“Margarita, with a Straw”: dissolving hatred of homosexuals in India

October 24, 2014

Modern India is walking slowly towards a general acceptance of homosexuals and lesbians. Shonali Bose in her new film, “Margarita, With a Straw,” tries to pick up the pace. The film, which premiered and won the NETPAC award at the Toronto Film Festival earlier this year, is about a teenager with cerebral palsy who is unabashed about her sexuality, much to the horror of her middle-class, conservative mother.

Bose, who identifies herself as a bisexual, says the film comes from two personal experiences – that of exploring her own sexuality and the experiences of her cousin, who suffered from cerebral palsy. Bose said she hopes that the film contributes towards the debate over Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code, which forbids homosexual sex, and eventually sexual legitimacy for homosexuals, bisexuals and lesbians.

“I am ready for right-wing protests when my film releases. Bring them on. As long as people can see the film and talk about these issues, I am ready to face it,” she said in an interview.

India’s Supreme Court has refused to decriminalize homosexuality. Last year, it overruled a decision by a lower court to declare sexual intercourse between same-sex partners as legal, saying it was up to the Indian parliament to repeal such a law.

Homosexuality is still considered taboo by most Indians, and that attitude is reflected in the country’s mainstream cinema, which hardly touches on these topics, choosing instead to focus on fluffy comedies and cheesy action flicks.

In “Margarita, With a Straw”, we see the story of Laila, a teenager with cerebral palsy who falls in love with another woman. This, said Bose, represents an attempt to understand the situation from all sides.

“In the film, Laila’s mother has great difficulty coming to terms with her daughter’s sexuality, and when the film screened in Toronto, I had so many Indians coming up to me and telling me they loved it, so I know I have struck a chord somewhere,” said Bose, who worked on the script for two years.

“We always look at the disabled with so much empathy, so hopefully when you are presented with a prickly topic like sexuality from their point of view, audiences might be more accepting than if it was told from the point of view of a normal person,” she said.

In spite of the accolades and a tentative release date set for India early next year, Bose knows her film isn’t for everyone. In the past, the few Indian films that have dared to depict homosexuality without caricaturing it have faced protests and boycotts.

“I don’t know if depiction of bisexuality would be a problem. Hopefully we are at a stage where we accept these things more. We are talking about them. Aamir Khan is talking about them on Satyamev Jayate, so hopefully we should be OK,” said Kalki Koechlin, who plays the lead character of Laila in the film.

Bose said it wasn’t just the release of the film that presented a problem; there were obstacles in making it. Studio Viacom 18 Motion Pictures declined to fully fund the film over concerns about whether Bose would pick a bankable-enough star.

“I was asked which star I would be casting, because that is what sells in India. I took a loan and paid for the film out of my own pocket,” she said. “But now that it is all behind me, I cannot wait for the Indian release. Hopefully, we can contribute to some of the conversation.”

(Editing by Robert MacMillan; Follow Shilpa on Twitter at @shilpajay and Robert @bobbymacReports. This article is website-exclusive and cannot be reproduced without permission)

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