Margarita, With a Straw

 

Margarita, With a Straw

Shonali Bose’s 2014 film follows Laila (Kalki Koechlin) as she navigates her way through the usual rites of passage that mark the transition to adulthood. The difference here is that Laila has cerebral palsy and spends most of her time in a wheelchair. It’s rare to find a story about a disabled protagonist that’s not about overcoming great adversity, but Margarita with a Straw is simply a look at Laila’s life as she navigates her way through college. Laila may have some physical limitations, but her dreams and desires are those of any young person and she doesn’t let her disability stand in her way as she moves to New York to go to college, embarks on a same-sex relationship and starts to take control of her life. The film does have a few flaws, but with strong performances from Kalki Koechlin and Revathy, and a generally upbeat approach, it’s definitely well worth a watch.

Bose based her story on her cousin who also has cerebral palsy and the film was made in consultation with an Indian based disability agency, ADAPT which ensures the situations seem true to life. The issues Laila faces are mainly due to problems with accessibility, such as when the lift at her college isn’t working and she needs to be carried upstairs, or when her wheelchair gets bogged down in the snow in New York. For the most part Laila is a regular student and her family encourage her independence, seeing her disability as just part of Laila rather than as a liability that will hold her back.

Laila is a student at college in Delhi where she has a number of friends. Sameera (Shuchi Dwivedi) plays guitar for a rock band and Laila writes lyrics for their songs, partly because she loves music but she also has a crush on the lead singer Nima (Tenzin Dalha). However, when she reveals her attraction, his awkward response devastates Laila to the point where she feels she cannot continue at college. Luckily for her, at this point she receives an offer to study in New York and over the objections of her father, but with the support of her mother, Laila moves to the US and a new chapter in her life.

While at home Laila experimented with her developing sexuality, including surfing pornographic websites, masturbating and becoming intimate with her friend Dhruv (Hussain Dalal) who is also in a wheelchair. All of this is shown in a very matter of fact way and I can’t remember any Indian film dealing with developing sexuality in such a realistic manner, let alone one that approaches it from the viewpoint of someone with a disability. The film deserves recognition for that as well as the authentic manner in which the friends interact. Dhruv broaches the idea that Laila has ‘normal’ friends simply to try and ‘fit in’, but Bose shows her isolation as the group chat and jam outside while Laila is left alone inside in her wheelchair. These scenes are sensitively handled without ever showing Laila as self-pitying or becoming overly sentimental, which makes the situations realistic and plausible. Also well done is the reaction of Nima when faced with Laila’s attraction which seems completely typical of any adolescent when faced with a declaration of love from someone they like, but are not attracted to in a romantic way. Although these are small moments, the film is made up of many such scenes which ensure the story is about Laila and not about her disability.

Laila’s move to New York brings her into contact with an attractive fellow student Jared (William Mosely) but this time Laila is more careful after her experiences with Nima despite Jared’s seeming interest in her. However, Laila then meets Khanum (Sayani Gupta) after getting mixed up in a demonstration and their friendship develops into an intimate relationship. Khanum is blind and Sayani Gupta is good in her portrayal of someone who cannot see, but unfortunately for the most part, her character is superficial and poorly developed. Khanum appears to exist only as a means to allow Laila to explore her independence, and their relationship generally feels clunky and odd.

The film is most successful in exploring the family relationships, particularly Laila’s relationship with her mother (Revathy). Laila’s desire for independence and privacy ensures there are moments of conflict, while Revathy is excellent as a mother trying to reconcile her need to protect her daughter with the realisation that Laila needs space to grow. Towards the latter half of the film Bose tries to cram too much in to this relationship including an unnecessary illness and a rather forced scene where Laila reveals her bisexuality to her mother, but where she keeps it simple it makes for some excellent and emotional cinema.

