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From Shared Dreams of Music to Hot Showers: Motherhood and Changing Roles in ‘Margarita With A Straw’

By Gayatri Aich and Joy Chakraborty

Motherhood has been portrayed, over the decades, in Indian cinema but has somewhat remained an area that fails to explore the grays that the role of a mother presents itself with. Popular Indian cinema has given the ‘good’ mother-figure an imagery that combines sacrifices, excellence within the walls of a kitchen, and an immense amount of kindness. As Bollywood has portrayed with significant music and evergreen dialogues in multiple films, a ‘good’ mother is selfless and protective of her child. However, it is important to note that there is a lack of representation of the ‘mother’ when we look closer into the reality that we live in – the reality that consists of people who belong to diverse communities. This paper would try to analyze motherhood and the act of ‘care-giving’ as it has been portrayed in Margarita With A Straw. Directed by Shonali Bose, Margarita With A Straw (2014) is a film that centers around Laila, a teenager with cerebral palsy who struggles in her everyday life to be treated as “normal”, and in the process explores her sexual identity. Margarita With A Straw begins with an opening scene where Laila’s mother makes a smoothie for her daughter, and drives her off to the college. The relationship that Laila shares with her mother deals with shifts as Laila begins to try and understand the intersections of her identity as a bisexual differently-abled woman. Domenica Luvera DelPrete writes,

As its own micro institution, the family provides the day-to-day context in which roles and relationships are repeatedly (re)established, reinforced, and (re)negotiated. Consequently, parent-child interaction becomes a fertile site for exploring moments of conflict and resistance, as well as nurture and comfort. In no other parent-child- configuration are such moments prominently displayed as in the interaction between mothers and daughters – deemed one of the most conflictive, complex, and connective familial relationships. Despite ample interdisciplinary research on the maternal figure and the mother-daughter relationship, there is a paucity of studies analyzing the discourse of mothers and adolescent daughters in everyday interaction. (1)

Throughout the film, the role of caregiver becomes dynamic in various manifestations. Laila’s mother is the one who, despite her father’s reluctance, insists on her going to New York. As Susan Wendell writes,

The realization that ‘autonomy’ and ‘independence’ are unattainable goals for some people, even when they are defined in ways that take some kinds of disability into account, calls into question the value of these in any scheme of virtues and moral goals. Should a society have ethical ideals that are universally applied but which some people are precluded from attaining because they have certain kinds of bodies? (149)

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Still from Margarita With A Straw (IMDb Photo Gallery, 2014)

In Laila, Revathy carries all her dreams toward fruition. Revathy not only appoints someone to take constant care of her daughter, she makes sure Laila gets the care she is usually accustomed with. The everlasting conflict between Laila’s physical disadvantages and her emotional turmoil puts her in a position that compels her to seek freedom from an environment where she needs constant vigilance, utmost care and an enclosed space full of her own shortcomings. Throughout the entire film, the camera never moves above Laila’s eye-level except for the scene when Revathy takes her wig off and breaks down in front of a mirror. As cinematic conventions have dictated the narrative perception of the audience, this static use of camera angle reveals the filmmaker’s empathy and intention to see the world through Laila’s eyes. By equating the audience’s viewpoint with Laila’s, the director attempts to do away with the ‘otherization’ of her protagonist and thereby establishing the main focus of the narrative. At the same time, breaking that convention in a moment of weakness gives her mother’s character a new dimension, and questions the role of the sole care-giver in a patriarchal framework.

In the beginning of the film when Laila and her mother are located in the city of Delhi, there is a contrast of ‘comfort’ and ‘discomfort’ that is portrayed when Laila is dropped off at her college by her mother, but then has to be carried up the stairs by men due to the dysfunctionality of an elevator. The camera focuses on the discomfort on Laila’s face while being carried by the men, and with this, Margarita With A Straw also throws light on the reality of educational institutions in India that fail to accommodate differently-abled students, thus limiting their intellectual growth. Looking seven years prior to when Margarita With A Straw was released is Taare Zameen Par (2007) directed by Aamir Khan and Amole Gupte, which raises very pertinent questions on the absence of inclusivity (or lack thereof) in Indian educational institutions. Laila sings while her mother rehearses music at their home, which is a beautiful representation of the ‘comfort zone’ that her mother creates for Laila. Similarly, Ishaan in Taare Zameen Par shares a bond with his mother where she loves and accepts him despite her difficulty in understanding her own child.

