Margarita with a Straw: Female Sexuality, Same Sex Love, and Disability in India

Do we identify women with disability as sexual beings? Have films reiterated disability and sexuality as incongruent identities, or has the trend been undergoing a transition? Margarita with a Straw (2014) raised these relevant questions about women’s disability and sexuality in India, and further identified the extent to which Bollywood has misconstrued identities and glorified femininity by adding to the negativity associated with women’s disability in India.

Bollywood has carved its niche as a popular mode of culture production in South Asia, adding to its value as a source of sociological enquiry. Specifically, its narrative style, constructed spectacle, and embedded normative ideals have often reiterated stigma about the disabled. These embedded normative ideals are inevitably heterosexual and incline towards the able-bodied, who fit within the parameters of what is considered desirable as per societal standards. As a consequence, the constructed binaries have ostracised the marginal sexual identities, often generating stigma about those who are identified as disabled and queer (Foucault 1976; McRuer 2017). Ranging from analyses of the ways in which the camera “interacts” with actors and actresses in a symbolic simulation of “coitus interruptus,” to discussions of censorship, voyeuristic pleasure during dance sequences, sado-masochistic pleasure in watching heroic suffering and female authority in rape-revenge, these popular genres of mainstream cinema significantly impact the ways in which the young audience perceives the society (Banaji 2006; Ganti 2004).

Major texts in disability studies, considered canonical in the field, do not discuss key aspects of sexual culture, often regarding sexuality and disability as incongruent identities. Similarly, even within the larger field of sexuality studies, themes which include queer identities, sexual promiscuity, adultery and others, rarely mention disability (McRuer and Mallow 2012). This is true, even within modes of cultural production, where films hold a significant position in the country.

Expressing the frustration of many feminists with the representation of women in commercial Indian films, Maithili Rao’s essay “To Be a Woman” (1995) speaks both about films, and of female subjectivity, that fixates her position as a chaste wife, worships her for being a doting mother, or reduces her to a passive sexual object  through an erotic display of her body (Rao 2003). The following attempts to cater to female spectatorship and subsequent feminist interventions in film-making have generated a need for sensitivity and empathy in the creation of popular culture. In the 1990s, Indian cinema witnessed a drastic change which emphasised serious film-making highlighting relevant social issues. Over the years, then, Bollywood has become a site of feminist interpretation, wherein social cultural impediments faced by women have been brought to the forefront (Bhambhani 2002). 

As Bollywood cinema emerged as a site for challenging the norms and modes of entertaining the mass by generating awareness about marginalisation in India (Dudrah 2006), the prominence of leading female protagonists enacting women’s issues rose, coinciding with a period of projecting “rare diseases” (Prasad 2013). Here, the disabilities that had not been talked about much in public were part of the film’s narrative. This included disabilities such as progeria, autism, cerebral palsy, asperger’s syndrome, schizophrenia, dyslexia, and many such. Of the many that did become a point of conversation for stereotypes and vulnerabilities, Margarita with a Straw was criticised for enacting the sensitivity of cerebral palsy, as well as the male gaze that often disregards women with disability from being considered as attractive.

Undeniably, Bollywood cinema, too, capitalises on the voyeuristic pleasure of its mass audience to retain its prominence in the film industry. For instance, a textual analysis of Bollywood cinema reveals the representation of disability through the prominent narration religion and Hindu mythology. That is, the display of disabled characters in Ramayana and Mahabharata is associated with being spiteful and malicious, or a way of penalising for the sins of one’s past (Ghai 2002; Addlakha 2009). 

Feminist appropriation of psychoanalysis has argued that fetishism and scopophilia is developed through politics of images; often produced through the communication and entertainment industry (Mulvey 2001). Cinema has tried to capitalise on the pre-existing symbolic order of voyeuristic pleasures that the audience is socialised into believing. Hence, the camera objectifies the woman’s body by generating consumer seduction and an escape mechanism from the mundane. The camera angles, lighting and the costumes have enabled this symbolic interactionism of the audience and the female protagonist demonstrated as the desirable on screen (Mulvey 1989 and Blumer 1986). One may then question the representation of those who fail to fit within the prototype of being considered as desirable. Women with a prominent disability are quite often considered to be part of a marginalised, dehumanised and ostracised category who are disregarded as sexual beings.

