Bollywood star Kalki Koechlin on playing bisexual, disabled and in love in “Margarita, with a Straw”

AE: Being an able-bodied person, were you concerned about playing Laila in a sensitive but authentic manner? What kind of research did you have to do to accomplish this?

KK: Absolutely. I was actually terrified because as soon as I finished reading the script I called Shonali, and I said, “Look, I love the script. I think it’s amazing. But I’m absolutely terrified to do it because it requires an enormous amount of responsibility to get the role right and to sort of do justice to the role.” So I was very, very nervous about that. We kind of made a deal, me and Shonali, that even if we trained for four months–and we said we will not do this unless we get four months of training. But even if we train for four months, then we would record it and see what it looked like, and if it didn’t look authentic and convincing, we were ready to drop the film.

It was a long process. I think what I was really lucky with is the fact that my director’s cousin, Malini Chib, I’m sure she spoke about her, she was really enthusiastic about the film and really wanted to help me. So she let me into her life in an incredible way. I got to stay with her, I lived with her, I went out partying with her, I went to her place of work, I met her physiotherapist, her speech therapist–I just got access to somebody with cerebral palsy and somebody who particularly inspired the script. So that helped in a big way.


AE: What else did those four months of preparation entail?

KK: Her speech therapist and her physiotherapist–one really big thing that they helped me with was the breathing. Because somebody with CP has pretty weak lungs and weak muscles in the lungs, so the breath pattern influences the way you speak. The voice is lower because you’re using less oxygen and you’re breaking up the speech halfway through a sentence because you need to take another breath. So things like that were really, really helpful.

I also did a workshop, which Shonali organized, with someone called Adil Hussain, who is a really renowned theater actor in Bombay. He’s also a film actor. He played the father in Life of Pi. He’s an amazing actor, and he really worked with the body with me. We did three weeks of workshopping, just on body. We touched the script probably in the last two, three days. Before that, it was just working on the body.


AE: How aware are you of the fact that there have been so few queer leads with disabilities in film? Let alone two of them shown falling in love.

KK: And they’re female as well.

Family dinner scene in MARGARITA WITH A STRAW - Courtesy of Wolfe Video 

AE: Yes, there’s the female aspect as well.

KK: I knew this was a once in a lifetime opportunity. It explores so many different aspects of emotions and of a journey that most of us don’t even get to think about, let alone try to understand or get into. I know for one it’s opened up my world about disability. Homosexuality I’m still a lot more familiar with because I have a lot of friends who are gay. Disability was something I was very unfamiliar with before this film.


AE: Was there a part of you that was also nervous about the role model status that could come from the film? After all, there are very few queer lead characters with disabilities young women can look up to.

KK: For me, when I read a script, I always look at the authenticity of it and the humanness of it and whether I’m moved and whether it makes me question things and become curious about things. The script did that for me. And then, of course, there’s a huge responsibility, and I feel the need to work very hard to try and get that character right. But I don’t think I thought about what this represents for the world and whether people would be inspired by it. Of course, I was inspired by it, but if I had gone thinking, “Oh my god, I have to impress people and inspire people,” I think I wouldn’t have been able to do it. I think you have to approach the character with a certain amount of, I don’t know, innocence. A certain amount of saying, “Hey, this is real. This is a real person. This really exists.” Laila is somebody real to me, and she matters. And then it’s up to other people what they take from it.


AE: Staying in the head of Laila, what is it about Khanum that Laila falls for?

KK: She’s kind of everything that Laila is not. Laila is sort of embarrassed about her disability. Like you’ll see she crops her photos on Facebook. She wants to hang out with the so-called “normal people.” She’s always escaping who she really is. Whereas Khanum is the opposite. Khanum is sort of really empowered. She’s confronted her parents about being gay and she’s politically active. She breaks all the molds of a disabled person.


AE: Do you think your love scenes, both straight and gay, shocked people? If so, is this a good thing? The truth is people with disabilities are rarely portrayed as sexual beings in film.

KK: Absolutely. Firstly, I think the scene was done extremely beautifully and sensitively. And at the same time, it’s so important to show what it is for disabled people. It is something that we don’t talk about. So yeah, it is something that perhaps we’re not used to seeing and I think it’s really important that people are exposed to it. Especially in India, it’s assumed that the disabled don’t have sex lives.

Kalki Koechlin in MARGARITA WITH A STRAW - Courtesy of Wolfe Video