up bad guys.

I recently watched a really different kind of Indian movie called “Margarita with a Straw.” Kalki Koechlin plays a girl with cerebral palsy, who leaves her home in India to go to university in the United States. The movie is a perfectly heartbreaking coming of age story. Koechlin’s character, Laila struggles with tackling the challenges of every day life without the help of her mother in a big scary city all while dealing with the pressures of school and trying to come to terms with her sexuality.

This movie really touched me; it showed how relationships change between a parent and a child, especially in an Indian cultural backdrop. In most American narratives, at 18 years old, a child is an adult and free from their parental rule. In Indian households, you are considered a child even after you fully come into adulthood and have children of your own. The fact that Laila has a disability makes her seem even younger and more dependent on her mother, even though she is almost 20 years old.

The dynamic of the lesbian relationship Laila finds herself in, is a very raw and touching portrayal of coming to terms with a confusing sexual period in her life. In the beginning of the movie, Laila has her heart set out on this hunky boy who’s the lead singer of a band. Now, she is having feelings for a girl, feelings that are foreign and different but demand to be experienced. Her relationship with this girl comes through its own trials and tribulations when Laila cheats on her girlfriend with a boy and comes to terms later on in the film with her bisexuality.

When Laila comes back home on break she wants to tell her mother about her new identity but knows that she is risking disappointing her mother or receiving her disapproval. The courage she has to muster to come out to her mother is only a fraction of what she goes through in the rest of the film as she has to watch as her mother gradually getting sicker and needs to find a way to become more independent and composed in a time in her life when the one thing Laila needs most is the comfort and confidant that she had in her mother. She needs to grow up for herself and deal with her emotions on her own terms.

This movie is not perfect by any means, it does have its fair share of narrative plots and predictable petty drama, however it is depicting this drama through means that haven’t been seen in the mainstream Indian cinema.

Bollywood often times is censored by the Indian government and directors often cite that as the reason as to why they cannot produce the kind of work that they would like to. While the Indian government is technically the world’s largest democracies there are still many steps that it needs to take in order to truly ensure a democracy in which there is no barrier on freedom of thoughts and expression.

There was definitely backlash to this film that came from people who were “disturbed” by her relationship with a woman and some people who even claimed that the character Laila was just “greedy” for attention and that bisexuality wasn’t a real type of sexuality and that she was just “confused.” To me, this kind of backlash shows that it is more critical than ever to have movies like this put into mainstream knowledge and flooding the industry so that more people are exposed to ideas in ways that they have never had to confront them before.

There is nothing wrong with a good Bollywood sing and dance along, but film has a responsibility beyond just pure entertainment, it has a responsibility to create and educate, to tell stories of lives that go beyond a familiar cultural narrative. It is these kinds of filmmakers that are bringing about a more progressive, less censored Indian youth who are thirsty for more of these kinds of movies.

 

Recognition

 

Koechlin does perhaps her best work to date as she depicts a character who is living with cerebral palsy. It was amazing to see such character development especially given her roles in previous movies such as Zindagi Na Milegi Dobara where she played a spoiled rich fiancé. This role challenged not only the actor but it challenged many Indian perceptions of female characters in Bollywood movies.

The movie was debuted at the Toronto Film Festival and had a world tour as it debuted in London, California, and Istanbul before finally making its debut in India. As predicted, a movie of such controversial topics and lacking the regular Bollywood “masala” did not have room to make much of a profit at the box office, but Koechlin’s performance received rave reviews.

Koechlin won the award for the Best Actress at the Tallinn Black Nights Film Festival in Estonia in 2014; the movie also won an audience award in France. Under the Asian film category, Margarita with a Straw was awarded at the 2014 Toronto International Film Festival. Koechlin did receive an award for her portrayal of Laila at the 63rd National Film awards in India.

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