She lost her son right before giving birth to her groundbreaking second film. Based on the sexual journey of a young woman (brilliant played by Kalki Koechlin) challenged with cerebral palsy, the film went on to win awards, even as her personal life fell apart. Shonali Bose opens up to Joyeeta Ray on the joys and sorrows of her journey and why the stirring film that the world applauded failed to stir the film jury in India.
Some people silently inspire without their awareness. When they speak, you are fired up by their convictions. When you see their work, you get transformed by their creations. For me, Shonali Bose figures high on that list.
It’s hard for me to write about the lady in an impersonal tone. Unknown to her, she has inspired me from the first time I met her decades back. During my middle-school years in Mumbai (Jamnabai Narsee School), I came across a new high-school senior who had just arrived from Kolkata. She made tongues wag with her blazing confidence. Her strong voice often resonated in the corridors correcting people politely but firmly “my name is Shonali, not Sonali!”
When she stepped on stage to cross verbal swords in an inter-school debate, she set it on fire. Judges applauded her razor-sharp wit, incisive words and a voice that could slice others down to size with logic and power.
When she went behind the pen, the nondescript annual school magazine sprang to life. She could make readers not just hang on to her every word but also relate to them. Two years later I left Mumbai for Delhi, but shadowy memories of Shonali Bose never left me. I wondered where she was sometimes. One day, out of the blue, the lady manifested before my eyes in an article on budding filmmakers in a leading Indian newsmagazine!
I was not surprised to see her featured in a prestigious publication but I did wonder how she dived into films. In my limited perception of her, I envisioned her as a raging social activist, a fiery playwright or a truth-championing Member of Parliament; but a frontrunner in films? When I saw her films later, it all made sense. She was putting her combined skills to work in a single, powerful, equally life-transforming forum. Her directorial debut Amu in 2005 was critically acclaimed, based on the 1984 Anti-Sikh riots. Starring Konkona Sen Sharma, the film made waves internationally.
Soon after, I found her on Facebook. To my shock, I realized she was going through a poignant life transition, even as she soared professionally. She had lost her 16-year-old son. Yet even on Facebook through her posts about it, her strength shone like a beacon of inspiration.
The film premiered in Toronto where I reside now. We grabbed tickets and squeezed in to the last two seats in a full house. At the far end, after well over 25 years I could see Shonali Bose’s petite frame. She looked excited and elegant, patiently exchanging pleasantries with all those who came up to her. The film blew my mind. It was nothing like what I had imagined a film on a woman challenged with cerebral palsy to be.
For one, despite her personal tragedy and the subject of the film, the story did not dwell on tears and fears. It celebrated an elevated spirit instead. Just like she did with her school write-ups many years back, she made the audience relate to the character in deeper ways despite the physical dissimilarities.
The time was ripe. Through the thunderous applause and standing ovation that followed, I realized it was time for me to step forward and introduce the woman who leaves a lasting impression even if you meet her once. Over to our Skype conversation across Los Angeles and Toronto.
Shonali Bose: Up Close and Personal
SSZEE MEDIA: Congratulations on making such a groundbreaking film both technically and script-wise. Despite the cerebral palsy angle, the movie touches a chord with each of us in a very personal way. Can you please share how the concept behind Margarita, with a Straw was born?
SHONALI BOSE: The initial inspiration came from my cousin Malini, who was born with cerebral palsy. I grew up with Malini. Our families never made a difference between our activities just because she had a handicap. Whether it was swimming or dancing, we did everything together.
When we were about 16 or 17, I became conscious of dating. Malini was so romantic. This was the first time I felt that I would do something she couldn’t, so I didn’t date anybody. I felt people were friendly and kind to her in high school and college but they didn’t really want to date her.
Many years later I went to study in America and she went on to England. She wrote a novel and life moved on. I stopped thinking about the romance and sexual interests of my sister. Once when I was on my way back to India, I stopped in London to meet her. I had just turned 40 then and she was about to.
