Today I’m serving you a dope interview with Shonali Bose, director and writer of the critically acclaimed film Margarita with a Straw, a film I reviewed only a couple of weeks ago.
Black Nerd Problems:Thank you for taking the time to speak with me! It’s an honor to be able to talk to you; I loved the film. Just so you are aware I am recording this conversation—I can’t type as fast as we’re talking!
Shonali Bose: That’s completely fine. I’m glad you’re recording because I talk really fast.
Um, about that…I fucked up. Or rather, I downloaded some stupid fucking app that ended up dropping the recording the minute I picked up the phone, so it fucked up. (Note to self: even though an app works through several trial runs, it can still screw you over in the worst way.)
Luckily I was paranoid enough to have taken meticulous notes throughout our conversation, and so while I don’t have as many direct quotes as I would have liked, I still have pretty much most of our conversation. Thank goodness too, because she said some pretty awesome shit.
BNP: I know the script underwent some serious changes in the process of writing it. What are some changes after your final draft was written that that resulted from suggestions by your co-writer or from the way you saw the actors play their parts?
SB: Initially Laila was a straight character. Originally when Khanum — who was always written as a gay activist—hits on her, she says, “no, I’m straight.” I was told by the Sundance Lab that Laila felt like an external character in a sense—that she wasn’t being written from the heart. Once I began writing Laila as an extension of myself rather than purely based on Malini, I began to actually hear the character Laila speak to me: “Of course I want to sleep with Khanum! Why would I want the boring British guy?”
Fun fact from Shonali: Originally, the scene in which she first starts making out with her hot British classmate, Jared (played by William Moseley), one of her love interests in the film, begins after he helps her use a bathroom without disabled access. In the original script, once he helps her put her underwear and pants back on, he gets her back into her wheelchair, they move into the living room, and they begin making out. She was told by a member of the Sundance Lab, “Oh honey, shouldn’t they start in the bathroom when he takes off her panties? Is that not sexy?” The change makes the sequence much more organic, and adds more realism to the way the scene plays out.
BNP: A lot of times scenes in films have to get cut in the editing process. Are there any scenes that were cut that you wish you could have kept in the film?
SB: There was a caretaker scene cut from the international release included in the Indian release (cut for redundancy, since Laila’s mother was in a sense her caretaker before Khanum steps in). The caretaker is a battered woman who cares for Laila once her mother leaves to head back for India. The scene was kept in the Indian release because Shonali was worried that the fact that Laila’s mother leaves her alone in New York would be poorly received by Indian audiences. This caretaker stays with Laila until her decision to move in with Khanum, and Laila says to the caretaker that she does not need her anymore. The emotional reaction of her caretaker demonstrates that it is she who needed Laila to recover from her past, and this becomes another period of growth for Laila. The Americans accomplices on the team felt that the scene should be cut to make the film tighter. Shonali stressed the pressure placed on her to make cuts left and right in order to make the film what it is now.
SB: Of course, you would not have seen this scene as you only saw the international version, but this is only an example.
BNP You’ve said you consider Margarita to be a Bollywood film. Do you consider yourself specifically a Bollywood director?
SB: You might have read that, but Margarita is actually not a Bollywood film.
The film was heavily touted as such for marketing purposes in order to garner a large audience for the wide-release. Because she wasn’t sure how Indian audiences would receive the film, it was promoted as being uplifting, having Indian music and dancing (which it technically does, even though it’s basically casual living room dancing), and having a heroine facing her coming of age.
SB: I made the film so it would work internationally. In that sense there is no genre for this film; it’s not art house, although it worked really well in art house and limited release theatres in the United States. It’s not a Hollywood film despite it being filmed in the US, and it is not a Bollywood film despite it being filmed in India. So it’s difficult because there really isn’t a category for this film.
BNP: That must make it hard to market.
Film festivals have given the piece critical acclaim; those accolades had to be removed from the film poster to keep Indian audiences from looking at Margarita as a dark, depressing art house film (such is the attitude toward art house films in India, sadly). Shonali noted that American audiences, however, have the opposite reaction to the art house label. If she had advertised it as a Bollywood film in the US it would most likely have gone to suburb theatres, which would have stood empty come the release date. Limited release was the perfect scene for US audiences, she noted, because that is where we see most films with an unconventional storyline sell the most seats.
BNP: As far as television goes the US seems pretty progressive when it comes to topics like sexuality and disability despite not seeing a lot of that in movie theaters. How far do you think we are from seeing more films like Margarita in the mainstream, outside of limited-release theaters and film festivals?
SB: It is fascinating; you would think that television would be more conservative about the subjects it focuses on, but it really is the other way around. We have shows like Transparent, we have shows featuring Black actors, and yet on movie screens there is outcry over lack of diversity, and we see people boycotting the Oscars. I don’t think that we are too far away from having mainstream movies feature more diverse topics.
