Margarita, With A Straw is a fun teenage love story with a difference – Shonali Bose
Shonali Bose is not merely a filmmaker by profession but a person who is deeply rooted in the stories that she showcases to the world. In a freewheeling conversation, she takes us through the journey of Margarita With A Straw and tells us why it’s a delightful story and not a pitiful one.
Margarita, With A Straw (MWAS) is inspired by your cousin. What was it about her that drew you to make a film?
I grew up with my cousin, Malini, who is only a year younger to me. Even after becoming a filmmaker, making a film around Malini never consciously crossed my mind. But at one point, when I saw her in London doing things all by herself, I was so struck by it that I thought about doing a personal documentary as Malini’s sister following her around. But the key thing that made me think of it as a narrative film was when she made a particular remark to me on her 40th birthday. I asked her what she wanted for her birthday and she said, “I just want to have sex”. And that remark really hit me. When we were teenagers I kept thinking about the fact that Malini wanted a boyfriend but she couldn’t have one. So I myself never dated anybody while we were in high school because I knew that it would break her heart.
When she made that remark 20 years later, I had not thought about it in a long time. The act of sex is an experience that we take for granted, it’s a basic thing that she is denied. And that was when I thought, ‘Wow, nobody has explored this in cinema.’ I knew that it’s not documentary material. I wanted the character, a teenager who actually goes through the entire experience, has a love affair and so on. So it had to be a narrative film. And that excited me cinematically.
Once my aunt told me, what’s the point of having a filmmaker in the family when you’re not talking about the issue of cerebral palsy. But that was a very ‘been there done that’ subject for me. Even though India may not have a film on the subject, internationally you have a lovely film, My Left Foot, so as a world filmmaker the idea didn’t excite me. Malini overcoming all odds to write a book – ‘One Little Finger’ (She wrote the book over the course of two years by typing with only her little finger) is an amazing human story but I didn’t want to make a film on it. But this angle of her sexual needs, which is so taboo, so painful yet interesting, completely drew me. I spoke to many people who are disabled and discovered that this isn’t something that they can talk about in India. Just the fact that they get an education or get cared for is a big thing. But the question that they should have a lover, go on a date or get married is something that people don’t want to deal with. So it became all the more interesting and important to me.
Was it an emotionally challenging ride, since the subject is so close to you?
It wasn’t emotionally challenging because it revolved around cerebral palsy or Malini. I started thinking about this subject around the summer of 2010 and was discussing it with Nilesh Maniyar, who ended up co-writing and co-directing the film with me. And in September 2010, I lost my son. Then everything became emotional for a different reason. I made MWAS at the same time as I was walking the path of grief. And I didn’t separate the two. I am a mother who has lost her child and I am continuing to live on this earth. I am not going to bury that and be brave. In that sense it was very emotional to shoot this film. One minute I would burst into tears and the next minute I would continue to direct.
Crying is looked at as a sign of weakness and it’s said that people won’t take you seriously, so you need to be this strict authoritative person. But this is how I lived the last four years and I chose to do that. I lost my mother at the very young age of 21. And at that time, I buried it down, it was too painful to handle. But now, this is me; I refuse to keep it away. It’s not an easy thing because human beings are uncomfortable with death. When somebody dies there is a period of mourning and then you are expected to move on. But there is no such thing as moving on. You have to learn to embrace your pain; only when you embrace it can you transcend it. The enlightenment in MWAS is coming from this place of grief. As soon as you watch the film you can put these two things together and will understand what I mean.
I don’t feel emotional about cerebral palsy; in fact we grew up feeling militant about it. As children also we never pitied Malini, never went with the approach that she is different from us. In fact I’ll stand on the street and fight about it. When we were 16 we had gone to a disco in Bombay and they said that Malini couldn’t be on the dance floor with crutches. We were in a corner of the floor yet they made a big hue and cry about it. So I removed the crutches and held her in my arms and danced with her. And I challenged them to carry her and me off the floor. I made this huge scene and I was just 16. I have been militant about cerebral palsy, about their rights, I don’t look at it with pity. Even Malini doesn’t feel sorry for herself.