Kalki Koechlin does an amazing job with her portrayal of someone with cerebral palsy although it does seem a shame that there wasn’t a disabled actor playing the role. The level of disability she portrays does fluctuate a little throughout the film, but overall her body language is good and convincing while the emotional highs and lows are well done.  My DVD includes a ‘making of’ which does give some insights into the difficulty of portraying the character, and it’s to Kalki’s credit that she has invested so much time into getting her characterisation of Laila right. Revathy is also excellent while the rest of the supporting cast are also good. Kuljeet Singh doesn’t have much to do as Laila’s father, but he is fantastic in the emotional scenes near the end and really impresses by how well he conveys strong emotions so subtly.

Overall, Margarita, With a Straw is an unconventional film that may be a tad uneven but succeeds due to the excellent performances and strong emotional content. Bose paints a sympathetic picture of a young woman with cerebral palsy without dwelling on the disability, but rather focusing on the issues that everyone faces as an adolescent, whether able-bodied or not. Laila’s journey towards acceptance, by her family and by herself, is often funny, frequently emotional but always engaging. 4 stars.

Margarita, With a Straw

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Lankeswarudu

Lankeswarudu Poster

Who could resist a film synopsis that says “Apart from crime Shankar is also a good dancer and he teaches dancing too”? Certainly not me and especially not when it stars Chiranjeevi. But Dasari Narayana Rao delivers little except for a solid performance from the Megastar and some diverting song picturisations in this lethargic stagger through a bunch of Hollywood “inspired” set pieces.

Siva and his sister Swapna are washed up on a beach. Alone in the world, the boy tries to make a living through odd jobbing and petty theft, eventually falling in with a gang. The siblings acquire a new brother, Kalyan, when his mother is killed saving the little girl. Ma put his hand in Siva’s hand and there you go. Adoption formalities completed. The kid who plays little orphan Kalyan is quite terrible at crying.

Thankfully we leap forward in time. Chiranjeevi enters casually taking his leopard for a stroll. After a recruitment process featuring Bob Christo and a pack of goondas he becomes Shankar, the right hand man of crimelord Dada (Satyanarana Kaikala). Dada already has two left hands in flashy dresser Mohan Babu and snake venom imbibing Raghuvaran.

When not preoccupied with his criminal activities, Shankar is also Siva and he is a dance god. Radha plays his love interest with a lot of “I just escaped from a high security psychiatric facility. Don’t you love ruffles?!?” She fantasises her way onto the stage by way of introduction and wears a spectacular array of fug. I think she either has a speech impediment or doesn’t speak Telugu, but all that ‘comedy’ went over my head, especially on fast forward. He signs an autograph on her arm because that’s not unhinged at all. And thus are their formalities completed and she will be his one true love whenever he gets around to it.

Kalyan has grown up to be a droopy looking guy (Kalyan Chakravarthy Nandamuri). Siva pays for him to take an exam or do something and next thing you know, Kali is a wilted figure in khaki. He’s joined the police, all funded by his brother’s secret criminal life. I just can’t warm to either the character or the actor so found my eye-rolling muscles got a workout during his scenes. Siva finally notices that his sister Swapna (Revathy) and Kalyan are quite handsy, and after a few tantrums on all sides he gets them married.

Things seem to be going well until Kali interrupts Siva’s dance class to tell him he is onto a big gang. I love how unconvinced the other guys seem by all the lycra. Then ensues some cat and mouse with the sidekicks setting Siva up and Kali trying to catch him. Siva is stuck in the middle trying to set things right by the victims and keep himself out of his brother’s way and both boys try and hide their dissent from the sister.

Kali confronts Siva with one of the best worst lines “Mr Siva you can break dance but you can’t break my sense”. Swapna and Kali move out, breaking Siva’s brotherly heart. Raghuvaran and Mohan Babu attack villagers who worship Shankar as a god, enraging him and upping the stakes.

Kali has a genius idea – get Swapna to fake her death and Siva will surely return for the funeral. Siva sees through this ruse but unfortunately for all concerned Kali is rubbish at working out drug dosage. Swapna dies just so her brother and husband can have one more big speech moment.

