Nilesh Maniyar and Shonali Bose’s Margarita, with a Straw is a is a game-changer of a film, taking its place as a shining example of intersectionality in queer cinema. With a sharp sense of wit the film follows Laila, a musician and student with cerebral palsy navigating her sexuality and autonomous identity as a young woman. We sat down with Nilesh, the film’s co-director and producer, to discuss to the film, Frameline39 and the long road to funding independent cinema without making compromises.
First off, I’d like to ask about your experience here at Frameline with the film?
Frameline, specifically for me… I can’t speak for Shonali but for me – this is my first LGBT festival ever that I am attending. And just before watching Margarita, I saw a couple of other films, and I get the sense from the programming what an amazing event it is. You know it’s so empowering to have this collectiveness of all these films come together and break so many myths and so many stereotypes in one go. So I am enjoying the spirit of the festival and the city and especially the team and the volunteers. It’s just a different ball of energy from other festivals.
In the Q&A last night you referred to yourself as having an outsider perspective to Shonali’s very personal narrative, herself being bisexual and growing up with a cousin with cerebral palsy. Could you talk a little bit about the back and forth between you two and how the film has evolved from its genesis?
So right at the beginning we started off with a film inspired by Malani because we had funding from some corporation to do a film on cerebral palsy. And then the funding went out the window in one week. We were like, OK, what are we doing here? But we knew that this was a story to be told. So in the beginning it was like a triumph story of a disabled person, but that was not what we wanted to do. We kept discussing it and rewriting it. From an ‘insider/outsider’ perspective, I feel with every story, it’s one thing that it is a personal story and it’s another that you have to put the story through the craft of cinema. I think that’s where we kind of came together. The whole idea we had was it should be personal but at the same time it should be universal. It was as important for me to connect with it as it was for Shonali who knows everything about it. We had to bring it to that point. We are both talking the same language which is the language of others. Because the idea was to present it to an audience who knows nothing about cerebral palsy, who knows nothing about bisexuality or being gay or anything to do with exploring sexuality… this is such a taboo subject back home in India. Forget disabled, forget LGBT community… so-called normal parents and so-called normal kids don’t talk about sexuality within the family. I’m sure it’s not just India…. it’s most of us, irrespective of the country. The idea was to normalize this whole conversation.
On the casting, how did you find your Laila?
When the first draft was over I met Malani who inspired the film, but I knew she couldn’t act in the film. So I just wanted to get rid of the baggage of seeing Malani, because the more I kept her in mind the more I felt that nothing can match her. So I wanted to get an actor’s face to interest me. Kalki is one of the talented actresses from India, although her parents are French she was born and brought up in India. If you see all her films, she’s a brilliant actress, (but) you’d never put an adjective like ‘adorable’, or you know ‘a darling’ or somebody who has that smile in her films. I felt that this could be a challenge for her, but I came across one picture of her which had that smile which almost captured Malani’s energy. I kept that picture with me and we wrote like 40-something drafts of the script, and after that when we finished writing all of it I showed this picture to Shonali and said, just to check with her, “Is this your Laila?” Because this is my Laila. And she just jumped on it, she was like “Let’s send her the script!” So we emailed her the script and in one-and-a-half hours she called back and said I want to do this film. It was so surreal, I’d lived with that image for a while, one-and-a-half years and then suddenly in one-and-a-half hours she’s on board. But Shonali wanted to do an audition, generally established actresses shy away from auditions but here was this sporting Kalki, she said, “Even I want an audition because I’m not sure.” So we put it to an audition and we both just saw the 10% of what we wanted to achieve and we said the remaining 90% is hard work and asked “Would you come into at least three months of work not doing anything else?” She said “I want six months!” We were on the same page, we wanted the same amount of work to be put in.