I said, “Malini, what do you want for your 40th birthday? It’s the best birthday ever.”
She said, “I just want to have sex!”
She showed me articles she had written on how important this was for her. I realized that I had buried my earlier insights perhaps because I felt helpless. I felt then that the issue of sexuality of the disabled was very powerful and important.
I wanted the story to be based not on Malini as a 39-year-old but on a teenager because I wanted it to be easily relatable. I wanted any young person who wanted to have a relationship to feel “oh my god, Laila is just like me.” That is why I made her a happy-go-lucky college student who keeps falling in love just the way any college student does. That was the starting point of the whole journey.
Then the film went to deeper levels. I lost my son Ishan. So it went into finding myself through the loss. The film became about dealing with loss. Loss can be of different kinds. A break-up is a loss. Being disabled is a loss – the loss of the use of a limb. Loss is many different things in life which we face constantly. With the biggest one being death – something that is so scary for us and so difficult to accept. But I was able to accept this and the film became about acceptance. Laila accepting disability and death!
Only with deep acceptance can you have inner peace. In the penultimate scene of Margarita, Laila is sitting by herself near one of the historic tombs in Delhi. She looks up at the sky and smiles as she feels her mother’s presence. She feels the light of the universe shining down on her from the sky. This has been my experience with Ishan’s soul. I live in Santa Monica and bike down to the bluffs everyday, do my yoga and meditation there and talk to him. And he always replies. I feel his presence strongly.
SSZEE: How did you find the strength to continue and complete your film through the loss of your son?
SB: Ishan died in 2010. I started writing the story on January 20th 2011, his 17th birthday. In those months and the rest of the year, I actively dealt with grief. I embraced my pain head on; did not turn away from it. And in doing so I transcended it. I had not read Rumi at the time but I did later and used his quote at the end of the film. The wound is the place where the light enters you….I added 3 little words – if you let it. Many of us block our pain and the wound just festers within, never healing.
I had gone through that when my mother, who was the centre of my life, died in Bombay when I was just 21. That loss lingered for many years. I didn’t know how to deal with pain. I was angry about her death due to medical negligence and could not accept it. I was courageous on the outside but not healed or peaceful inside.
When I lost my child, I decided I was not going to go through that again. I decided to do “grief work”, as I call it. I was also being guided by Ishan. On the day of his funeral I got a clear message from him – “Mamma, I didn’t need to be on this earth anymore.”
That made me understand something profound and deep. We mourn when someone dies below the age of 100 because it feels like they didn’t get to live their whole lives. But what if they didn’t need to? What if there was a soul that took on a body on earth because it needed to learn certain things and when that was done it could go? Many religions, particularly Eastern, have written about this. I was an atheist at the time and did not have the comfort of this wisdom or any faith. But I clearly got the wisdom and enlightenment from my son. And continue to be guided every day.
So the long answer to your question is – that this process of both accepting the death and honouring the loss and pain by paying attention to it every single day instead of numbing it with addictions is what gave me the strength to live; to mother my second son; to make a difficult film at the same time.
People ask me if Margarita, with a Straw was therapeutic for me. If you’re avoiding pain in real life, then a film or a book can be therapeutic because you are processing your emotions through a fictional thing. But that was not the case with me. I was taking responsibility for my feelings and taking care of them. It was empowering and the start of huge personal growth
When I went into shooting the film, I would break down on the sets sometimes. When we were shooting scenes at the hospital, the smell of the hospital would bring back painful memories.
I would say “action” and then suddenly start howling in front of a hundred people. But because of my ability to be in touch with my emotions and take care of them, it would not disable me. I was comfortable being vulnerable in public and that’s a very powerful thing. That is how I made the film.
I have spoken about this at so many festivals because I feel there’s an important lesson here. We are told that we have to keep our emotions separate from our professional lives. If you lose someone there is sympathy in the beginning and then impatience and discomfort. You are told to “move on.” As if there can be such a thing!