There are two distinct images for Chiranjeevi – the good big bro Siva and the metal studded baddie with leopard. He doesn’t have to do much more than swagger but as always Chiru just lends a little more authenticity to his dialogues than the film may demand. One thing I did see in this film that is usually glossed over was the Megasock. Admittedly they looked more like circulation stockings but it was good to see them out from the shadows of the Megaboots. And when most heroes would hit the bottle and settle for a pity party, Chiru gets his West Side Story on and manages to make it quite something.

And I have a theory about the costumes for this film. I think they drew lots and the actors took it in turns to raid the dress up box.

Chiru looks positively sedate except for the plunging necklines to indicate his Badness, Mahesh looks more like a porn star or maybe they just ran out of shirts, Mohan Babu looks like he is off to guest star in Miami Vice The Musical, and Radha seems to have stolen some of Chiru’s old dance outfits, especially in this song.

Radha’s character has very little to do in terms of the plot, but she sneaks her way into the film through the songs and her character’s robust fantasy life.

This does leave her at the mercy of the wardrobe department but she’s a trooper and doesn’t bat a false eyelash at any of the excesses. Revathy is also short changed and does little but gaze adoringly at her brother and sigh at her husband’s rhetoric.

I spotted the dragon wall decoration again, and suspect someone’s teenage daughter might be missing some kitten posters which turned up in the gang lair.

The action scenes are entertaining and explosive but most lack the manic energy they need to be more than run of the mill. Having said that, Chiru spin kicks and hee-yahs like there is no tomorrow so that was pleasing. I was also impressed by Raghuvaran’s venom based strategy, especially when he licked a horse and it dropped dead. Obviously not a good outcome for the horse, but so much more effective than the usual finicky filmi snake “could bite won’t bite” dithering. I have mild concerns for the leopard but admired her resourcefulness and loyalty. Nagendra Babu features in the build up to the climax confrontation. There are double crosses and gore galore. And the finale is very Die Hard, right down to Chiru’s white singlet.

Lankeswarudu does enough to be worth a watch, but doesn’t rate high on my list of Mega Favourites. See it for fun of spotting references to other films, the unintentional hilarity of the songs picturisations, and of course for Chiru. 3 stars!

Mouna Ragam (1986)

Mouna Ragam

If you’re in the mood for a classic love story with just a touch of mushy sentimentality, you can’t really go past Mouna Ragam. Mani Ratnam’s beautiful 1986 film takes an arranged marriage between a compliant groom and a reluctant bride as the starting point for a look at relationships and how two strangers can learn to live with each other. It’s well worth watching for the excellent performances from the main leads, Mohan, Revathi and Karthik, but also for the simple but effective storyline and wonderful music.

The story follows Divya (Revathi) a fairly happy-go-lucky student whose world is shattered when her family arranges her marriage. The groom is Chandrakumar (Mohan) and even though Divya lists all her worst qualities on their uncomfortable first meeting, Chandra likes her honesty and decides that she will be the perfect wife for him. The opening scenes add to the realistic feel of the film as they illustrate just how young Divya is, playing tricks on her older sister and husband, and showing her simplistic and childish ideas to counteract the unwelcome marriage proposal. However, against all her objections, Divya is pressured into the wedding by that age-old family drama – a threatened heart attack / medical collapse. Divya is just as susceptible as every other film heroine and without further ado her husband whisks her off to a new life in Delhi.

The relationship is shown as difficult right from the start. As Chandrakumar shows Divya around his house in Delhi after the wedding, Divya’s body language makes it obvious that she doesn’t want to be there, while Chandrakumar is clearly feeling the hostile vibes but trying to be as welcoming as possible. This awkwardness seems exactly what I would expect from two strangers suddenly having to live together and Mani Ratnam has captured their uneasiness perfectly. I don’t know, never having been through it, but this seems to be a plausible reaction to the abrupt intimacy between two people who have only just met. It’s thought-provoking and one of the things I love about the film, that just a few moments can invoke such a complicated emotional response from me.

