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Siraj Syed


Siraj Syed is the India Correspondent for FilmFestivals.com and a member of FIPRESCI, the International Federation of Film Critics. He is a Film Festival Correspondent since 1976, Film-critic since 1969 and a Feature-writer since 1970. He is also an acting and dialogue coach. 

 

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Margarita, With a Straw, Review: Heady Cocktail of Passions Raw

Margarita, With a Straw, Review: Heady Cocktail of Passions Raw

Earlier titled Chhoone Chali Aasman (she’s reaching for the sky), the film settles for an even more abstract title. Margarita, as a drink, might be known only to the club/bar circuit among the upper middle class and upper class of Indian society. Moreover, a large part of the dialogue is in English, often-sub-titled. Then to discover that it is the story of a young woman struck with cerebral palsy, who wants to be a creative writer and to experience love and sex, which will lead her to bisexual experiences in New York and a long-term relationship with a blind lesbian…Conclusion: do not be led, or misled, by a title. Margarita, With a Straw is a powerful, potent portrayal, of two differently-abled women, both brought to life by some of the most exacting acting workshop rigours. The film is compulsively watchable for these two actresses alone. The rest is a bonus, a huge bonus.

The script was inspired by Shonali Bose’s cousin, Malini, who has cerebral palsy. A few years ago when Shonali asked her cousin what she’d like to do for her 40th birthday, Malini’s response was “to have sex”. With this idea, Shonali began working with her associate writer and friend, Nilesh Maniyar, to develop the script. Then Shonali lost her eldest son, Ishan, at the age of 16, and suspended her writing. On Ishan’s 17th birthday, Shonali finally went back to the script. This new draft was selected for the Mumbai Mantra/Sundance Institute Screenwriters Lab, and won the Sundance Institute /Mahindra Global Film-making Award, $10,000. It was also one of the five projects selected at the Work In Progress Lab of Indian Film Bazaar, Goa, 2013.

For too long have many societies denied that along with food, shelter and clothing, sex is a vital necessity. And so what if the person in question is an Indian, a cerebral palsy patient and a woman? After failed attempts in India, Laila (born to a Sikh father and a Maharashtrian mother—ethnicities and the girl’s name worth noting) finds not one but two partners in New York, where she lands up to pursue a course in Creative Writing. One is a feisty girl, Khanum, half Pakistani, half BanglaDeshi (note the deliberate choices of nationalities), who is blind, yet joins a protest against NY police brutalities, where the two meet. Gay passions are inflamed and an affair follows. Then, one day, Laila makes it out with her handsome American helper, who was allotted duties to help her write her projects. Yes, there is bitterness, but just about then, there is a major crisis brewing back home, in India, where the two were supposed to have a vacation.

Shonali Bose received her B.A. from Delhi University and her master's from Columbia, before an M.F.A. at UCLA film school. She made her feature debut as writer-director, Amu (2005), and co-wrote the feature Chittagong (2012). Amu addressed the still sensitive issue of the large-scale anti-Sikh riots post the assassination of India’s late Prime Minister Indira Gandhi in 1984, by her body-guards, who belonged to the Sikh faith. It was a strong film, tenderly narrated, and universally praised.

Margarita, With a Straw, which is written and directed by her, in association with Nilesh Maniyar, tackles taboo subjects and attacks stereo-types time and again. Sex scenes always stop just short of titillation and full exposure, though this could be due to the intervention of the censors. They are erotic while still remaining aesthetic. Sometimes, you do wonder about Laila’s ideal family and her wide-ranging prowess, ranging from computer skills, to song-writing, to operating an amplifier, to showing the middle-finger, to attending anti-police demonstrations, to declaring her love on the spur of the moment, to negotiating with a shop salesman. In cricket terms, this is called over-compensating after bowling a ball that has been hit away. Atika Chauhan’s dialogue goes with the flow, except when she tries to get glib on a few occasions. It’s a good idea to sub-title Laila’s dialogue, which is incomprehensible for the large part, by definition. Technique-wise, there is some repetition.

When it comes to audience sympathy, there will be little to choose from: a victim of cerebral palsy, who cannot move on her own and cannot be understood when she speaks; or a blind girl who travels on her own and speaks very clearly? Kalki Koechlin as Laila has undone all the damage done to her abilities in The Girl in Yellow Boots. This is a bravo performance, and she has booted her image away, remaining awkward, gangling and unintelligible throughout the film. Only, what was the need for a foreign looking girl, who bears no resemblance to the parents or her brother, to play this role?

Here comes little Miss Dynamite! An acting graduate of Film and Television Institute of India (FTII) 2010 , Sayani Gupta was chosen from over a 100 girls to play Khanum. Living-up to that choice, she is indeed one in a hundred. Both Kalki and Sayani went through an 'Intimacy Workshop' with New York-based therapist, Monsoon, so that they could better understand the give-and-take equation in the sexual relationship. And ‘understand’ they did. Here’s one actress who pronounces her words correctly and who has held her own against a strong protagonist.

Revathy is the ever-dependable Revathy, credible, convincing, competent. She makes her role as Shubhangini, Laila’s mother, look like just another day at the office. It can be debated whether her entire track was an after-thought and blended in later, and what exactly was the significance of the scene where she faces the mirror and removes her wig. But none of this detracts from her acting. Kuljeet Singh as her husband underplays almost to a fault. Hussain Dalal, Tenzing Dalha (fellow students in India), Malhar Khushu (Sonu, the younger brother), William Moseley (the NY fling) and Jose Rivera (the lecturer) are around to lend above average support. Shuchi Dwivedi (another Indian fellow-student) strumming the guitar is a sight that’s easy on the eyes.

Shonali begins the film in a well-written text-book style, introducing the Singh family to the audience. And she ends it with an ‘interpret it your way’ open scene, cut twice, but revealing nothing. Is that a hint about a Margarita, With two Straws or Bloody Mary, Without a Straw in the making?

Rating: ***1/2

Trailer: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JDh7n6bte-c

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About Siraj Syed

Syed Siraj
(Siraj Associates)

Siraj Syed is a film-critic since 1970 and a Former President of the Freelance Film Journalists' Combine of India.

He is the India Correspondent of FilmFestivals.com and a member of FIPRESCI, the international Federation of Film Critics, Munich, Germany

Siraj Syed has contributed over 1,015 articles on cinema, international film festivals, conventions, exhibitions, etc., most recently, at IFFI (Goa), MIFF (Mumbai), MFF/MAMI (Mumbai) and CommunicAsia (Singapore). He often edits film festival daily bulletins.

He is also an actor and a dubbing artiste. Further, he has been teaching media, acting and dubbing at over 30 institutes in India and Singapore, since 1984.


Bandra West, Mumbai

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