See Me: Intersectional Sexuality in Margarita, with a Straw

Viacom18 Motion Pictures
As recounted in an interview with The Guardian, the impetus for Shonali Bose’s 2014 film, Margarita, with a Straw, came from a conversation she had with her cousin, disability rights activist Malini Chib, on Chib’s 40th birthday. Chib has cerebral palsy, and it took some effort to articulate—“I want to have sex”—a simple declaration that struck Bose for being so rarely addressed in life, let alone in film.

“It hit me that, over all these years, I’d never dealt with her sexuality, and that, in India, we haven’t dealt with the sexuality of the disabled, and that excited me as a film-maker,” said Bose at her film’s London premiere. Thus, Margarita tells the story of Laila, a young Punjabi-Maharashtrian woman with cerebral palsy coming of age as she moves between New Delhi and New York. She writes lyrics and composes for a college band at the Delhi University, studies creative writing at New York University, flirts with boys and bargains for electronics with equal moxie, plays a mean chess game, and uses an electric wheelchair to get around.

When we first meet her, in India, she’s got a crush on her band’s lead singer, who is non-disabled. As she works up the courage to tell him how she feels, she initiates a casual physical relationship with close friend Dhruv, who also uses a wheelchair. Unreciprocated in her eventual declaration of love for her bandmate, and disinterested in a more serious relationship with Dhruv, Laila escapes heartbreak by accepting admission to study at New York University, accompanied by her mother as her caregiver. In New York, Laila quickly falls for another boy—a fellow foreign student from England—assigned to be her typing aid. Laila doesn’t really need the help, but she plays the long con so she’ll get to spend more time with him.

And then she meets a girl—Khanum, a blind student activist of Pakistani Bangladeshi heritage—in the midst of a street protest that turns into a riot. Laila whisks Khanum away from the chaos in her wheelchair and their friendship tendrils its way from side-long glances and traced fingers into love.

To say that I never expected this story is an understatement. I encountered Margarita entirely by chance at a film festival in Panama a year after its original release. For an Indian child raised on Bollywood melodrama and Hollywood schmaltz, watching the film affirmed a three-decade yearning for something brighter and happier than cinematic endings—I needed something human in its specificity. I needed a character willing to live fiercely, independent of pre-written labels, someone who sought her own love story, and surpassed that story’s natural conclusion—that we need to be loved by others, but we need even more to learn to love ourselves. I cannot speak to the experience of living with a disability. I cannot know what it’s like for someone who resonates with that aspect of Laila’s life to watch this film. But here’s me, in Panama, falling and feeling in love as Laila does. Here’s why: Brown girls1 rarely get to see themselves other than as accessories to men on screen. Brown girls rarely get to fall for boys and girls. Brown girls rarely get to pursue.

In Margarita, Laila initiates most of her romances, and I like to imagine that when she finally meets Khanum, she is as enraptured as I am by this other brown girl’s boldness—Khanum chanting “Fuck the police,” Khanum dancing to nightclub jazz, Khanum beckoning, “Come, I’ll give you the best head-massage in the world.” Khanum’s first kiss, and the excruciating seconds of silence before Laila reciprocates, realizing she wants more.

At its most innocent, sex is about acknowledgment—being seen, felt, explored. The first time Khanum and Laila have sex, they’re both in virgin territory—Laila has never been with another woman before, and Khanum has never been with a woman like Laila. That the film can show their physical intimacy—a shorthand of caresses, close-cropped shots, and a few gasps—without exoticizing the moment speaks to its intersectional triumph. But for me, there’s more to this scene. Even though my own life does not overlap entirely with Laila’s or Khanum’s, I project myself into their bodies—I live, I love, and am loved on screen.

If the objective of watching a movie is to vicariously inhabit someone else’s life for a while, this is particularly relevant when it comes to watching people flirt, kiss, have sex. And with commercial cinema repeatedly trotting out the same types—normative race, normative bodies, normative sexuality, and so on—those who don’t fit these cookie-cutter shapes have non-normative, disembodying experiences that are, at best, impersonal. At worst, they’re a kind of trauma—so many kinds of loves have been made invisible in favor of a disproportionate, privileged few. It flies in the face of the diversity of lived experiences we ought to know and empathize with. I think back to Bose’s cousin Chib and her emphatic declaration of sexual desire, and the injustice of eliding such a simple fact in outsider narratives about the disability community. Is it so much to ask, to see someone you relate to reflected on screen?2

After convincing her mother that she needs her own space, Laila moves in with Khanum. Her mother returns to India unsuspecting of Laila’s true relationship with “that very helpful girl,” inviting Khanum to accompany her daughter to Delhi during their winter break. Laila is visibly discomfited at the prospect. She cannot imagine coming out her family any more than her parents could imagine their daughter is sexually active, let alone with another girl—even for Delhi urbanites, cultural norms eschew frank conversations about sex with one’s children.

Laila herself has never had language—or cause—to identify her bisexuality before. Seeking affirmation, she reads about other women’s experiences of coming out. She then reconsiders her attraction to her English classmate, Jared, who’s grown mutually intrigued with her over the course of a semester working together. During a study session at his house, Laila needs his assistance to use the toilet. As he helps pull her pants back up, she wraps her arms around him for support. She’s both vulnerable and curious how far their physical proximity will take them. He brushes a stray lock of hair off her face, and the scene cuts from the bathroom to the bed, where Jared gently undresses them both.

