This film about a woman living with cerebral palsy in India and then New York City centers on the stunning performance of actress Kalki Koechlin, who portrays the disability with passion, pain, and even pleasure. It surrounds her character’s sexual awakening, and yet powerfully delivers the message that those with disabilities can experience full, engaging lives.
Kalki Koechlin is utterly amazing in her depiction of cerebral palsy. How did she develop her technique?
The condition I made for casting the actor for Laila’s role was that they give me a dedicated three months of time to completely immerse in the role in preparation for it. It required not just talent but discipline and hard work to pull this off. Kalki was one of the rare actors who understood the importance of this. I guided her entire preparation for the role in several ways.
First and most important I brought in and worked hand-in-hand with an acting coach trained in the Grotowski method to teach her how to perform honestly and with complete transparency from within her body. This broke down barriers and got rid of bad habits learnt from other film sets where performance was often cerebral. I believe this intense workshop, which was eight hours a day for one month, was a key part of her preparation to delivering her luminous performance.
Then I introduced her to my cousin Malini (the inspiration for the film). Malini gave her complete access to her life and private moments. Kalki is a keen observer and learnt not just physical things but also imbibed Malini’s joie de vivre and independent spirit.
The last part of the work before actual rehearsals with the material was working with speech and physical therapists.
I had to carefully plan out all these stages of prep and then help her to integrate the various things. She used to live in character on and off set to train her muscles to behave in a certain way.
How does India treat the disabled?
There has been a big change in my experience in the last 50 years from the time my cousin was born in 1966 to the present. As we grew up as children we were used to her always being pointed and stared at. It was hard for her. Even educated people did not know to speak to her but would ask her companion questions like, “Will she have sugar in her tea?”
There have been many changes since then because of the tireless work of activists — many in my own family are pioneers in this movement. But there’s still a long way to go particularly as there is a lack of basic access and mobility and so the disabled are not able to mingle. If it becomes a common sight to see the disabled going about life just as you do, then you will have less prejudice and pity. Pity is as despised by the disabled as prejudice and is the common reaction.
Why did you decide to tell this story of sexual awakening?
When I was 40 and Malini was 39, we were having a drink in a London pub. I was passing through on my way from America to India and she was getting a second Masters degree there. I said, “What are we going to do for your 40th? It’s absolutely the best birthday.”
Her speech is usually garbled and difficult to understand. But sometimes when she is angry or excited, it comes out crystal clear. This was one of those times. She banged her fist on the table and spoke loud and clear for all the pub to hear: I just want to have sex by the time I’m 40!
I grinned sheepishly around and assured her it was not what it was made out to be, etcetera, etcetera. But later when I was thinking about what she said, what she so passionately wanted, I realized that I had never thought about her sexuality much. Or maybe I just avoided it as I didn’t know what to do about it. This started me on my journey of Margarita.
As I started exploring my fictional character and her issues, the big question that came up was one of self-worth. This is a core issue that everyone faces. Whether one is disabled or not. From there it went to a place of finding deep self-acceptance and self-love.
The film really shows how social media can be sort of a leveling field for the disabled.
With social media, I found that it was the key thing that creates a level playing field. Malini communicates actively through her Facebook and the person at the other end often doesn’t realize she is disabled as her witty repartee in the chat comes as fast and sharper as theirs. She is constantly on the computer when she is in India, as she is then interacting hugely with people and there is no issue of lack of access to meet and greet people. It is fantastic for her. So this was intentional.
Music is also a soothing element in the film.
The love of music and creating through music is, of course, an obvious choice. My cousin herself is a writer (published novel – one little finger). I chose musician for my character, as that’s more cinematic. She’s more talented than many able-bodied peers. Having cerebral palsy does not inhibit her talent or ability, and that was the point, not specifically music being soothing.
Are there many cross-disability relationships that develop in real life?
Yes, not just cross-disability but between abled and disabled. My cousin is one of the founders of ADAPT: Able Disabled All People Together. It’s an organization in Bombay and there are people from all disabilities as well as able bodied as part of it. As a result relationships form across different lines. Of course this is not common. As one tends to meet people of the same disability because of the educational institution one would go to and other factors. I am glad to see there’s a change happening though.