As the Producer and Director of Margarita I was the boss; the leader on that set. I got to set the rules of the workplace. And in my workplace emotion was honoured. Women particularly feel on film sets that they need to be aggressive and shout to assert their authority over a largely male crew. I was the opposite.
I was quiet and I wept loudly and hugely when I needed to. But no one questioned my work! When you write honestly and fearlessly from a deep place within you and you work hard with your actors for weeks for that vision to materialize – then you cannot lose track or authority with a bout of tears. In fact being able to feel your own vulnerability enhances and sharpens your instincts on what to do on the set. Specially on this kind of story.
SSZEE: The casting for Margarita, with a Straw is one of its strong points in the film’s success. Actresses like Revathy, Kalki Koechlin and even Sayani Gupta fit into their roles perfectly. What made you approach these actresses particularly for the roles?
SB: The entire credit goes to Nilesh Maniyar who was the co-writer, co-director, producer as well as the casting director of the film. Of course the director has the final say but all the actors were his suggestions.
With Sayani it was different. I auditioned her 4-5 times because she was just not being able to crack it. But he convinced me to cast her. We couldn’t find anybody else. We had approached both well known and unknown actors. I would say that 90 percent of the actors for Khanum’s role turned it down because she was an out and out gay girl and there was a love scene. Sayani had the courage to do that.
But somehow in the audition she wasn’t impressing me. I found that she was not able to go into what I needed for her character who was blind. I needed her to feel her inner power and strength. Then I found a way to have her crack it. I taught her meditation. The moment she learnt meditation, her performance changed.
With Revathy of course, you don’t have to teach her acting. Her presence is so amazing. But she was not the first person we had cast. We had actually cast Sarika because she looked the most like Kalki’s mother. Due to date changes we had to let her go. We decided we could not get bogged down by making the family look like a family – and so then Revathy was a slam dunk right suggestion by Nilesh. As soon as she read the script she said yes and I was thrilled.
We cast Kalki because she was the only one who could pull that performance off. Kalki was a brilliant choice. She had to do an audition for me. But the moment she did it, I knew she was the right person.
SSZEE: Did you audition anyone other than Kalki for the role?
SB: At first we only auditioned Kalki. I told her that she had to work with me for six months to get into that role. She agreed. But a month later, another film that she was doing Yeh Jawani hai Diwani got pushed back and would have delayed our shoot by six months. Up to that point we hadn’t approached anyone else. I apologized and said that I really couldn’t wait six months for her.
Kalki was so upset. The director of Yeh Jawani requested me to work it out and shoot the films simultaneously. I said “are you crazy? For 6 months I need to just train her, only after which I can start shooting my film.” Kalki understood. Nilesh then auditioned a hundred girls.
Only one out of the hundred fitted the part. I gave her the role. But after she got it, she asked for a change in the script which I completely didn’t agree with. I felt she didn’t trust the material. I told her the same thing I told Kalki – that she had to exclusively train for Margarita and not even shoot a commercial for one day in that time period. She was unable to give this level of commitment.
Kalki on the other hand understood that. When she committed, she understood the need for hard work, discipline and trust in the director. I wanted a person who fully embraced the script.
I had spent two years writing and re-writing the script and knew I had something of depth. I trusted the material and the actors would have to trust it too or it would be a problem. So we went back to Kalki but our film shoot got pushed back from October to February. As a result Sarika couldn’t do it and Revathy stepped in.
SSZEE: You worked with no compromises on the cast and crew, appointing some of the best industry professionals to realize your vision. Resul Pookutty (Oscar winner for sound mixing in Slumdog Millionnaire) is the sound mixer for your film. Prasoon Joshi, one of India’s finest writers, worked on the song lyrics. National Award-winner Niharika Bhasin is the costume designer.
How hard was it for you as an independent filmmaker with just one film behind you to convince such established names to believe in your vision?