We did a lot of workshops. Malani opened up her life to Kalki. Kalki would stay with Malani, drink with Malani, Malani would always out-drink Kalki, you know they had fun. Kalki is such an intelligent observer. Then that was not enough to bring out that honest performance and detach yourself from all the rubbish that you do in mainstream cinema of the same reactions, same action, same dialogue delivered all the time… So I got hold of one of the acting teachers I knew who put us in touch with his teacher who was trained in the Grotowski Method and he did a workshop with her for almost a month and a half to bring out that honest performance. I was really shitting in my pants because for a month this man did not teach her about speech, body movements… I was like what the fuck is he doing? He would just do exercises and exercises and I was not getting these exercises but a month later it started changing. I would say the best part was that all our intents were seen, all our energy together. We knew what we wanted and she did it. So I think it was a great team effort.
It definitely shows, the film has a lot of heart. You’ve mentioned the initial corporate funding that fell through. How did you end up getting funding for such a unique film that does, as you say, deal with many issues often considered taboo?
We were the first script from India to get the Sundance Global Filmmaker award for the script in 2012. But just before that we had pitched this film to the studio, the script was very different. They had agreed to fund the whole film. And then we went to Sundance lab and we came out and we thought we already have funding… But the way they just tore the film apart, the way they fucked our happiness with a smile on their faces, it was just beautiful. It was so invaluable for me, just the best experience as a writer I’ve ever had. And the rewriting began and the discussions began again and one thing that we felt we were looking at Laila as a character from the outside, as Malani, as Malani as Malani. And then at some point Sholani made Laila herself. Then something else started coming out, her deep personal experiences started pouring out on paper. And when we ‘d finished writing ten more drafts and were sure that this was the film, we went back to the corporate committee. And they said great script, I think we can give you 50% of the funding. So the script had become much more honest. There was no bisexuality earlier, nobody was having so much sex earlier. So they started feeling a little jittery about it because they were committed to give 50% of the funding, and I’m thankful for that really – normally in India no one would give that much. So what I did was I made sure they would promise that the release would be in India – that’s what mattered the most – and they did. Everybody else I went to in the industry for the rest of the 50% started thinking, “Why did the committee pull out of the other 50% of funds? There must be something fishy…”
And nobody gave me money. We were like… begging, stealing, borrowing, trying to make this film happen. Finally I had to go to my family and asked my uncle who’s now the co-producer of the film, who’s got nothing to do with film. He doesn’t know shit about films. So I thought he was going to ask me the story and he’s not going to give it, but I’ll take a chance. So I went up to him and said, “I’ve been doing this film for three years, can you fund it? It has great prospects internationally blah blah blah…” I sold him everything and he said “Do you believe in the film?”, and I said “Yeah, more than myself.” He said “OK, I’ll give you the money.” So… yeah, that’s how I got all my funding. I think we were just lucky. But the beauty of it was when the film was finished and he saw it… my entire family, who are conservative and have nothing to do with LGBT communities… I don’t even think they know the word LGBT. They came out with tears in their eyes and said, “We are so proud of you.” And that made me feel in that moment that, yes, we are able to make the bridge between somebody who knows and somebody who doesn’t. I’m really glad that my family got involved in terms of funding. Now they feel a sense of ownership to a film like this. That means a lot.
I really loved that the drama in the film emerges not so much from disability or queerness itself, but from the relationships the characters have with one another. Laila isn’t overcoming what makes her different, but rather is finding herself.
The idea was, if you see how we shot the film, sometimes people have told me especially when we were trying to submit the film to festivals and we would get feedback like, “The film is really good, but we don’t see enough India in the film.” You know the Western perspective wants to see, like, poor India. And we don’t see enough wide shots in the film… and the settings in the film. And it was like, but that’s not the film I was trying to make. It was a conscious choice of ours to shoot so many close-ups of Laila because we wanted you to forget her body, you know go inside her mind and feel with that, so the idea was to make the disability… to set it up and then make it invisible. So the character of Jared for example, the idea was to provide a lens to the world to look at a disabled person sexually. To make that line blur out there, the idea behind making Khanum blind was to understand how it doesn’t take eyes to see what you should really see, you know? And sometimes it’s only when you close your eyes that you see the world better. So those kind of metaphors were kind of toying in ours heads when we were writing these characters.