This visual imagery, which is a globalised cultural product and narrative prosthesis,[1] holds a crucial position in addressing two socially considered incongruent identities: disability and sexuality. McRuer (2012) in his work on crip theory elaborates on how the inability to accept the disabled as a sexual being perpetuates disillusionment about sexual identity in their minds. Gender and disability are categorised as social constructs, but cinema has had an integral role in fetishising the psyche about what is to be constructed as desirable. For these reasons, narrative prosthesis helps demonstrate the constructed category of deviance, which has become a discursive field of study, and how a societal perception of disability is generated (Mitchell and Snyder 2000).

The portrayal of disability within the narrative structure of Bollywood cinema has seen an obvious transition from the stereotypical helpless mother on a wheelchair to the projection of an intellectual with psychomotor disabilities, such as dyslexia, cerebral palsy, autism and progeria. Of the many films that have brought up the stigma pertinent to disability and disabling social environments, Margarita with a Straw exemplified how we often disregard the sexuality of disability; labelling them as asexual or hypersexual beings who do not deserve privacy or bodily integrity.

Additionally, it was indicative of how middle-class families in India could be aspirational about their children with disabilities to become financially self-sufficient; yet fail to recognise key aspects of their sexuality and demand for privacy. The film addressed how the disabled may not always be harassed or exploited at work, but are taken for granted within their private space.

Cinematic representation is largely dependent on how societal structures of power operate and subsequently determine the norms of social conduct. As the land that produced Kamasutra, where sexuality was explicitly portrayed as a way of life, there has been a prominent shift in taboo associated with discussing sexuality and intercourse. Foucault (1976) elaborated on how cultural representations over the years have made matters subject to sex and sexuality repressed and shameful, often silencing its awareness. 
The disabled women, being subjected to dual systems of discrimination, have thereby been labelled as asexual or hypersexual beings, quite prominent even within the film as Laila’s mother was shown to be uncomfortable with Laila’s sexual desires, and the subsequent disillusionment along the journey of self-discovery. This demonstrates Foucauldian notion of a power and authority that determines the norm and constructs a “deviant,” which in this situation was the act of Laila watching porn. Laila’s sexuality opposed the overarching understanding of disability in India, it questioned morality and the sanctity of women, particularly scrutinising women’s disability, that is, denied access to sexual cultures.

Diaspora plays a significant role in elucidating how India’s conservative ideals do not favour openly viewing pornography, same sex love and pre-marital sex. Bollywood cinema has often tried to encapsulate some of its questionable morals within diasporic settings. Margarita with a Straw was also no exception to this trend that emerged in the 1990s through films like Pardes, Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayenge, Dil Toh Pagal Hai, and many others. These films showcased the correlation between NRIs (Non-resident Indians) and strong ideas of  patriarchal tradition, nostalgic desires and longing to serve the homeland (Banaji 2006). Margarita with a Straw, although came into existence decades after Bollywood’s engagement with portraying British-Asian cultural interaction, was situated primarily in New York. Despite its diasporic setting, it remained grounded in strong familial values and Indian stereotypes about upholding the chastity of women. Just like conjugality and familial bonds were often reiterated within the overly dramatic mother having a strong intuition, Margarita with a Straw closely showcased the mother-daughter duo that materialised into friendship. However, the film portrayed the inhibitions of her mother with respect to sexuality, despite the change of geographical location. It was reflected within the persuasiveness of “progress and liberal thinking” exhibited by Laila’s mother for being willing to let her daughter study abroad. 

Very often, the closest bonds of friendship become stifling, and Laila, the lead protagonist who was battling with cerebral palsy, too felt suffocated and embarrassed about her mother’s constant surveillance. In one of the scenes, Laila’s mother comes across porn in her laptop. Instead of empathising with her daughter’s anxiety, she expresses her disappointment about her daughter engaging in morally incorrect and disgraceful activities. Her reluctance and inhibitions in giving Laila privacy was explicitly indicated in the shrillness of her voice and the argument they have about Laila’s demand for space.  The film did throw light on some crucial factors pertinent to independence only being restricted to professional competence and financial security; completely ignoring the importance of emotional well-being and the need for companionship. A lopsided perception often mired by stigma and inhibition to address issues pertinent to sexual culture of the disabled was quite prominent within the narrative. Although it did shift from the myopic view of disability, wherein pitiable imagery and dependency would be glorified while showcasing the lives of disabled women in the narrative, there still exists a misconstrued image of them being asexual or hypersexual.