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Still from Margarita With A Straw (Watermark Online, 2015)

As the shifts and reversal of roles between Laila and her mother are reflected in Margarita With A Straw, another important question that strikes up is that of codependency in mother-daughter relationships. Claudia Malacrida in her work talks about the challenges of dependency in the relationships of differently-abled mothers. She writes, “Children depend on their mothers not only for compassion and care, but also for protection. For women who are themselves at heightened risk for abuse, isolation and dependency, this can be a particularly difficult tightrope” (485). Malacrida goes on to say that women with disabilities are frequently subjected to sexual, physical, and mental abuse from their significant others, and that because of their dependence on them. She writes, “women with disabilities can find themselves trapped in relations of dependency that are dangerous to themselves and to their children” (485). Now, when we look at Margarita With A Straw, the question arises, is Laila’s mother unresponsive to Laila’s confession of love for a boy because she fears that her daughter does not yet understand that her being differently-abled puts her in a vulnerable position where the basic human emotion of ‘love’ can be manipulated in an attempt to control Laila’s body? Susan Wendell talks about how men’s control of women’s bodies, especially women’s sexuality and reproductive processes, has been one of the central concerns of feminism. She further writes, “Another direction of feminist discussion of the body has been particularly concerned with how men’s and women’s alienation from their bodies contributes to women’s oppression, and how women are alienated from their bodies by male-dominated society” (166).

The evolving equation between Laila and her mother smudges the line between privacy and exposure. She bathes, dresses and feeds Laila but finding out about her porn browsing is where she draws the line. Unlike stereotyped Indian mothers, Revathy welcomes a Pakistani girl, Khanum, into the household. This is where the Bollywood ‘mother’ comes to the fore as the universal nurturer. The themes that attach themselves with the dynamic role of motherhood is the physical disadvantages that the characters present themselves with, the idea of dislocation to an unfamiliar space and the sexual awakening of a teenage daughter with cerebral palsy. Even though Laila confesses to having cheated on Khanum, she doesn’t leave her, because Laila needs a shoulder to cry on. Khanum’s role as a girlfriend and a caregiver becomes more evident through the lenses of an empathetic eye, even though the rational mind tries to argue otherwise. From the beginning of their evolving dynamics, Khanum provides Laila with the space that she needs to breathe. She goes to bars, orders her favorite drink, and dances to “I need a Man” with her girlfriend (evidently, the song that plays in the background brings out the sheer contrast between the visual and the purpose of the narrative).

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Still from Margarita With A Straw (YouTube, Margarita with a Straw Official Trailer 1, 2016)

Delving deeper into Laila’s psyche, we can see that her desire to be seen and witnessed at her most vulnerable becomes a recurrent necessity in her idea of intimacy. While telling Khanum about her sexual encounter with Jared, Laila says “Woh mujhe dekh sakta hain.” Even though the audience cannot pinpoint on the association of Laila’s sexual desires with her physical vulnerability, Khanum’s apparent inability to ‘see’ Laila makes it hard to overlook. The film focuses on Laila’s ‘need’ to be able to sexually and/or romantically be engaged with a ‘normal’ being in order to feel ‘normal’. Her differently-abled friend in Delhi tells her, to her disappointment and opposition to what she wants to believe in, that she would not become ‘normal’ if she mingled with a group of friends who are people without any disabilities. As Wendell writes,

Socially accepted definitions of disability determine the recognition of disability by friends, family members, and co-workers. Recognition of a person’s disability by the people s/he is closest to is important not only for receiving their help and understanding when it is needed, but for receiving the acknowledgement and confirmation of her/his reality so essential for keeping a person socially and psychologically anchored in a community. (12)

A question that arises at this point of the film, perhaps, is whether or not Laila in her subconscious believes that her mother has the ability to ‘see’ her in an entirety of who she is. Laila confesses her love for Nima to her mother while Revathy bathes her. She comes out to her mother while she is scrubbing her; and while Jared pulls Laila’s underwear up after she is done using the toilet, the moment of vulnerability leads to a hitherto unanticipated encounter. Everyone Laila gets close to tries to protect her, tries to make sure she feels ‘normal’ around them and that is the only thing that Laila does not want to hinge her identity on. It is, however, important to note that the role that Laila’s mother has played in her life could be similar to, but not the same as a romantic or sexual partner’s.

