Kalki Koechlin has announced herself as one of India's finest actresses with a brilliant performance as an aspiring songwriter afflicted by cerebral palsy in Shonali Bose's excellent film Margarita, with a Straw, an Indian movie that had its world premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival in the Contemporary World Cinema category.
The story follows Laila (Koechlin), a student who writes lyrics for an Indie band at her New Delhi university. She lives life to the full and her only obstacles seem to be the prejudices of others, such as when she is given a prize at school and the teacher freely admits that she took into consideration her disability when awarding it. But Laila remains happy-go-lucky and wins a college scholarship to New York, travelling to the United States with her mother (Revathy).
Laila’s attitude and desire to make the most of life is reflected by the filmmaker. She began writing the script under awful circumstances – on what would have been the 17th birthday of her son, four months after he lost his life in a tragic accident.
“I’m not embarrassed about my grief,” says Bose. “I just share it with everybody and have everybody share it with me, so that’s totally cool. It happened unexpectedly. I was 45. It’s his death that ultimately took me to the ultimate place of fully feeling and now I deeply love and accept myself. He gifted me that with his death somehow. Laila is searching and doesn’t love and accept herself, she is looking for external love, affirmation from others.”
Laila is loosely based on the director’s cousin Malini, who suffers from cerebral palsy and to whom the film is dedicated. It was a conversation with her cousin that gave Bose the idea to make a film about a girl looking for fulfilment.
But although Bose introduced Koechlin to her cousin, she did not try to copy her life in the film.
“I didn’t work with her at all, I just grew up with her. She wasn’t there on set,” she says. “I just gave access to her to hang out with her. I was living in Delhi at the time. I just introduced them so that they could be together. But I’ve grown up with her, I know her inside-out, so I didn’t need to spend a second with her.”
At first Koechlin – who is known for choosing to star in offbeat, critically acclaimed films such as Dev D (2009) and That Girl in Yellow Boots (2010), was wary of taking the part.
“I was really scared of doing it, I was very nervous about it,” says the 30-year-old actress. “I think I needed more convincing. At the beginning, I was like, I need at least six months of training for this or I can’t possibly do it. I was scared, but of course it’s a mixed thing where, as an actor, why I act is because it’s so exciting to push through those boundaries of where you can go as a human being.”
As well as meeting Malini, Koechlin also visited others suffering from motor-neuron diseases.
“If someone is in a wheelchair, it’s going to affect a lot of things in their life. The way you think about something is going to affect the way you speak, so all of that is really interesting to me. And in this case, I mean, it goes further than that. I had to get the disability right, physically, which meant working with people who have cerebral palsy.”
The result is quite brilliant on screen. Yet, like in My Left Foot (1989) and The Diving Bell and the Butterfly (2007), performances that inspired Koechlin, the part isn't only about the disability.
“For me, one of the reasons that I did the film was that, even if you took cerebral palsy out of the equation, the film still works on its own. It’s not about pitying someone who is disabled. It’s about someone finding themselves,” says Koechlin.
Another thing she was glad about was that the film opened her up to Adapt, a charity that helps with India's disabled population – Malini is on the board of the organisation. When Bose was struggling to finance the film, Adapt came out in support. It's a good thing they did, because the results are compelling. Margarita, with a Straw is due out in India next year.