Despite her classy new abode, which is a world away in size and conveniences from her family home, Divya is very unhappy with her marriage. So much so that when asked what she would like most from her new husband, her immediate answer is a divorce. This is a pivotal scene and it’s beautifully played out by Mohan and Revathi. Chandrakumar’s shock and hurt are palpable while Divya appears to be no more than a sulky school girl trying to be as obnoxious as possible.  Needless to say as a rejection it works well, and since she follows it up with more nasty remarks it’s to his credit that Chandrakumar manages to keep his cool. This is the turning point of the film for me with Chandrakumar’s character partly due to his emotional responses (which make me feel sorry for him), and partly because he shows more personality in interactions with his work colleagues. It’s an important change since up until this point he’s fairly bland and unexciting, making Divya’s reluctance to go through with the marriage relatively understandable. But Chandrakumar seems a good catch. He’s got a good job, a nice house and is considerate and understanding, particularly when faced with Divya’s immature taunts. With just a few simple scenes, Mani Ratnam turns the story around, and suddenly it’s Divya’s reactions and inability to make the best of things that become difficult to understand and instead of wanting her to get divorced, I want Divya to fall in love with Chandrakumar and be happy in her marriage.

Eventually Chandrakumar asks Divya exactly why she is so against the idea of their marriage (possibly something he should have done before the wedding), and she tells him about her first love Manohar (Karthik), who was killed just as they were about to get married. The story of Manohar and Divya is told in flashback and although Karthik only has a small role, he’s an excellent romantic partner for Revathi and the two share great chemistry together.  The difference between the two relationships stands out clearly. Divya and Manohar have a light and happy relationship, their scenes together are full of life and there is a sense of energy that is missing between Divya and Chandrakumar. Karthik is very appealing here as the quintessential ‘bad boy’ who is of course not really bad at all. However, while the romance is well told and Divya with Manohar is happier and nicer person, she also seems quite mature, which seems at odds with her juvenile responses to Chandrakumar, and her earlier carefree attitude as a student.

In the face of such strong contempt from Divya, Chandrakumar tries to arrange a divorce, but the law states that the couple has to be together for a year before they can apply. Naturally over this time Divya comes to see the good side of Chandrakumar and slowly develops feelings for him, while Chandrakumar gets a little of his own back by throwing her earlier remarks back at her and ignoring her attempts to be more friendly. This being a Tamil film it’s not guaranteed that there will be a happy ending, and the developing relationship is compelling viewing as the deadline for the divorce looms.

There is so much to enjoy here. Revathi is excellent in her role as Divya and her self-realisation and development of maturity is captivating. Initially she lets her emotions track across her face just like any young girl and her petulance and hostility is perfectly nasty. Just think of how obnoxious any group of schoolgirls can be – that is exactly what Mani Ratnam has captured here. With Divya’s slow acceptance of her husband there is a softening of her expressions, and when the realisation of what she has done sinks in there is maturity in her actions too. However she is still a young girl at heart, as shown by the tricks she plays on the driver Sanjit Singh. I love the way Mani Ratnam emphasizes her isolation by moving the couple to Delhi where Divya cannot understand the language and is confused by the cultural differences. It adds to the problems she has and ensures that she has to resolve her problems by herself. There is no convenient family or friend to help her, although the lack of interference from Chandrakumar’s family is a little surprising.

Mohan is just as good and although his Chandrakumar initially seems too perfect to be true, he becomes more human and therefore more likeable in the second half. He does an excellent job of portraying a ‘nice guy’ and has just the right amount of revenge on Divya without becoming cruel or spiteful. He’s an ideal contrast to the passion of Karthik, and I kept thinking of the old proverb ‘still waters run deep’ when the camera focused on Chandrakumar’s patience and tolerance.

Although the story is nothing new it’s beautifully told using a simple style with well developed characters and situations. As an added bonus the music by Ilaiyaraaja is excellent and this song Nilaave Vaa, sung by SP Balasubrahmanyam is just beautiful.

Mouna Ragam rightly deserves to be called a classic and despite the fact that I know what is going to happen, I get drawn into the story every time. Each character is perfectly drawn, the actors all fit their roles easily and there is none of the overblown melodrama which usually infects similar love stories of the time.  It’s one of my favourite romances, and I thoroughly recommend watching. 5 stars.