Love, Disability and Sexuality

Kalki Koechlin in Margarita with a Straw

It is something you wouldn’t always expect coming out of the Indian cinema scene yet actress Kalki Koechlin has done it. Koechlin is not only known for her charismatic roles in Bollywood, she is also a creative powerhouse that has made her mark on the international film scene. A social issues advocate and writer, Koechlin has had the courage to speak up on issues that many would hide from. Whether it is through her interviews, in her theatre work or her performances in independent films, Koechlin speaks on taboo topics like child sexual abuse in India and brings up her own personal experience with abuse.

Kalki Koechlin in MARGARITA, WITH A STRAW.  Courtesy of Viacom18 Motion Pictures and Ishan Talkies

At this year’s Toronto International Film Festival, Koechlin spoke with Fusia about her latest role in the film, ‘Margarita with a Straw’. Playing a teen with Cerebral Palsy (CP), Koechlin spent two and half months in a wheelchair to better prepare her for this role.

There was lot preparation I had to do in the film.” Says Koechlin “CP is not the same for every person. It affects different people in different levels. I worked with Malini, who is my Director’s cousin and who has cerebral palsy very closely. She was amazing. She let me follow her around. We did a lot of things together.”

She faced the challenges and barriers many with Cerebral Palsy deal with. Physical barriers (such as having an access to a ramp) are one thing, but the mental and emotional toll was far greater of a barrier.

The film is not just about the disability,” explained Koechlin. “It’s about a teenage girl coming to terms with herself and accepting and loving herself. This film is unique because firstly, we don’t often explore disability and women. And secondly, we don’t explore sexuality and disability. It’s very rare that we talk about it, especially in India.

Kalki Koechlin 1 Courtesy of Viacom18 Motion Pictures and Ishan Talkies

This film touched on this topic of sexuality and disability wonderfully. Bound to a wheelchair, Koechlin’s role, as Laila is easily relatable to any young person with the quest of discovering who they are. Like any teenager, Laila wants to feel love and be loved. Her journey in understanding her sexuality is complex but beautiful. “We just think that people with disabilities should not have sex or not have kids,” expressed Koechlin. And that is not the reality. The reality is that people who are disabled have families, are married and have kids. So why can’t we address it and talk about what a difficult journey it is. It is hard enough for any awkward teenager to come to terms with her sexuality or her body and loving herself. And with CP, it is a whole another layer.”

When asked on why she chose this project, she said, “as an actor I knew wasn’t going to get a gem like this in a script. It’s hard anyway in Bollywood to get female-oriented films and on top of that, a film about disability. It is really rare. What I love about the script, even if you take the cerebral palsy out, it still stands as an interesting story about a teenager girl who wants to be loved and touched. I love that the script stands in so many layers. It is not putting pity on the person on disability. It shows the lighter side of it.” When asked on what her biggest take away was as an actor, Koechlin replied, “My own awareness of people. I knew nothing about Cerebral Palsy. To see a person beyond their disability is a beautiful thing and it should be normal but we are intimidated because we don’t have enough information. It is about educating ourselves. This film has been a great education for me. As an actor, I have grown miles.”

As audience members, we were transported into Laila’s life and saw the joy in her living. Margarita with a Straw is fun-loving film that is centered on Laila’s relationship with herself, her conservative parents and with the world around her. As an actor, writer and social issues advocate, Koechlin continues to strive in perfecting her work and speaking up about issues that many Indian cinema celebrities wouldn’t touch on. She’s a trailblazer and someone to look out for in the near future.

For more on Margarita with a Straw, please view trailer here: