“Margarita, With a Straw” is one of the least hand-wringing movies ever made about a character with significant disabilities. Born with cerebral palsy, our heroine here certainly has her physical limitations and related psychological setbacks, but it’s her adventurous spirit (abetted by supportive family and friends) that sets the tone in Shonali Bose’s winning sophomore feature. Like her first, 2005’s “Amu,” this tale is rather Westernized in the telling, with narrative feet planted in both India and the U.S. That factor, good reviews and the pic’s crowdpleasing nature should guide it from a successful festival run to various format sales in numerous offshore territories, with niche theatrical sleeper status possible.
Though her freedom of movement and clarity of speech (subtitled here) are compromised, in most respects Laila (Kalki Koechlin) has a life akin to that of any other well-adjusted, outgoing college kid in Delhi. She still shares a room at home with a younger brother (Malhar Khushu); her middle-class mother (Revathy) and father (Kuljeet Singh) are doting but not overprotective, having clearly raised her to possess the sense of independence needed to mix freely in the world of able-bodied “normal” peers.
A fellow wheelchair-bound classmate, Dhruv (Hussain Dalal), would like them to be more than friends. But Laila sets her sights on Nima (Tenzin Dalha), the charismatic lead singer of the student rock outfit she writes lyrics for. When they win a battle-of-the-bands competition, she throws caution to the wind and makes her feelings known. His polite, embarrassed response is not what she’d hoped, however. Laila’s disabilities have kept her rather naive (not to mention inexperienced) in matters of romance, so she’s crushed by the rejection — so much so that she drops out of school, saying she can’t face going back.
Instead, she decides she’ll continue her writing studies abroad, an idea Dad opposes but Mom encourages. Thanks to a scholarship, mother and daughter are suddenly in Manhattan, where Laila enjoys her new surroundings — not least the very cute English boy (“The Chronicles of Narnia’s” William Moseley) assigned to be her study partner. Then a chance encounter at a street protest introduces her to Khanum (Sayani Gupta), an assertive young blind woman of Indian/Pakistani origin. To her initial surprise, Laila finds herself drawn into a same-sex relationship that swiftly moves from giddy experimentation to live-in commitment.
Striking just the right tone, “Margarita, With a Straw” admirably treats this lesbian relationship as it treats everything else: with a respectful yet light touch that avoids any conspicuous “social issue” soapboxing, being just one more element of personal discovery for a character who’s figuring out her place in the world. The same approach is taken to the general idea of raging hormones in a disabled person (whom much of society would prefer to regard in sexless terms), and to Laila’s assumed vulnerability roaming Manhattan.
The screenplay by Bose and Nilesh Maniyar (who also gets a special “co-director” credit) neatly avoids cliche in making these issues realistically prominent, yet never oppressive. Though she has occasional failures of confidence and resolve, Laila is not defined by her physical limits — her intellect, libido and eagerness to experience new things are more powerful than any preconceived notion of what someone with cerebral palsy can or should do.
The film’s unpredictable progress grows a little less so in the final reel, when a seed planted earlier about one family member’s possible illness sprouts into tearjerking fruition. Its final note is also perhaps a little more throwaway than would would like. But these are minor quibbles; overall, “Margarita, With a Straw” is an unexpected delight of charm and substance.
Performances are strong all around, with multilingual Indian star Koechlin (“Shaitan”) so convincing that those unfamiliar with her work elsewhere may well assume the filmmakers found a suitable actress with cerebral palsy. Design contributions are solidly pro without being conspicuous, a wise choice for a movie that deftly packs in so much story it doesn’t need any distracting stylistic filigree.