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Still from Margarita With A Straw (variety.com, 2015)

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Still from Margarita With A Straw (giffonifilmfestival.it, 2015)

As much as the image of the ‘mother’ in Indian cinema has been at large equated to that of a ‘care-giver’, Margarita With A Straw takes up a challenge that attempts to reflect upon how ‘caring’ or ‘loving’ are actions that could come from various kinds of human interactions and relationships – some of which could be unnamed or unlabeled as well – but never be the same as that of a mother. Margarita With A Straw speaks of motherhood that is beyond the framework of popular Bollywood cinema which restricts the role of a mother within what is believed to be ‘normal’.

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Still from Margarita With A Straw (Netflix)

The co-existence of conflict, care, and resistance morphs into a broader sphere or definition of independence where Laila doesn’t need a caregiver or a lover. The last shot where Laila goes on a self-date, orders Margarita with a straw, and cheers to her own reflection in the mirror transcends all barriers, physical and emotional, that Laila had been struggling to overcome. The arc of a teenage girl on the verge of her sexual awakening to a woman who, after losing so much of her friends, family and herself, becomes ‘independent’ by owning up to emotional autonomy despite physical disadvantages leads up to a response in the face of the collective consciousness that labels differently-abled physical bodies as ‘disabled’ and denies their sexual entities. As Wendell writes: “Nevertheless, dependence on others to meet some of the basic physical needs is humiliating in a society that so clearly prizes independence from that particular kind of help. Moreover, the help is too often provided on the condition that those providing it control the lives of those who receive it. Small wonder that many people with disabilities who see the possibility of living as independently as any non-disabled person, or who have achieved this goal after long struggle, value their independence very highly” (146). This hierarchical notion of independence creates a conflict between Laila’s own identity and the normative perception of sexuality in the ‘disabled’. Laila’s quest for her own self is conflicted with concerns that have nothing to do with her physical shortcomings. Thus, taking into cognizance the biographical aspect of the film, Margarita With A Straw tries to tell a multifaceted narrative that deconstructs the preconceived notions of ‘motherhood’ and the correlation between disability and sexuality in Indian Cinema.

Works Cited

Bose, Shonali. Margarita With A Straw. Viacom18 Studios, 2018.

DelPrete, Domenia (Donna) L. “Mother-adolescent daughter interaction: How maternal roles affect discursive outcomes.” 2015.

Khan, Amir, Amole Gupte. Taare Zameen Par. UTV Motion Pictures and PVR Pictures, 2007.

Malacrida, Claudia. “Negotiating the Dependency/Nurturance Tightrope: Dilemmas of Motherhood and Disability.” CRSA/RCSA, 2007.

Wendell, Susan. The Rejected Body: Feminist Philosophical Reflections on Disability. Routledge Taylor & Francis Group, 1996.

Bio:
Gayatri Aich is pursuing her Master’s degree in Comparative Literature at Jadavpur University. Her research interests include Performance Studies, Gender and Sexuality, and Indigenous Studies. She has performed dance recitals in national and international seminars. She is a dancer and is interested in understanding the overlaps between the performing arts and the everyday.

Joy Chakraborty is an undergraduate student of the Department of Comparative Literature, Jadavpur University. His areas of interest include Filmmaking, Indigenous Literature, Queer Studies and Performing Arts. He was the screenwriter and assistant director in the film “The Holy Immersion”, which was screened at The Lift-Off Sessions 2021 in UK, 11th Dadasaheb Phalke International Film Festival, and 4th South Asian Short Film Festival.

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For more stories, read Café Dissensus Everyday, the blog of Café Dissensus Magazine.

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