Their sex is brief, taken in quick, close shots, followed by a long shot of their interwoven bodies at rest. They appear singular, many-limbed and peaceful, though Laila’s eyes are already open and considering the consequences of what she’s done.

On screen, women rarely get to be so human as to be flawed in their actions, not their bodies. Laila, though motivated by attraction, also uses each of her lovers to discover something about herself. It would be simplistic to say her lovers become tools in her quest for self-actualization. When she’d called off her fling with Dhruv via text message, back in India, he had cornered her in a corridor to ask if he was just a “time-pass,” a way to idle away her boredom. For Khanum, the feeling of being used by Laila cuts deeper—they’ve moved in together, Khanum’s made renovations to make her home wheelchair-accessible, even joked offhandedly that for all the trouble she’s going through, they shouldn’t break up for at least a couple of years.

Laila puts off confessing her affair with Jared until the girls are well into their winter break in India. Even then, she’s spurred to tell the truth only because a greater personal tragedy puts her dishonesty in relief—her mother has been dying of colon cancer, something her parents had tried to keep secret.

Adding insult to injury, Laila’s justification for cheating is that, “It’s because Jared could see me.” Though not intentionally callous, the statement erases what Khanum does perceive—like when she first touches Laila’s face, “I just want to see you,” or when she guides Laila’s fingers over a tactile museum exhibit saying, “Close your eyes to see better.”

A recurring epithet teased apart by Margarita is the idea of normalcy. When Laila rejects her friend Dhruv as a one-time experiment, he scoffs, “Making friends with normal people won’t make you normal.” Later, when Laila’s college band wins an award for best song, the judge states that she made her decision because she wanted to recognize Laila’s accomplishment as “a disabled musician.” This tactless justification causes her bandmates to wince and the audience to boo. When asked by the judge to share her story, “so different from that of normal children,” Laila responds with a defiant middle finger and a rock-and-roll, electric-wheelchair exit, stage right. Even Khanum accuses Laila of fucking Jared to get some kind of “normal certificate.”

The idea of “normal,” which loved ones use against each other in whiplash response to hurt, bears particular weight when Laila finally works up the courage to come out as bisexual to her mother. In the ensuing argument, her mother says, “This isn’t normal.” Laila has been furiously typing her retorts on an iPad text-to-speech app. She points out, “That’s what the world said about me too. What’s your problem now?”

Implicit in her argument, and displayed numerous times over the course of the film, is that her parents never accepted outside norms in raising their daughter. Their own marriage is an ethnic and religious mix that fell outside their respective families’ expectations. Laila dismantles false constructs over the foundation her parents set for her. She resists classification. In her initial encounter with Khanum at the riot, she is cast not as damsel but as rescuing knight. She helps the other girl up after she’s knocked over and hurries her off on her steed—the wheelchair that carries them both through tear gas and dust. When Laila, in turn, is picked up by Jared after using the bathroom, she seizes the opportunity to play damsel to his knight. In early scenes, her mother bathes her and comforts her through heartbreak. In later scenes, Laila takes on the role of caregiver—bathing her mother and holding her father while he sobs.

After her mother’s death and Khanum’s tearful return to New York, Laila must settle into herself. The movie closes with Laila preparing for a new date—she sits alone at a café and smiles warmly, and the camera turns to catch her gaze—her reflection in the mirror. Though the movie doesn’t show if anyone will join her later, it’s implied that the mirror gaze is a moment of reckoning. The chair across from her doesn’t need to be filled.

All through the film, we’ve followed Laila’s gaze—at what and who she wants, and whether that desire is returned. She says to Khanum that she messed up because she wanted someone else to “see me,” a statement that is not about her body as object, but about how she’s perceived in it. She longs for her mother’s acceptance of who she is, and receives it during a hospital visit when her mother asks if Khanum is well. And by the end of the film, we’re caught between Laila and her mirror gaze, ricocheting within Laila’s acknowledgment of self.

While “love thyself” is an easy enough mantra to repeat—a coffee mug epithet if there ever was one—it’s hard to live like you believe it if you have no frame of reference. The unspoken secret to a good story—that formula that makes you empathize with someone else’s experience—is uniqueness. Put another way: the unapologetically individual is universal. Laila cannot be boxed in, and will give you the finger if you try.

So I think I fell in love with Margarita the way Laila fell in love with Khanum—through the prism of aspiration. Here’s the story of a woman, a magnetic force—defiant in the cause of justice, outspoken in her sexuality, utterly appealing in her uniqueness. Here’s Laila, carrying me in her wheelchair to that place beyond the riot, where I can sit calmly, appraise my reflection, and laugh at having come into my own.

  1. The actress who plays Laila, Kalki Koechlin, is Indian but born to French, white parents—in this case, “brown girl” is a cultural identifier. Koechlin also does not live with a disability, so my identification with her/the character she plays is also bounded by that frame of reference.
  2. Since all the actors in Margarita are non-disabled, it could also be asked—though that is the subject of another essay—whether a movie considers or ignores casting disabled actors in roles regardless of whether disability is central to the narrative. Visibility goes beyond the frame.