BY INDIRA PRAHST
Instructor, Department of Sociology and Anthropology
THIS week I received an unexpected email from the acclaimed film director of Amu, Shonali Bose, inviting me to attend the opening of her film “Margarita, with a Straw” next week in Vancouver.
“Margarita, with a Straw,” which premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival 2014 where it won the NETPAC award for the Best Asian Film, is a coming of age story of a teenage girl Laila, living with cerebral palsy. It follows her journey as she explores her sexuality and falls in love.
Bose’s first film, Amu (2005), which dealt with the Sikh Genocide of 1984, had led me to visit the widows of that tragedy in Delhi’s Tilak Vihar and inspired me to start advocating for Sikh human rights. Bose said to me, “Indira, it has been 10 years.” I told Bose that the past 10 years, after watching Amu, had been a heart-wrenching struggle for me because of the Sikh issue.
This interview is not just about her film “Margarita, with a Straw”, but also about a raft of issues as Bose bared her soul about life’s unexpected journey and the making of the film.
The film is being screened at the 10th annual Vancouver International Women in Film Festival as the gala festival opener on March 4 at 7 p.m. at Vancity Theatre.
Here is the edited interview:
INDIRA: What inspired you to make this film and where did you get the idea from?
BOSE: The inspiration came from my first cousin [Malini, who had cerebral palsy] who was one year older than me. The subject of cerebral palsy [involves] a large section of my family. I grew up with my cousin, so it was very normal for me because we were not treated differently. When we were teenagers we would go dancing, for drinks and I would take her to the movies. Then after I made Amu, my aunt said, ‘what is the point of having a filmmaker in the family and not being bothered by disability? Why can’t you make a movie on disability?’
INDIRA: Was there a turning point that led to your decision to make the film?
BOSE: I was meeting my cousin for a drink when I was in London and you know her mug is like a children’s plastic cup with a straw. I mentioned to her that her birthday [40th] was coming up and asked her what she wanted to do. “I just want to have sex!” she said out loud. I was taken aback and I thought ‘wow, I really have not thought about this for a long time.’ Over the next 20 years she went on to achieve a lot, including writing a novel, and when I read out from it, I would say that is my inspiration.
INDIRA: A lot was going on in your life during that time?
BOSE: Then I was thinking about the story. My son Ishan died [when he was 16] and I celebrated his 17th birthday. My ability to celebrate it led me that night to start writing and I even knew the title. But the film took another journey and became much more personal. Over the next two years the script developed – about Laila’s body. That is why I explored sexuality of the disabled, and then within it, there are different sections of my life in the film. I went very deep and personal with my own stuff.
INDIRA: Let’s go back to Amu in which there are very personal aspects of your life connected to the film, including working in the camps in Delhi. Perhaps this is why you were able to capture that lived experience which you transmitted through the film?
BOSE: Absolutely, without a doubt. I will go back to Amu, where I was going back to my own relationship with my mother and because I was so close to her, it was so painful for me to write about her because she died when I was 21. The character in Amu also loses her mother. It’s about loss, so I knew that as a writer, that I had to have the courage to confront my own pain, to make an honest film and I followed the same principle with “Margarita, with a Straw.”
So then I went into deep writing and a big change came at that time. In the film, when Laila fell in love with Khanum, who is a gay activist from Pakistan. But they did not have a relationship. Laila spoke to me (as a character) because I was so in her skin. Then later when I analyzed it, I realized that it was me. At 19, I was deeply in love with this woman from Berkley and I was very comfortable with my feelings, but she was not. That was a biographical moment for me in the film. It was not just writing about pain, I was also writing different sections of my life – the bisexuality.
INDIRA: What do you hope people take away from the film – especially on the educational front regarding social issues?
BOSE: It is a personal story and I would want people to learn to love and accept themselves. That is the journey the character navigates. I think the pressure we all face in society is seeking external affirmation. If you don’t love and accept yourself, you are never going to be at peace. I was going through that journey in my 40’s. When I had a chat with Ishan, my son, I told him that I am writing this script because ‘I have me. I have found this so late in my life.’ He looked at me and said ‘mama, I totally get what you are saying, because I have me.’ I could see it in his eyes at 16 years that he did have himself. For me it was profound what I went through because of my son’s death, but I was able to go forward in the amazing way – because I had myself.
INDIRA: This process of self-discovery and identity formation are human transformations. I saw this also with Amu, which was also about pain, loss, rediscovery and deception. Any connections here to Sikhs?
BOSE: It is interesting for me hearing you say this, Indira. It’s lovely, it’s fascinating that you would see this. I was not conscious that there was a connection. I, as a writer, was not conscious that what I learned from Amu I would carry into this film. What I consciously put in Amu, which I love, is that when I was making Amu, one of the investor’s sons, Mr. Malik, said to me: “You know, Sikhs are always stereotyped in films, either they are buffoons or they are terrorists or taxi drivers.”
INDIRA: What about how you cast Sikhs in this film?
BOSE: At the time of writing the script, the person was not a Sikh. But when I was going to cast the character, there is a lovely South Asian father [Baljit] in the film who is not patriarchal. He is all-loving and he could have been played by any nationality of the country, but I chose to make him Sikh. That remark from him [Mr. Malik] stayed in my brain and that is my connection to Amu to all the Sikhs who supported me with my first film Amu. My tribute to them is to make this character a Sikh and as a loving human being. I think especially post-1984, it was so difficult. Myself, growing up in India, you did not make any distinction [between Sikhs and Hindus]. You did not think of anybody with a turban in any different way. But post-1984, how people viewed Sikhs changed. I was very conscious of this and wanted to undo that and put this loving role as someone who is Sikh, where it is not about their identity, not about terrorism, or them being a victim – they are a loving father.
INDIRA: What about the character Laila?
BOSE: The funny thing here was at the time the character Laila was not bi-sexual . She was a straight girl. The script changed later. Do you know when I was shooting the film in New York, one Sikh from the gurdwara came to meet me (he was letting me shoot in his restaurant) and he said, “You are the Amu filmmaker. Can I take a picture with you?” Then as I was shooting in this restaurant, the uncle came and I told him that the Sikh character, she is gay. Then there was silence and he looked at me and said, chuckling: ‘There are no gay Sikhs.’ And I said: ‘Uncle Ji, will you oppose the film?’He looked at me and said: ‘You are the filmmaker of Amu. I will stand by you for life.’ I just started crying. It was so beautiful.
INDIRA : Shonali, it was your film Amu that brought out my advocacy for Sikhs and to visit the widows in Tilak Vihar. So I feel when I am reading about your film, I am wondering what the community will think about Shonali’s narrative shift?
BOSE: I forgot about Laila – you know what I mean? Her father was so obviously Sikh with a turban. She wore a ‘kara.’ Oh my goodness, it’s so radical, I don’t know what is going to happen! Anyway.
INDIRA: If one is tackling issues of discrimination and human rights that means everybody including the issues you raised in your current film, isn’t that so?
BOSE: The protagonist is Hindu and the father is Sikh. So Laila is half Sikh and half Hindu wearing a ‘kara.’ The father is Sikh – why is this not a Sikh film? It is so obvious for them to love Amu because it is their story. It may be [easier] for the younger generation, but for the older generation – those uncles who cried watching Amu and for whom I was a heroine – now will I be a heroine for them with this film? That is the question?