Shonali Bose, writer and director of the acclaimed 2005 film Amu (which powerfully uncovered the brutal realities of 1984) has just completed a new feature film called Margarita, with a Straw. Premiering next week at the Toronto International Film Festival, the film is a coming of age love story about a part-Sikh college student from Delhi named Laila who has cerebral palsy.
Given the popularity of Amu in the Sikh community, I wanted to interview Shonali about her new film, which explores equally important issues to those brought up in Amu—disability and sexuality among them. Read on for the full interview, and check out the trailer here.
What inspired you to make Margarita, with a Straw?
This my second film, which is inspired by my cousin sister Malini who has acute cerebral palsy. That’s a condition where the part of your brain that controls your motor skills is damaged at birth. But your emotional and intellectual abilities are intact. When I was 40 and Malini was 39, I asked her, what are we going to do for your 40th? It’s absolutely the best birthday. Her speech is usually garbled and difficult to understand. But sometimes when she is angry or excited – it comes out crystal clear. This was one of those times. She banged her fist on the table and spoke loud and clear: I just want to have sex by the time I’m 40! I grinned sheepishly and assured her it was not what it was made out to be, etc. But later when I was thinking about what she said, what she so passionately wanted – I realized that I had never thought about her sexuality much. Or maybe I just avoided it as I didn’t know what to do about it. This started me on my journey of Margarita.
As I started exploring my fictional character and her issues, the big question that came up was one of self worth. This is a core issue that everyone faces, whether one is disabled or not. From there it went to a place of finding deep self acceptance and self love.
I loved your first film, Amu, which powerfully highlighted the anti-Sikh pograms of 1984 through the eyes of a young Sikh woman. The main character in your new film is also a Sikh woman. Where does your interest in telling “Sikh stories” come from?
I don’t see them as Sikh stories at all. The 1984 genocide is a watershed in the entire subcontinent. Like Partition. I made a film about it because no one had and it was covered up. And this history had to get out. To me, this is not a Sikh issue. It’s an Indian issue. Thousands of innocent people being killed in the capital city in broad daylight, organized by those in power—30 years later justice still not delivered. Every justice loving Indian—every Indian who cares about right and wrong and about their country—should be as bothered by this issue as those who were made victims. That was the aim of Amu. In fact, the leads are all Bengalis. It’s only in the end that the lead protagonist, raised as a Hindu Bengali, finds out that she is Sikh and wears a kara.
When I was making Amu, the son of one of my investors—Bhajneet Singh Malik—told me that he was bothered by the fact that Sikhs are only shown as victims, terrorists, or buffoons in films. That remark stayed with me. It’s a fact. When I started creating characters for Margarita and was thinking of the father’s role, I thought it would be nice if I made him Sikh. As a tribute to Amu. To the community that has given me so much love and support on my first film. Balraj Kapoor is an ordinary middle class father. He also happens to be Sikh. He had a love marriage and married his college mate who is Maharashtrian. The actor playing this role was actually little Amu’s father who got killed in Amu.
Bhajneet also said that he hated when Sikhs were played by non-Sikhs who put a turban on. So it was very important to me once I made this decision to cast a real Sikh. My lead protagonist in Margarita is the daughter of this man, Laila Kapoor. She is half Punjabi, half Maharashtrian. Half Hindu. Half Sikh.
The main character in the film in bisexual. As we are well aware, homophobia continues to run rampant in India and the diaspora—unfortunately the Sikh community is no exception, even though from a spiritual/religious standpoint, there is no ideology of homophobia. Do you expect the film to ruffle some feathers? Do you think it has the potential to open some otherwise narrow hearts and minds?
Laila is 19 years old and in the film just starts her journey of exploring sexuality. She doesn’t even know or understand what “gay” is. But nor does she have inhibitions or prejudices about it—perhaps because as a disabled girl she has faced so much prejudice and discrimination herself. She is game to explore this new thing and in doing so falls deeply in love with this blind girl. Because she had a huge crush on several boys before that, she then thinks of herself as bisexual.
I didn’t write this as part of the story to deal with this issue or anything. Like the Sikh issue, I wanted to make this a natural organic part of something you are likely to explore as a teenager. Or you may want to but are scared to. Literally while we were shooting, Section 377 (criminalizing gay sex) got upheld by the Supreme Court of India. I am so glad that the story in this film will come out at this time. It will ruffle feathers—and I hope it does! Like Amu did. Ironically by many of the same kind of people.
Do you hope to get support from the Sikh community for Margarita, With a Straw, as you did with Amu? Is it important for Sikhs in India and the diaspora alike to see this film?
I’m actually extremely interested in how the Sikh community will react to it. While I was shooting in New York, someone senior from one of the gurdwaras dropped by the set, hearing that the Amu filmmaker was shooting. While we were chatting I told him that my character was Sikh and she has a relationship with another woman. His response was fascinating. He said, “But there are no gay Sikhs.” He wasn’t angry or anything, just matter of fact. I said, well I beg to disagree but there are. I have friends myself. Plus there must be so many more in the closet with this kind of notion. He said, “No beta there aren’t any, but if there were, no problem! Our scriptures are not against it!”
So then I asked, would he support my film, given that it was on this issue. He said something so beautiful. He said, “Beta, you made Amu. You have our lifelong support in whatever you do.”
This brought tears to my eyes.
I am very interested to see if indeed the Sikh community will come out and support me on this film just because I made Amu. I think this is a very important issue for the community – just as it is in all communities. Homophobia is a curse everywhere and something I want to inspire the young generation to take on and break. It would be fantastic if this film would open up this taboo discussion within the Sikh community.
Where can we expect to see the film in the coming weeks and months? Anything else you’d like readers to know?
The film is having it’s world premier at the Toronto International Film Festival. There are three screenings, and I hope the halls are packed. Following this, we will be in other film festivals around the world. London and Busan are already confirmed, and others will follow. After that we will release nationwide in India in early 2015. I am hoping we are picked up for North American distribution right now at TIFF (and this also will be affected by audience turnout and response). The theatrical release here usually takes at least a year after it is picked up. Inshallah.