And overall as a narrative I felt with Laila the whole concept was to make it like a travelogue. Even though the film is not like a road trip, in my head I was writing it with the analogy of a road trip where you give Laila everything that the world possibly doesn’t give to a disabled person all the time. You make her a rock star, you make her a writer, give her friends, give her a boyfriend, give her a girlfriend, if that doesn’t work give another boyfriend, make her go to America – like the dream country for every Indian – and go study, give her everything and then take one thing away from her and then ask her “Are you happy?”, and how she deals with it is what we wanted to portray, because I remember when Shonali lost her son Ishan, how she dealt with death. For Shonali, essentially when she was 21 she lost her mother, and when she was a mother she lost her son. So life kind of came full circle for her. And the way she understood death and the way she always says that we should not only celebrate birth but celebrate death as well. Because they are both such important events in our lives and they both are kind of meant to be. So we wanted to bring out this sense of celebration and taking life forward from death as well. Those kind of ideas, philosophical thoughts, a sense of life is what we tried to bring about through these characters and not make it about disability.
It was really refreshing to see light-hearted moments in the film that do deal with physical realities of disability, for example when Laila yelps with joy after talking to a boy she likes online and falls off her chair. It is so rare to see a playful representation of disability on screen rather than one that pathologizes disability or intends to evoke pity.
Yeah, in fact the Indian cut has like six to seven more scenes than in the West because the West sometimes don’t get some of the humour, some of the jokes when we were doing our test screenings. So in fact Laila is such a bold character, for Indian audiences there’s a scene where she goes to a vibrator shop to get a vibrator, she is not shying away. She is with a friend buying a vibrator and the friend is like “Hmm, I don’t know how to tell him, I don’t know how to ask him.” And Laila is the one like “You know what, do you have a vibrator?’ So she is quite forthcoming, she is confident but there is one thing, called external affirmation that makes all of us weak. That thing, that stamp you want from the outside world is what makes all of us the same and makes all of us weak. And Laila is just one among us. Apart from that I feel Laila is a force, she does things like superman, who the fuck can do these kinds of things at such pace of life? I don’t know.
It seems painfully obvious but it is still rarely seen, that people are disabled but aren’t solely defined by their disability. Probably my favourite scene in the film is when Laila flips the bird to the band competition host after she announces Laila’s band’s win, an award she had to give to her a disabled girl “who had been through so much.” This felt like a really great example of pinpointing not the usual overt kind of hostile prejudice, but the more pervasive condescension that people with disabilities experience.
Absolutely, that scene particularly symbolises what we as society generally feel proud about, I think we feel good by saying… “Oh, I spent one day with that girl,” you know, and feeling good that I did my bit. Nobody is begging you for your time! We just want to feel equal, to be counted. So at the time when we released the film in India I said I’m not going to do any charity screenings. You guys are going to come to the box office, pay money, make yourself count. So that was also a conscious decision in that sense. We did not do a single charity screening. The idea was not to treat any human being as charity.
People with disabilities are so often desexualized and infantilized on screen or on the other extreme they are fetishized in pornography. Could you reflect on the development of the sex scenes in the film? They felt really restrained without being chaste. I particularly enjoyed the lack of music that made them feel a lot more organic and present.
We were shit scared about how to do this. Shonali as has never done this before, she was like “Oh my God, I don’t know how I’m going to do this.” So it was a conscious choice to use a DOP who is also female, Anne Misaba. I mean I’m not trying to infantilize her work, she is beautiful, you should see her film Treeless Mountain, which we saw and saw the beautiful close-ups that she shot and I think she brings a lot to the table also through her work, through her camera movements and how she tracked Laila’s face… I think nobody else could have done that job. But to have a female DOP, two female actresses and a female director kind of helped a lot. So I was in the corner on the monitor while these women were at work and the set was locked down. So those kind of things we had to do, these are just logistical things but apart from that there was a woman who was called in to do something called an ‘intimacy workshop’. It’s not easy to do sex scenes on screen which reflects some kind of chemistry and are not just mechanical. The intent was clear, we were not just trying to portray sex, we were trying to portray the sense of aspiration, the sense of need, the sense of wanting to be with somebody, the sense of affirmation from the other body. That was what we were trying to do. Not just say this is how sex happens.
