I am writing this article as Margarita, with a Straw continues its theatrical run in India entering its fourth week. A research agency called Ormax – hired by all studios before a film’s release to gauge how much to spend on marketing – predicted that the film would fail after it’s opening weekend and be removed from theaters on the first Monday! Far from that, the film ran houseful even on weeknights all across the country. The response has been heartwarming and uplifting. And has taken everyone by surprise. I would like to dwell on some of the responses I got which have really blown me away. And more than deliver on my expectation on the conversations the film could lead to.
My cousin Malini is one year younger than me and was born with acute cerebral palsy. Meaning her motor skills are affected but not her intellectual or emotional ones. In her book, One Little Finger she writes how family members and caregivers are the most guilty of neglecting the sexual desires of the disabled. Where the larger society is concerned, the disabled are looked at as asexual beings – unattractive to the extent that we want to turn our eyes away filled with at best pity at worst revulsion. The lack of access and mobility keeps them hidden from our eyes in India and they remain the “other” even though they are 8% of the entire population, which adds up to a whopping 10 crore people!
In making a film exploring this theme, my fear was that older Indians, and especially parents of the disabled would be disturbed by the film and reject it. Their response has been the biggest eye opener for me and blown away my own assumptions. I have received mail from many parents and family members and also met many at almost every screening of the film in the world. They have held me in their arms with tears. It is best captured by my experience at the Toronto Film Festival. An Indian man in his mid sixties was visiting family and came to the world premier. Later after everyone had left he asked if he could speak with me privately. He then unburdened his heart about his 24-year-old autistic son. He wanted my advice on whether it was his responsibility to find a sexual partner for him and how he should go about this. His question and honesty were the last things I expected to hear from an Indian parent. I was so moved. At the New York premier a few days ago, a fellow Indian director revealed to me that when his teenage son, afflicted with Down’s Syndrome, started masturbating they were thrown as parents and didn’t know where to turn and decided to drug him. Seeing Margarita made it possible for him to open up and have a conversation.
The only negative response I heard on the subject was from one a TV actress who wrote me an Open Letter on Twitter slamming the film. She asked me if I would take responsibility if a disabled person was molested or raped since I was showing that they were interested in sex (and capable of having it) and so setting them up as easy targets. This is the same age old argument that women have faced. That it is our fault if we are molested or raped because of how we dress, behave and, god forbid, express lust! We are all sexual beings and sexuality is an integral part of who we are. And we’re brought up rigidly to suppress it; to have a poor body image and low self esteem; to not be our fully embodied selves. And that’s why the end point of the film is that Laila, feeling like a goddess, goes on a date with herself. It’s not that I am trying to give a message against relationships. But what is important is really being able to first truly love and accept and embrace ourselves and our bodies. I am thrilled that this has gone down fantastically with audiences.
The other really important conversation I expected and wanted to have with the film was on sexual orientation. Again my preconceived notions and expectations were blown apart. I was expecting that the gay lovemaking scene would be censored and cut out and that conservative elements in India would attack the film. It was not just an enormous relief but unbelievable that the Censor Board cleared this film with only one 8 second cut and that too from the heterosexual sex scene. Not a single frame of the gay lovemaking scene was touched.
On Margarita’s opening weekend, I bought a ticket and anonymously sat in a houseful theatre in Mumbai watching the film with the public. The studio was extremely worried about my doing this as we were unsure of how the audience would react. I could get shoes thrown at me! But I had done the same thing for Amu – introducing myself and meeting audiences in theaters, and I wasn’t about to chicken out now. The intermission of the film comes just after the gay lovemaking scene. The audience were a mixed crowd of old and young people. Couples, families, friends. They watched it in the same way as film festival audiences have around the world – in pin drop silence. I was so moved and so elated. I stood up as soon as the intermission card came on and announced who I was. There was a delighted cheer that went through the theatre and I got a standing ovation!
The one conversation that didn’t take place and happens at all my Q&As because I bring it up is of death, loss and the acceptance of it.
I made this film from a deeply personal place – the loss of my child Ishan. I started writing it 4 months after his death – on his 17th birthday. That night I picked up a pen and started writing the very first draft. And throughout the five years of making this film I have been able to remain my authentic self. The mantra you are taught is “to move on” and throw yourself into your work. Be brave you are told which means – bury the pain and carry on with life. What I learnt with Ishan’s death is that courage is to embrace the pain. And so I wrote and directed and produced from this soft tender place of pain. I howled on set at times with a 100 people crew standing around. But it didn’t make me weak, or make me lose face, or make me lose focus and concentration. In fact not only did I feel stronger at my ability to be my full emotional self as a woman and as a mother but my craft as a filmmaker also improved. I hope you will think about this before you sleep or when you have a quiet moment. Or perhaps when you sip a margarita – with or without a straw.
Shonali Bose is the director of Margarita, With a Straw (2015). Her first film was Amu, on the 1984 Sikh massacre. Her email address is firstname.lastname@example.org and she welcomes comments and discussion.