SB: Not at all (hard)! Resul was on Amu. The question actually becomes how did I get people for Amu? It was based entirely on the script because I was an unknown person then. But the script was brilliant. Resul came on to work for Amu; then did Chittagong which I co-wrote with my ex-husband Bedabrata Pain; then Margarita, with a Straw. I would say it comes down to the script.
I met Prasoon when we approached him to do the lyrics for Chittagong. In fact after Ishan died it was his idea to do a song for Ishan and incorporate it in the film. It’s such a fantastic song and sequence and even more moving as it was sung by Bedo (Bedabrata, Shonali’s ex-husband). I’ll always be grateful to Prasoon for that. He has been my champion since that time and hugely supportive of me. He loved the script of Margarita. Later he told Aamir Khan that I was a tougher taskmaster than Aamir as I made him rewrite songs zillions of times! He had never done that for anyone else.
I knew Niharika since we were children. We were from the same school (Lawrence School, Sanawar). She didn’t take a penny for doing the film.
The important thing here is that because of the script and subject, Resul, Prasoon and Niharika would have all come on board even if I had not known them. The material is so rich. They loved Amu so Margarita was safe for them because they had seen my work and appreciated my direction. It was a cakewalk for me. I actually could have got anybody from the industry for the cast and crew of Margarita. The issue was really about funding.
Funding was a nightmare because of the subject material. People loved it but were hesitant. I said “if you loved the subject, why do you think the audiences won’t?” They said that a main character who was gay, disabled and female was not going to fly with the Indian audience. Despite having names like Resul, Prasoon and Niharika, funding was not easy. They didn’t think the film would make money.
SSZEE: This might be the only Indian film which deals with the subject of bisexuality as realistically as possible. Were you at any point hesitant about showing Laila’s self discovery?
SB: Not at all! When I was writing, the question came up very organically on something that I felt strongly about. After I wrote ten drafts in the first year, many people like Anurag Kashyap were excited by it and offered to produce it. Laila was not bisexual at that point. She fell in love with Jared and all these male characters. Khanum existed just as a friend of hers who was gay.
After I continued to write, I went deeper into the characters. At one point Laila spoke to me. She said, “I wanted to be with Khanum. She is much cooler than Jared. Why are you making me be with Jared and not Khanum?” I was thrilled! This is what you dream of as a writer – that your character will speak to you! Actually, it was my subconscious coming into play.
When I was in college, like Laila I thought I was straight and would have crushes on boys till this one girl came along and blew my mind. What was at first a friendship blossomed into deep love. I didn’t question myself at the time even though I didn’t know what gay meant at the time. It just felt so natural and pure to me. So it was that Shonali speaking to me through Laila! Of course as soon as I made this change we lost half the film funding.That’s when the question came in whether I should go forward with this script or return it to the way it was.
As an activist, knowing how important this issue is in India, I carried on. But it made it a much harder struggle to get money for it then. Nilesh had to get it from personal sources. His uncle gave us half the funding. We could not get a single producer or studio in Bombay to give the other half. But I do not regret making the character bisexual and I would not change it.
SSZEE: Margarita, With a Straw is an unusual name for an unusual story. Where did that name come from? You had a different title for the film in India? What made you stick with the same?
SB: We did not have a different title for the film in India. The title was to remain the same even in India. In 2011 when I finished the very first draft on Ishan’s birthday, the title just came to me. When the character orders a margarita I wasn’t thinking of the title. I just chose a margarita because it happens to be my favourite cocktail and the character has it with a straw because she is disabled. So this title popped in my head. And I loved the sound of it and also realised it had a deeper meaning.
There is a cliché saying that when life hands you lemons, you can be bitter and sour or you can make lemon juice.
I went a step further by implying that when life hands you lemons, you can have a margarita and raise a toast to life! So basically it’s the whole philosophy of looking at the glass half empty or half full. If life is hard, turn it around. That’s what was happening in my own life and in Laila’s. Laila took her disability on her chin and carried on in life as normal. She didn’t act like a disabled person.
