“Margarita With a Straw” gives us a rare queer heroine

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As a fan of lesbian cinema, I’m always on the lookout for a captivating lead. Several heroines have remained a cherished memory throughout the years, whereas others are such cookie-cutter characters that I can’t even recall the movie’s name. But the best and worst have at least one thing in common most of the time–a lack of diversity. And when it comes to queer disabled leads, we’re pretty much grasping at straws.

That’s why Margarita, with a Straw and its leading lady Laila are so refreshing. As is Laila’s lover Khanum, an adventurous blind woman. That’s right, a movie that highlights two disabled women in an emotionally and sexually fulfilling relationship. Progressive? Yes, and we have Indian director Shonali Bose to thank for it.

The film is in Hindi and English, with English subtitles, which brings us to its original setting–India. Laila, a young writer with cerebral palsy, lives in India with her family. She hopes to go to school abroad, a dream her mother supports entirely. But before we even get there, Laila’s sexual stirrings for the same sex begin. 

She finds herself glancing at a friend a little too long and getting a little too excited over some pornographic moans. Instead of embracing this discovery, she instead recklessly throws herself at her best friend, hurting him in the process. To add to her confusion, she develops real feelings for her band mate. He doesn’t feel the same, and it hits self-conscious Laila hard. And in all this, the possibility that she may be bisexual seems lost on her.

Laila gets the chance to leave behind these unpleasant memories when NYU grants her a scholarship. Her loving mother makes the trip with her, but Laila’s independent streak soon has her exploring the city on her own.

It’s when she stumbles upon a rally that she meets Khanum, daughter of a Pakistani mother and a Bangladeshi father, who tells her she’s lived in seven countries, including Madagascar. She’s definitely different, but Laila likes what she sees. They soon hit it off, to the delight of Laila’s mom.

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The chemistry is instant. Laila can obviously see that Khanum is beautiful. But in a standout scene Khanum caresses Laila’s face so she can see her too. Her conclusion: Laila is so pretty she feels like cursing. And she does! It’s the kind of validation Laila thrives on, a reoccurring theme throughout the movie.

When they finally make love, it’s not particularly remarkable. Like most lesbian sex scenes, it’s short and sensual. And I quite enjoyed that, because it just cemented the fact that we often make up differences in our own minds.

Now like your stereotypical lesbian couple, these two move fast. By the time Laila’s mother returns to India, Laila and Khanum are moving in together.

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But Laila’s not even fully out to herself, let alone her family. So when she visits India with Khanum, drama awaits.

After a hilarious botched attempt at coming out to her mom as bi (and yay, she finally uses the word!), things get serious. Her mom’s less than happy about the true nature of the women’s relationship. To add to the tension, a bombshell–Laila’s mom has colon cancer.

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All secrets come out in India, to devastating effects. And Laila has to navigate it all as part of her journey.

Fitting, as that’s exactly what this movie is: Laila’s journey. While the screen is shared with some genuinely interesting characters, from start to finish this film takes you on a unique voyage of self-acceptance. I think you’ll enjoy the trip.

Margarita, with a Straw is currently playing in India. The film does not have an official website, so check your local LGBT film festival to see if it’ll be playing near you soon.

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