5000 Shades of Gray: Shonali Bose on “Margarita, with a Straw”

Kalki Koechlin plays a young woman with cerebral palsy in "Margarita, with a Straw"
Kalki Koechlin plays a young woman with cerebral palsy in "Margarita, with a Straw"

Ten years after her first feature film Amu won acclaim worldwide for being one of the first films to address the 1984 riots in New Delhi against Sikhs, writer-director Shonali Bose is back with a coming-of-age story about a young woman navigating desire, betrayal, and loss. Laila, played deftly by Bollywood actress Kalki Koechlin, is a Delhi University student who moves to New York to escape a crush gone wrong, and get away from a society that isolates disabled people (Laila has cerebral palsy)—only to find out that love and relationships aren’t so simple. Frankly sexual, and filled with both joy and sorrow, Margarita, with a Straw manages to explode the “disability” genre of filmmaking into something entirely new.

Bose has been fluidly moving back and forth between India and the United States for the past nearly 30 years, which allows the film to do the same. I spoke with over Skype about her about her creative process, exposing her own journey with this film, and her excitement to challenge the right wing in India with the release of this film. Margarita, with a Straw is the Centerpiece Presentation at this year’s CAAMFest and will screen on Sunday, March 15 at 7 pm at the Castro Theater. Bose will be in attendance.

—Neelanjana Banerjee

Shonali Bose at press conferenceYour first film, Amu, was inspired by your experiences with communal violence in New Delhi in 1984, and Margarita, with a Straw was inspired by your cousin, who has cerebral palsy. What is your process with putting together a script? Do you start with an idea, a story, an image?
What I’ve noticed about myself is that something has to really grab me in my heart, and it is usually related to some issue that affects society in one way or another. But I don’t like to make a film in which I am standing on a soapbox preaching that issue. My whole thing is to use my art to convert that issue into a story that is emotional and relatable so that people who don’t care about the issue of sexuality or disability— or genocide or communal violence—will be drawn into that. But because I’m the kind of person who really has to care about [the issue] enough—I have to pour myself into it.

With Amu I felt very strongly, because nobody had made a film when I had graduated film school on [the riots of] 1984 and it just impacted me greatly. With Margarita it was a little different. My aunt, my father’s sister, who I am very close to—she started the first Spastic Society of India (spastic is the medical terminology for the muscle conditions of cerebral palsy), now called Adapt, when my cousin Malini was born. She was like: “You’re so useless! What is the point of having a filmmaker in the family if you’re not doing anything on disability.” Malini had just published her first novel called One Little Finger, which she typed with one finger, and so my aunt’s idea was that I would turn her book into a film. But that was not interesting to me. It was like: “Been there, done that.” It was a story of achievement and triumph. You know: you’re disabled, you overcome all odds, you go to England you got a double MA. Meanwhile, my aunt is looking at me with horror. I mean, its great. In real life, I’m [Malini’s] biggest supporter, but for a film, it’s not exploring a new subject. But it did put the idea in my head.

Not related to this conversation with my aunt was a time I stopped in England on my way back to India and saw Malini. She was 39 and turning 40 and I asked her what she wanted for her birthday, and she said: “I want to have sex.” At that time, I didn’t think about making a movie because I was so shocked and taken aback, and I was facetious and said: “It’s not as great as you think. Maybe you should get a vibrator,” because I didn’t know how to handle it. I think this was the real spark of the film for me.

I started to think about putting the idea into a script during the summer of 2010, then soon after that I had this tragedy. [Bose’s 16-year-old son died in an accident.] So then, I started writing the script on my son Ishan’s 17th birthday and I really poured myself into the film and it took a different turn. Then after ten drafts the script went to Sundance Lab as the winner. I was like: “What can they say in the lab? It’s gone through so many drafts. Shabana Azmi loves it, everybody loves it and they are ready to fund it.” And in the lab they were like you are just looking at the character on the surface …

So, you thought that it was just a formality at that point, and you were going to the Sundance Lab and …
They tore it apart! They ripped it apart in a very beautiful, intelligent way that only Sundance is capable of where you just listen with your open heart. Jose Rivera who has a cameo in the film as a writing professor—he’s the writer of The Motorcycle Diaries—was one of the mentors. Guillermo Arriaga, the Amores Perros writer, was one of the mentors. Absolutely amazing mentors. What they said resonated with me. I realized that I was writing about Malini from the outside. With Amu—I am not Sikh. I volunteered in the relief camps after the 1984 riots, but I didn’t write it from that perspective. I put myself in the place of the characters thinking of loss. I had just lost my mother. With Margarita with a Straw, I think at first I was very much writing from the outside of Laila’s character, so when they said that—I got it. I went into a writing cave for a month. I just went and dug deep in and can say that the film is really from my life.

In Margarita, with a Straw, Laila is such a complicated human being. You allow her to make mistakes and have real desires. As a protagonist, she does things that could make her unlikable, which is such a bold move with any female character, much less one with a disability. How did you decide to take such a risk?
Nilesh Maniyar (co-writer) and I knew from the start that we wanted someone who is gray. When you have someone who is disabled, most people think of them as “good”. You tend to tread lightly around them. In film, they are usually put on a pedestal. We wanted the audience to really relate to this person—not just think about the person’s disability. It is about the character’s journey to find love and acceptance. Every single person goes through that. It’s about learning to embrace yourself and facing your own shit. For me, it was really important to make a character who is gray, who is really real.

When I went into that writing cave after Sundance: I realized I needed to put everything messy from my own life into the script, and that is a hard thing to do. I wanted to not only put great and beautiful things. The way one deals with death can be beautiful – that is a different kind of mess. In Amu, I dealt with my mother’s death, and this one I dealt with Ishan’s. But in writing this script, it was all about my own personal growth: I lost my son, but I also I ended my marriage. I realized that I couldn’t fit into this heteronormative box. So, the journey to self-acceptance is all about my own journey. Making Laila so gray was because I am gray.

I was struck by the scene in the film where Laila meets her girlfriend Khanum, which was at a anti-police protest in New York City. This is so relevant with the anti-police protests that have happened in the past months from Ferguson to New York. Where did this idea come from?
I wanted to establish that Khanum is an activist, and as I was writing the script sitting in New Delhi, the Trayvon Martin incident had just happened. Incredibly, since then all these other black boys and men have been killed, like Eric Garner and Mike Brown. If I had been in the US, I would have been out on the streets in LA, but I was in Delhi, and this was my tribute and support for the issue.

What was the casting process like to find the actor who would portray Laila?
As soon as we were ready, Nilesh—who is also the casting director—said I want to show you a picture of who I think Laila is and he showed me a picture of Kalki Koechlin. Usually Kalki looks really glamorous in all of her pictures and films. He showed me a simple picture of her with her hair pulled back and with this beautiful smile. I was like: “Oh wow! This is so adorable.” So before looking at anybody else, I gave her the script and she loved it. I asked her to audition for me, and she totally agreed. I said, all I need to see is if you can give me ten percent, and then you’ll have to train for three to six months. Minimum three months, and she agreed—she was on board for the process. Then a huge Bollywood movie that she was doing with Ranbir Kapoor—Yeh Jawaani Hai Deawanni, which ended up being a huge hit—

it kept getting pushed. She was heartbroken and so was I. I met the director and he was like: “Can’t you do it simultaneously? One day she can shoot mine and then she can shoot yours.” (Bose laughs.) I was like: “No! it’s not that kind of film!” I told him that Kalki has to prepare for three months even before we shoot, and he looked at me in horror. I was planning to move back to the United States, so I wanted to finish the shooting and editing in India so I wouldn’t be in the middle of a transnational move while making this film. So then we auditioned 100 actors, and narrowed it down to two. But then I touched base with Kalki again and we finally agreed to push the shoot. We waited for her for three months. And I had to move countries and edit the film long distance, but it was worth it.

You are getting ready to release the film in India. Are you concerned about backlash due to the frank exploration of sexuality?
I am most excited about my India release! I just want to be here when I have my premieres to see the audience reaction. Aamir Khan—the Brad Pitt of India—released our trailer in a massive press conference recently. The extreme right wing, what are they going to do or not going to do, I’m not so concerned about. But I don’t think we’ll face backlash from the general audience. For example, during the Toronto Film Festival, there were Indian parents who were visiting their children, and their children didn’t want to sit with them because they knew there would be sexual scenes. Then the parents came to me crying and hugged me and they said they had a daughter who had come out to them as gay and they didn’t know how to handle it and it affected their relationship and they are so grateful to this film and now they are going to talk to her. I am confident that this film will affect people who are possibly homophobic, who don’t understand sexuality in this country. I know that Margarita will open up their hearts. We’ve had a few test screenings and we’ve seen that. The extreme right in this country will babble on about anything. I’m actually excited. I’m like: bring it on because we need to address this issue. It’s still technically illegal to be gay so if there is a backlash that will be good because I want to take it on as a fight. The studio doesn’t think there will be a backlash, either. Already the censor board has looked at it and has passed the film. It is an E- certificate, which is the equivalent to NC-17. I thought that they would remove the girls lovemaking scene completely but they didn’t they just wanted certain shots removed. So that’s amazing.

The theme of this year’s festival is Destination: CAAMFest. What are your travel essentials?
I never travel without a book and my music. Just last birthday I was given a Kindle. And I am not a young person, I can’t adjust to technology, so I was always traveling with a heavy book. I am a hardcore member of the public library but I discovered that you can download for free. So, I always have to do that. The day before I am travelling—more than packing, I am browsing the Santa Monica Public Library to see which book I can download, because I feel like in a panic if I don’t have one. And I make sure that I have charged my iPod, because I have to have my music as well.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity and is made possible by Xfinity.

Centerpiece Film: Margarita, With a Straw

Castro Theatre
March 15, 2015 7:00 pm
Buy Tickets

Margarita, With a Straw is preceded by Centerpiece Reception at 6 pm  with special guests Shonali Bose and Spotlight Honoree Arthur Dong.