At one point, Aamir Khan came on for the release of the film. He told me “you’ve got to have a Hindi title for the film in India”. One of Prasoon’s songs had the words “chhoone chali aasman”.
Aamir loved the words but we felt it didn’t have the same ring to it as the original. But I told Aamir that I trust him because he had a pulse on the Indian audience. So our trailers went out with this title attached to PK. However, sadly there was a disagreement between Aamir and the studio so the release with him fell through. At which point it went back to being a more “indie” release with about 250 prints. We felt for that audience the original title was better.
SSZEE: It’s no surprise the film swept awards at International film festivals. But it is refreshing to see the film picking up the Colours Stardust 2015 Filmmaker of the Year trophy in India. How does this recognition make you feel?
SB: I was extremely confident of the film’s success in India. It’s the international response I was unsure of. In fact I was really nervous in Toronto at the TIFF world premier because this is not an Art House film. This is a very happy film. This is why we had trouble picking up distribution in Europe, although we had been to many festivals where we won awards.
Distributors were concerned that it was not Art House or dark or edgy enough. Those are the kind of films they want to pick up. It really affected us financially abroad. Even American distributors told us that it is more of a mainstream film because it’s a feel-good film like Bend it with Beckham or Monsoon Wedding. But because it’s gay, it’s not mainstream. Getting into Toronto was a major break for us.
To get a standing ovation from the 1,000 people, including yourself, at the TIFF world premier will remain the highlight of this film’s journey for me. If you recall it was a long sustained ovation and I started crying I was so moved and taken aback.
Later Cameron Bailey (Festival Director) told me that in all these years there were very rare such complete standing ovations. Toronto audiences were usually tough. That experience has been how the whole journey of the film has been internationally. Over 120 film festivals and 25 major awards. But it was a surprise.
I was absolutely thrilled when I got the very first Indian award for the film – the Stardust Colors Award for Filmmaker of the Year. I am a huge fan of Hindi cinema and love all the stars. To be at that kind of award function where everybody was present from Amitabh Bachchan to Ranveer Singh and to speak on stage was very exciting. Stardust started the award season and since we had 4 nominations there I was hopeful for more.
I was confident that Kalki would sweep the awards this season with her stellar performance. In fact at Tallinn Black Nights Film Festival she won Best Actress and Eddie Redmayne won Best Actor (going on to win an Oscar). That’s the level of her performance. But in India thus far she only won it at Star Screen Awards and Filmfare didn’t even nominate the film in a single category!
Now the National Awards will be announced. Amu got two awards (Best Film, Best Director), Chittagong got three and if Margarita, With A Straw is going to be treated differently because it has gay content, it will be very upsetting. I have seen the reactions of everybody who loved the film from Indian critics to journalists to the stars and studio heads. They all came out of the private screenings howling and hugging and that cannot be made-up. So let’s see what happens!
I wish we had an Indian equivalent of the Oscars which you feel is not political. Today Indian cinema has broadened so much. We have such amazing films. That’s why I made the effort to go to India to pick up the Filmmaker of the Year award. I was happy to be nominated with four very good films such as Talvar, Masaan, Titli and NH10.
SSZEE: Your first film Amu was about the 1984 Anti-Sikh riots in India. Your second film has a radically different storyline but an equally powerful subject. You’re essentially a city girl, who has grown up in Kolkata and Mumbai. Where did your deep convictions, radical thinking and interest in translating them into films come from?
SB: Fully from the cities! I grew up being completely radicalized in my childhood from both my parents who were involved in charity work. My mother did a lot of work for the disabled and my father worked for the poor. We used to go to Mother Teresa’s home a lot. I got my deep compassion for the less fortunate from my parents.
I was always very upset about the way servants were relegated to the servant’s quarters in the house or how they lived in the slums. My heart used to break thinking about the inequality in their lives. I’m talking about the time when I was five years old. I was also radicalized by my aunt Brinda Karat and participated in demonstrations for workers, peasants and women’s rights from a young age.