You seem to have an affinity for challenging subjects. How do you prepare yourself to deal with the complexities?
Why do I take difficult things? With Amu, nobody had made a film on the 1984 genocide and it grabbed me. It was hugely covered up by the Congress Party in power so I had to do it carefully and nobody wanted to fund it, it was a huge challenge. In fact when we were shooting in Delhi, Jagdish Tytler, sent a threat, asking me to stop shooting right away. I was shooting in the slums in Sanjay Nagar and had become close with the people there. I requested 100 people from those slums to come with sticks and form a ring around my set. So if any goons were to come, I had my own people. I said I will defend my set, I will not get scared.
When I finished Amu I said I wouldn’t make another difficult film because you can’t get funding. That struggle to beg and not be able to get funds, is really hard. Now with MWAS too, it just grabbed me. In fact I would have got all the funding had I not made a gay character in the film. But the moment I did that, then it was gay and disabled and I lost half the money. So dealing with the subjects is not complex, it just comes down to funding issues that any independent film faces.
Did the Sundance Institute’s Mahindra Global Filmmaking Award give an impetus to the making of the film?
Not at all. I got Viacom to give me half the money and asked Mahindra Institute if they could provide the other half. We were after all the first winners from India to get the Sundance Mahindra Filmmaking Award. And my question was, “Wouldn’t you want this film to get made? But they only didn’t help, let alone anybody else. I had got two National Awards for Amu but none of it helps.
How did you foresee the look and feel of the film? Any specific reason for choosing an international cinematographer?
I wanted an Indian cinematographer but unfortunately fixe-six of the DOPs that I really wanted, including Rajeev Ravi were not available in our dates. I finally started asking people suggestions from anywhere and someone suggested Anne (Misawa). I saw her film, Treeless Mountain, that has been shot in extreme close up and I knew instinctively that this is the right visual language for our film too. With Kalki’s performance as Laila, her expressions, her feelings, everything is in her face. Also for a person who has cerebral palsy in India, she is so trapped; it’s just about her home, her car and her college. So we wanted tight shots to stay true to what the character is experiencing. And then in New York, we open up the visuals because there she can go anywhere, all by herself on her electric wheelchair. Her life opens up and you get to experience the freedom. And I saw that with Malini. She is so trapped when in India because she can’t go out by herself and is always dependent on somebody. But I remember seeing her in London, going to a crowded bus stop, getting on the bus and going to shop, all by herself. I was just amazed at that. So our visual choices were made basis all this.
Tell us about the casting process, how did Kalki and Revathi come on board? Did you consider anyone else for these roles as well?
Kalki was the first choice for the role. Nilesh, who is also the Casting Director always had Kalki’s face in mind as he had loved her smile in a picture that he had seen. When we finished the initial set of drafts, and were ready to start casting he showed me that picture of Kalki. And I went, “Wow, that is so Laila”. But then we thought that it’s a Hindi film and Kalki won’t sound authentic due to her accent. We thought some more and realized that the character communicates in garble language, so we can pull it off. And we have subtitled Laila’s garbled speech so it was perfect. I gave Kalki the script and she immediately agreed to do it. Though I’d loved her in her previous film, I wanted her to audition. And she herself wanted to audition as she was terrified and asked for two weeks to prepare. We gave her some videos of people with cerebral palsy and she did her own research and showed me that ‘jhalak’ of Laila that I wanted to see.
Around six weeks into it, she told us that her film Yeh Jawaani Hai Deewani had got pushed by three months. But we couldn’t wait that long. And at that point we had not tested a single other person. We auditioned over a 100 actors after that, anybody who could have looked 19, famous or not. Only two of them came close to Kalki. One of them didn’t quite have the character of Laila in her. The other one did, and I told her that she would have to work dedicatedly for 3 months and not do anything else. Kalki was willing to do six months if needed. But this girl didn’t understand the dedication needed, so we had to part ways. We went back to Kalki, waited for 3 months and she did a brilliant job.