BNP: You studied filmmaking in the US and have filmed both in the states and in India. Are there any significant differences that you’ve noticed between the two when it comes to filmmaking?
SB: The India crew was a joy to work with—the effort was collaborative and it felt like there was serious dedication from the crew to get work done. The American crew, shockingly, was a lot more indifferent about the film.
For example, Shonali needed chairs to be set up in order to shoot a scene, but a crew member claimed that it “wasn’t his job” to set up chairs, only to line up the shots. One particularly awful day, Shonali called out a member of the crew (not unkindly, mind you) for showing up two hours late. In response that crew member sent a frighteningly racist (I’m talking worse than D-Drumpf-level racism—probably the kind of shit he says behind closed doors, when he finds the self-awareness to do so) e-mail to Shonali (with the entire crew CC’d in) saying that the “Indian dogs need to leave this country,” along with other terrible comments.
SB: I can’t really remember what else it said—I blacked it out after the event. I was [sobbing] after. I could not believe it. I have lived in the US my whole adult life and I have never had any racial epithets hurled at me [until that moment].
BNP: What can be done in the film industry—or in the world in general—to combat that?
SB: Just by including diversity in films and making change in small ways [can have tremendous impact on these things]. Having two Black lead characters fall in love isn’t a story about race; it’s about two people falling in love. We need to tell those stories.
BNP: Including diversity (both in race and in topics like ability and sexuality, like in Margarita) and making it feel normal without preaching, can be a great tool in undermining racism. Shonali has a protest scene that she wrote in tribute to the Black Lives Matter movement; the movie never states this explicitly, but the movement means a great deal to her and she wanted to honor it through film. Trayvon Martin died when she was writing the protest scene and he was around her son’s age when he died. Her aim to pay tribute is an example of how subtle she is in her inclusion of these events.
SB: This is why I became a filmmaker.
BNP: You’ve been interviewed a lot about this film. Are there any questions you wish people would ask about the creative process, the film itself, or even about yourself as a director?
SB: About the quote at the end of the film.
I won’t give away the quote, but I’ll give you this: the film was inspired by the loss of her son (when he was 16) and mother (when Shonali was 21). Shonali began writing the film four months after her son’s death, and right on his 17th birthday.
SPOILER ALERT, BE AWARE!
I’ll warn you when it’s over!
SB: “[One heart-wrenching death scene] happened exactly the way it happened in real life, in the hospital. She was in a coma. I was telling my mother to relax and breathe through the tube and the doctor came in and turned [her life support] off. I was in a lot of pain, and I was able to infuse that into my writing.”
BNP: Can you describe how your journey of discovering your sexuality played into the creative process for Margarita with a Straw?
SB: I was in a relationship with a woman when my mother died. I never got to come out to her. She was an amazing mother and I know she would have been accepting.
BNP: Shonali wrote Laila’s mother’s reaction in the film as initial distaste in order to connect with people who have gone through that similar experience. The reception after the film was incredible; many parents were coming up to her after the film, reveling in their new understanding of sexuality. MWAS gave young people the courage to come out to family members, and gave family members encouragement in supporting their loved ones. It gave people an awareness of the sexuality of the disabled. Family members of people with cerebral palsy gave Shonali high praise for touching on a subject one never sees on the silver screen.
SB: I would like to also have toured high schools to talk about Margarita [the way she had when Amu, her first movie, when it was released].
SPOILER ALERT OVER!
Resume reading at your leisure.
BNP: Do you have any projects currently in the works? When do you plan on directing your next film?
Shonali has 3 upcoming films on her plate, with no release date in sight just yet.
SB: Stories about young people really speak to me. I received a script set in New Orleans about a Black transgender woman who begins a relationship with a young woman.
BNP: This script was handed to Shonali by an American writer. Additionally, Shonali has written 2 scripts of her own. One is based on the true story of a young girl who dies from a terminal illness. Shonali has Skyped with the mother of the child, and the script is completed and is being handed out to Indian actresses to begin casting. Also ready for casting is a script she wrote about 6 girls in a low caste tribe who died from corrupt drug experimentation, and is set to be an American thriller about pharmaceutical industry.
SB: Illiterate girls are being taken advantage of by pharmaceutical companies [because they will be compliant in spite of their lack of understanding of the circumstances]. There is no regulation of the clinical trials for these drugs.
I was so excited to get the chance to talk to her, and after having seen Margarita I’m definitely looking forward to seeing new films from her. If you haven’t seen Margarita with a Straw yet, you can buy and watch it as of the 14th of this month (via any streaming site including iTunes, Amazon, and whatever else you can think of.) It is seriously such a treat. If you want a hard copy, the DVD will be released on the 18th! So what are you waiting for?