Bisexual director Shonali Bose on her revolutionary queer film “Margarita, with a Straw”

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AE: At times it seems Laila’s convinced she’s either completely straight or completely gay, and then when her attractions for the same and opposite sexes come up it looks like she has a hard time grasping the idea that she might be bisexual. Would you agree and, if so, why did you write her that way?

SB: She’s only 18. She’s never even been exposed to language on sexuality, let alone queer sexuality. So for her it was very organic to just get into this relationship that came across her. And then she falls in love with Khanum. But she’s never had sex with a guy, never had any interaction, so when that moment presented itself to her, when Jared–there’s a hot moment between them–, she has never had sex with a straight guy. She needed to test herself.

The moment she did it, as soon as it finished, you can see in the shot the way her face looks empty and her eyes look empty. She regretted it. She regretted cheating on her girlfriend. And it made her realize that, “Wow.” That’s why I say she’s gay and not even bisexual. She says, “I’m bisexual,” I think at one point. She says, “I’m bi,” to her mother because by then she understands the language and because she had sex, but I would say she’s actually quite strongly gay and she understood that. Only after doing that, cheating on her girlfriend, did she understand that, “Wow. I don’t like this. I really like what I have with my girlfriend.” But I understand that in that moment she needed to go forward. She just needed to do that.

Whether you’re straight or gay, situations present themselves and you may cheat on your partner. That’s something I also wanted to deal with.

 

AE: Right.

SB: I think it’s very natural in that moment. And when Khanum asks her, “How could you do that?” and, you could say that it’s cruel but it was the truth, she said, “Jared could see me.” And she needed to be affirmed, because I think the growth she goes through is not, “Oh, am I gay? Am I not? Am I straight?” It’s, “I can affirm myself. I don’t need an outside gaze to affirm me.” That is her growth.

She would rather be with an able-bodied person because she dislikes her own disability. Unlike Khanum, who’s extremely comfortable with her disability. But Laila isn’t. And Laila goes through that journey and therefore in that moment it was not about her confusion on her sexuality so much so as, “This is a really good looking straight guy who wants to have sex with me. I’m not the one hitting on him. I’m going to try this. And he’s not turned off by my body, by my twisted limbs, by my garbled speech, by my drool.” That’s huge. I think that’s huge and we have to honor that.

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AE: So if Laila sees herself as a lesbian, why did she come out to her mother as bi?

SB: The only reason she said that is because, for an Indian audience, it is such a funny joke. There’s a double play on the word “bi”. So “bai” means the maid and “bi” is bisexual. When she tells her mother, her mother misunderstands and says, “All women are bai. I’m bai.” I really only did that for the joke because actually I think she would have said, “I’m gay.”

Once I wrote it and the joke mattered, the way I justified to myself was maybe she was too nervous to tell her mother the whole thing and so she probably figured her mother doesn’t even understand the word “bi”. Like, “Should I tell her? Should I not?” And then she just uses the language and then it’s revealed that she didn’t really get it and she has to again summon up her courage and come out with it.

 

AE: Laila is shown having sex. As you’ve mentioned, a lot of people have a tendency to not see individuals with disabilities as being sexual beings, whether they realize this or not. That said, those scenes might cause certain people some discomfort. Was there a part of you that wanted to elicit that reaction, or did you take that on as just another aspect of your character’s journey?

SB: I was not trying to make a point. At any point in the film when I was writing, I must say I was not trying to score political points or to wake anybody up. Maybe that’s just a part of my psyche so it just comes out in my writing that I’m going to make political choices.

For the girls’ scene, it was pin-drop silence, which you remember. You can only hear their breathing. Now the normal thing you do when you feel something is uncomfortable as a filmmaker is you add in music. You put in score. Because an audience can then just kind of go with the score and it eases their discomfort. There was no bloody way I was going to do that. So at that point, yes, I was like, “Okay, there are going to be people who are homophobic or people who even just can’t see two women like this feeling pleasure and they’re going to be uncomfortable. Am I going to ease it for them? No.”

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