She came in and Shonali and her did some intimacy workshops between the two girls and Shonali was very clear right from the beginning that she wanted to do it all in close-ups and not try to make it wide. At the same time, I was sure that I wanted to make sure that there was a kind of wider shot approach, and a colder approach, to Jared and Laila’s lovemaking scenes. And that’s what makes them two different things. This is a very intimate emotion, or sensual experience for Laila to be with Khanum. At the same time with Jared it’s just about “I want to know if this can happen or not. I want to know if I can have a guy or not.” It was very, in Laila’s head it’s like knowing the possibilities. And there it was like she forgot everything and she just went with the flow and she was just in the moment. Making those two scenes different in terms of experience was important.
In regards to the portrayal of both India and the West within the film, often in a lot of films about the queer diaspora there is a presentation of the West as a safe haven. I thought it was fantastic that in Margarita there is a return to India, and it doesn’t suggest that her sexuality can only exist in this ‘third space’ of the US.
While writing, the important thing in sending Laila off to New York was that we wanted her to fly out of her nest. Out of her comfort zone, out of her mother’s cocoon. And I could have sent her to any other city in India also. The thing is in India, while I did not want to make the film in terms of east versus west, but it is a fact that there are no independent living centres in India for the disabled. She could not have gone to Bangalor and just stayed on without her mother. So her life in India is pretty much in the van, going to school, in the house – van, school, house – like that. Because she doesn’t get to go out on a wheelchair. In New York she can. So I wanted her to fly out on her own you know, where her mother can also feel safe that she will be fine on her own, that she will have a caretaker coming in twice a day. I wanted her to have her own space, so that is why she came to the West, not to have sex. And that just happens. The idea was very clear that we do not want to reflect “Oh, this is what happens in the East” and “this is what happens in the West.” But a kind of merging of the whole and making it about the journey and the flight rather than things you can do here and things you can’t do here.
The film has a lot of fluidity of communication forms, it seamlessly shifts between Hindi and English, Facebook, Skype, text message and even unspoken scenes such as the sequence in which Laila and her mother share a tender moment singing together. All these different modes of communication feel like a really interesting demonstration of the malleable ways people can exist together.
You know it is interesting you say that because just a few days back I was kind of introspecting about life and wondering how when a disabled person can’t jump out and go everywhere they want to, what social media has done has crippled not-so-disabled people and made them sit in their chairs and be on social media most of the time. And I see the disabled person at the other end smiling, being on Facebook, like ‘now you are sitting in a chair’, you know what I mean? Social media has done a good job of bringing us all together. Social media kind of plays a huge tool in the life of not just a disabled person but in the life of a so-called normal person too. So it was important to reflect that, that becomes her tool to have access to the world when she can’t step out. So she’s still connected, and that’s our lives today. If it was a period from twenty years ago it would have been different.
And to finish off, what’s next for the film?
This film is possibly in its 55th film festival right now and it has already had its five-week theatrical run in India. It’s going to release in Japan in October. And then after it’s going to release in South Korea, Spain and Mexico. And hopefully in the United States. We are looking forward to the next six months of just travelling to festivals, I’ve taken time off to do that because it’s so refreshing and encouraging and I’m trying to get that sense of having done something through meeting audiences in different countries, getting different reactions. The interesting thing about traveling to festivals is that I’ve realized that reactions are not changing, they are all the same. So I find that amazing, that a person in South Korea feels the same way a person feels in States, or a person feeling the same way in Estonia. This was my first time travelling to film festivals and it’s giving me a kind of courage that the language of cinema can bind us all. So I’m getting to experience that.
Thank you so much for your time!