For the mother’s role, we had first cast Sarika because we wanted to physically match the mother and daughter. When you put their photographs together you can say that they are mother-daughter. Sarika is a brilliant actor and was excited to do the film. But when we shifted the shoot by 3 months, she was doing another big film so couldn’t continue. Then we thought of Revathi. She doesn’t look like Laila at all but when put together, they had an amazing chemistry. And it was this chemistry that said they are mother-daughter. And Revathi had the same response as Kalki, she read the script and wanted to do it. She had played the mother of a child with cerebral palsy in Anjali and was glad to play the mother of a grown up person now.
How did your association with co-director Nilesh Maniyar happen?
Nilesh had seen Amu when he was in engineering college and it helped him make the decision to become a filmmaker. Many years later he was working under Honey Trehan, who was doing the casting for Chittagong, that I had co-produced and co-written. Honey put Nilesh in charge of the casting for the film. When Nilesh met me to go over the casting, he said, “Ma’am I just want to tell you that you’re a big inspiration and the reason I came into filmmaking.” And I was touched. While shooting in Bengal we wanted somebody to be Bedo’s (Director Bedabrato Pain) assistant. I called Nilesh because I found that he really got the script and was very talented. Following that we had some assistant director crisis and I had to take over as first AD. I got him to be an AD with me in addition to assisting Bedo. I found that Nilesh and I gelled creatively. Some time passed and I met him in Delhi and told him about the idea of this film. He wasn’t aware about cerebral palsy but wanted to become my associate, as it would be a big learning for him. So he came on as an Associate Writer on the script. And he went through this whole journey with me, when I lost my son, my marriage ended and I moved to India. He used to be an Associate Director but I found that he was like my equal on the set. So when it came to writing the credits, I told him there’s no doubt that he’s a Co-Director. The film wouldn’t have been what it is without Nilesh’s inputs.
The film had to go through some cuts at the Censor Board but the Revising committee passed it with one minor cut. What are your views on this?
Initially the original Censor Board wanted around 15 – 20 changes, but the entire process is pretty fascinating wherein you get to argue each change. They have a list of words that can’t be used, including ‘fuck’. Our film has a slogan, ‘No Justice No Peace, Fuck the Police’. So I explained to them that it’s a well-known slogan in America and removing ‘Fuck’ would lose the entire impact. And they allowed to keep it. Another example is the heterosexual sex scene, which they wanted to completely remove. I explained to them that it’s very important to dispel the myths around people having cerebral palsy. Though the story is based on my own sister, I had to do a lot of research around this scene. She had never had sex so I had to speak to other people with cerebral palsy.
One of the girls I knew just got married and I had to actually discuss the mechanics of having sex because of the way the body becomes in cerebral palsy. Since I was shooting a scene like that, I had to educate my own self. I had grown up with this girl so I blatantly asked her ‘Can you’ll have sex in the straightforward way, like any other person’. And she said, ‘Yes, Absolutely’. I explained this to the board, that it’s such an important thing to show this act because people would think that someone with cerebral palsy couldn’t have sex. The Board allowed it then, without cuts. But there were certain other things, which were ridiculous, like a scene where Kalki shows her middle finger and my argument was, it’s an ‘A’ certificate film and you’re not letting my protagonist show the middle finger? It’s a very important part of her rebellion. Luckily when the film went to the Revising Committee they cleared everything except the heterosexual sex scene, where they removed 8 secs. This was the same scene that the original Board had cleared without cuts. But this one cut (8 secs) doesn’t even matter and I’m thrilled about the final outcome. In fact the Revising Committee came out glowing and were full of praise for the film.
One reason why audiences should watch the film.
It’s a fun teenage love story with a difference. It’s fun because it’s about a teenager who is in love, the only difference is that she’s in a wheelchair. It’s an entertaining film with five lovely songs. When you start watching it you really feel like it’s your own story or if you’re older, you’ll remember your younger days. In that sense it’s very mainstream and commercial. Watch the film to go on that joyride and give yourself up to a film that will grit you and take you through deep emotions.