In Delhi University I was influenced by communism. I was extremely political wondering why we came from such an unequal society. But it came from the place of heart, not from the place of ideology.
When 1984 (Anti-Sikh riots) happened, I was in first year college where I worked in the camps. That’s where Amu came from. I have grown up with disability and I was a gay rights activist, so these things come naturally to me. It is growing up in cities like Kolkata, Mumbai and Delhi that gave me these views. I was a firebrand activist!
SSZEE: When we talk about movies dealing with the portrayal of cerebral palsy, two movies come to mind – My Left Foot and Spandan and there’s a 23 years gap between the two. Why do you think film makers hesitate to take more risks on such awareness-oriented subjects?
SB: That’s a really interesting question. When I started making this film, I was looking through other films made on the subject of cerebral palsy to see how cinema has explored it. There were not many. I wonder if it is because of lack of funding for stories where the protagonist is disabled! I faced that too.
Making your lead character disabled is not easy. People only want to see beautiful people on screen. By beautiful, I mean an intact body. Showing a blind person is different because the body is still beautiful like Rani Mukherjee in Black. But when you have to twist your mouth or you have cluttered speech, it’s different.
We heard from a French distributor why Margarita was not getting picked up in France .“French people are very open about sex but we just want to see beautiful people having sex. We do not want to see disabled bodies having sex,” he said. I was shocked with this answer! It could be to do with that.
People have an aversion towards a disabled main character which means the limbs are twisted, speech is cluttered, tongue is all over the place. This affects the box office. It brings up a mirror to people’s faces and makes them uncomfortable to see it on the large screen.
The disabled are not integrated into mainstream society and are kept hidden away. The able bodied person is uncomfortable with disability. The whole thing about the body beautiful especially about women is something that is faced even in the west. George Clooney and Robert De Niro keep working but how many older women other than Meryl Streep, get a chance? I think the emphasis on the young, beautiful female body has a lot to do with that.
SSZEE: What can we expect next from Shonali Bose?
SB: I’m so into masala Bollywood (laughs). I want to combine politics with masala because I want to cross that final frontier. Because firstly, I don’t want to struggle for money! I am done with that. More than that, I want to go out and reach larger audiences so that I can touch their hearts. Yes, it was fantastic to go from releasing in 6 theatres with Amu to releasing in 250 theatres with Margarita, with a Straw. But that’s just a drop in the ocean of the Indian audience.
I look at some of the successful commercial films that I loved this year like Dil Dhadakne Do, PK, Bajrangi Bhaijaan and Piku. It’s clear that there are different kinds of stories that are attracting different kinds of people.
I am very excited about an all-women story that I have thought of that I can’t tell you about now. I have also been commissioned to write a script for somebody that I feel very emotional about. It’s about a girl, Aisha Chaudhary, who watched the trailer of Margarita, with a Straw about 30 times last January when she was 18. She said “I hope I don’t die before I see the film”.
When she was 14, she was detected with pulmonary fibrosis and only had 5 years to live. Yesterday (January 25th) was her death anniversary when I started writing this script that her parents hired me for. They tracked me down and said “we only want one filmmaker in the world to make the story on our child. We want you to do it!”
That is why I’m working on the story (tentatively) titled “The Sky is Pink”. It will a Hindi film. That is my next commitment and it comes from my heart, dealing with death, motherhood and spirituality.
I’m excited about this, the women oriented film and the other masala Hindi film. I’m also for the first time looking for scripts from other writers. So if any of you reading this know a good writer or have a good story please email me at firstname.lastname@example.org
Interview was conducted by Joyeeta Ray for SSZee Media
Joyeeta Ray is the Editor in Chief for SSZEE MEDIA, where she brings her multiple interests and multi country experience to the enterprising portal, that is based in London, Mumbai, Toronto and Los Angeles. She is also an advertising consultant, published author and blogger, currently residing in Toronto, Canada.