Film-maker Shonali Bose turns the lens on cerebral palsy and a young woman's sexual awakening, says Sushmita Biswas
Pic by RUPINDER SHARMA
Los Angeles-based NRI film-maker Shonali Bose doesn't believe in any set rules of film-making. But, the director, who first shot to fame with her film Amu in 2005, has one rule she follows firmly — she always deals with subjects that might be taboo for most film-makers.
In Amu, which had Konkona Sen Sharma in the lead, Bose dealt with the still sensitive issue of the 1984 Sikh massacre in Delhi. Now, years later, she is at it again, probing a sensitive subject of a different sort. In her latest film, Margarita, with a Straw, Bose tells the tale of a 19-year-old girl with cerebral palsy, who embarks on a quest to explore her own sexuality. The spirited story won her the Best Asian Film award at the 39th Toronto International Film Festival recently.
So why did she choose to make a film on such an unconventional subject? Says Bose: "The inspiration came from my pishi's (paternal aunt) daughter, Malini, who has cerebral palsy. We literally grew up together." She recounts an incident when she was having a drink with Malini at a London pub a few months before Malini's 40th birthday.
"When I asked her how she wanted to celebrate, her normally garbled speech came out crystal clear as she banged her fist on the table saying that all she wanted to do was to have sex. I was taken aback by the honest remark and her raw yearning remained with me. Many years later, when I was thinking of my next film, it became the germ of the story," she explains. Today, her cousin, Malini, works at Tata Consultancy Services, London, where she formulates gender policies. She has two Masters degrees.
Bose says that she started writing the film's script after going through a personal tragedy when her elder son Ishan died in a freak accident in late 2010. After dealing with the loss, she picked up the pen to write the film's first draft in January 2011 on the day of her son's 17th birthday. "I was able to celebrate him even though he was no longer there, and that gave me the courage to write," she recalls.
Bose has written, produced and directed Margarita,... along with Nilesh Maniyar. The film has Kalki Koechlin as the protagonist, Laila, while actress Revathy plays her mother.
In Bose’s latest film, Margarita, with a Straw, Kalki Koechlin plays a 19-year-old girl with cerebral palsy who is discovering her own sexuality
So why did she choose Kalki? She replies: "The short answer is her luminous smile. The long answer is that she's not just a talented actor but understands the need for intense hard work. She immersed herself completely in the preparation for this film, undergoing three months of intense training."
Bose is known to draw her characters from real life. So, while scripting Amu, she drew from her own first-hand experience of working in the relief camps that were set up after the Sikh massacre. And in Margarita, with a Straw, the fact that Laila undergoes a process of sexual awakening is at least partly derived from her experience with her cousin. She also chose to shoot half her film in New Delhi and half in New York, the two cities where she studied.
Bose was born in Calcutta and grew up there as well as in Mumbai and Delhi. She studied history at Miranda House college. Soon afterwards her mother died and she wanted to get away so she moved to the US and did her M.A. at Columbia University.
After college, she worked for a year in the US at the National Lawyers Guild. She then directed live community television in Manhattan before enrolling for the Program in Directing at the University of California, Los Angeles. After finishing film school, she taught direction at the New York Film Academy. Meanwhile she began working on her first feature film in 2000.
But while Amu was feted on the festival circuit in Toronto and Berlin, Bose went through her fair share of struggles to make it. For instance, she recalls how even independent producers were unwilling to invest in the risky subject. Bose somehow managed to complete it with support from her family and the Sikh community, only to run into trouble with the Censor Board of India. "They gave it an A certificate even though there was no sex or violence in the film. They also removed all references to the government's organisation of what was called a 'riot'," says Bose.
She then spent the next few years co-scripting Chittagong, which was directed by her former husband Bedabrata Pain in 2012. Actually, Bose considers herself to be a scriptwriter first and then a film-maker. As a writer, she is extremely disciplined and delves deeply into any topic that she takes up. "I am a disciplined writer and take two to three years to write a film. I write a minimum of 30 drafts of my screenplay," says Bose, who loves to create powerful characters.
She is also an avid reader and film buff. A passionate Yoga enthusiast, Bose never misses out on her exercise even for a day because "that's what keeps me peaceful and centred through all the turmoil of life and filmmaking", she says. She divides her time between India and Los Angeles, where her younger son, Vivan, 16, studies. She says: "Once my son gets into college, I plan to move back to India."
Right now, though, her focus is on releasing Margarita,... in India with Viacom 18 Motion Pictures in February 2015. She says: "More than winning awards and getting good reviews, I want my film to release in India."