Especially with regard to multiple marginal identities, disability rights activists in India have put across how these issues concerning their lives are often overlooked under the umbrella blanket of universal sisterhood. Ghai (2002) and Mehrotra (2013), leading disability rights activists and theorists of Disability Studies in India, have elaborated on how the family plays a crucial role in shaping self-perception. Additionally, it generates a dependency syndrome that eventually denies women with disability to take the onus of decision-making on themselves. The sheltered and cocooned environment built for them often leads to their stunted growth. Margarita with a Straw tried addressing these crucial impediments faced by women with disabilities in Indian societies. Laila’s mother was no exception to this trend of the typical doting-mother imagery who would not let any harm come upon her child, but, at the same time, who is unwilling to accept that her child demands for privacy and would quite naturally have sexual urges that ought to be addressed. Furthermore, it exemplified the vulnerability, trauma and pitiable imagery associated with women’s disability, followed by disillusionment about their sexuality.

One often chooses to disassociate from discussions pertinent to sexual urges and identity in India and undermine the role it plays in shaping our personality. The multiple marginal identities and biopolitics often generate a performative gendered identity of an ideal. These result in constant battles with social constructs wherein women with disability are considered as asexual or hypersexual beings. Crip theory[2], socially created binaries and narrative prosthesis would help in discussing these concerns about the representation of disability and sexuality in Margarita with a Straw. Crip theory, a term coined by McRuer (2017) elaborates on how the disabled and homosexuals are denied privacy, bodily integrity and exposure to explore their own sexuality. Therefore, it unpacks how normative heterosexuality and able bodies are considered as the desirable state of being, disregarding anyone who fails to within the socially sanctioned norm. The film also exhibited female bonding, homosocial love and homoeroticism through Laila and Khanum’s friendship. Khanum, a visually challenged woman situated in New York, came forth to familiarise Laila with the new country and its whims. While accompanying each other everywhere and living together, the film invites alternate reading of the frame beyond this display of friendship. It elucidated how disability and sexuality are journeys of self-discovery which need not have to be portrayed only as comic-relief characters. It was unlike the usual masochistic and fetishistic desires even while enacting same sex love and intimacy. The director, Shonali Bose, made a bold move through the picturisation of Khanum’s character who would fetishise Laila’s and take the initiative of expressing the fluidity of gender roles among the two. Subsequently, the film reflected how Laila was unable to identify as a queer and found herself being attracted to heterosexual and able-bodied men, exemplifying the dissonance of sexuality created due to the predominant gendered ideals. It also symbolised the normative ideals of conduct she was expected to adhere to and a way of coping to humiliation she witnessed would be “the want of being looked at.” Khanum’s friendship made her assertive and confident after a series of battling rejections to finally approach a heterosexual man she found attractive. Khanum’s appropriation of Laila’s sexuality, Laila’s disillusionment and subservience on discovering a man who showed interest in her, are reflective of  Lacan’s conception of gender being performative and culturally appropriated due to its fluidity.

The projection of the sociocultural milieu that enhanced the humiliation experienced by the disabled characters in cinema is not a rarity. However, there has been an obvious change in the importance the disabled characters have started to play within the narrative itself. This could be seen as an indication of how the society is willing to build a more inclusive society. However, the obvious disregard of the disabled as desirable enough by the able-bodied heterosexual man would only question what an ideal is in the society. Are we then really building an inclusive society that is accommodative of differences in the truest sense? Are we attempting to bridge the gap between the disabled and the able-bodied? Can films help mediate this change by generating a more positive portrayal of disability?

Although Margarita with a Straw did throw light on the plight of disabled women in India, there is a prominent disregard of them being acknowledged as a partner in the society. Laila’s interaction with the opposite sex threw light on how a man might see a disabled woman as a sexual being, yet disassociates from her in public settings, despite their intimacy in private. It subsequently makes one question how sexuality and sexual access are denied to women with disability. Overall, the film was an attempt to re-address the various nuances of structural violence prevalent in the society. Through its frequent attempts of normalising the lives of disabled women in India, it also addressed how the binaries of normal and abnormal, able and disabled, heterosexual and homosexual are created through the notions of ideal and desirable within Margarita with a Straw. Hence, it makes one question what it means to feel liberated being a disabled woman and how one can feel so by sipping on a margarita sitting in a club, and does that notion of liberation equate to one succumbing to solace in one’s own company amidst a crowd.

Therefore, unlike the happy endings in most movies where lovers or families united after their struggles, Margarita with a Straw was a journey of self-discovery where Laila experienced joy, fear, dilemma, disillusionment and emotional turmoil with people by her side yet lived in isolation with her insecurities. Her battle conveyed the stories of many such women with disability in the different corners of the world who battle psychological, physical and emotional trauma in their everyday interaction.

 

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