The year 2015 was not a pleasant one for the LGBT+ community of India. In 2013, Indian Supreme Court had re-criminalised homosexuality in 2013, overturning the Delhi HC’s hisotic judgement decriminalising homosexuality in 2009. In 2015, Lok Sabha member Shashi Tharoor presented a bill to decriminalise homosexuality but was squashed, and the Indian government held onto dictating that consensual sex between adults of same gender is a crime.
In that same year, Shonali Bose’s film Margarita, With a Straw was released and it seeped well with the audience.
Many gay people in India brought their families to the movie and came out to them. Shonali also had parents reaching out to her and saying her work was eye-opening.
Yet homosexuality is just one aspect of the story her film tells. The protagonist Laila- played by Kalki Koechlin- is a teenager with cerebral palsy. As she comes of age, Laila explores sexuality as she moves to study at New York University on a scholarship. As such, her story cannot be simply boiled down to couple of issues. There is love, learning of sexual orientation, betrayal, and loss of loved ones, but most importantly, it is telling of what life is like for an ordinary girl grappling with cerebral palsy.
The film was based on Shonali’s differently-abled cousin Malini’s life, gracefully steered away from the usual narrative; triumphing despite the disability.
First screened at the Toronto Film Festival in 2014, the movie went on to earn 22 international awards including The Network for promotion of Asian Cinema (NETPAC) Award, Grand Prix Jury Award for Best Film, among others.
And this was just the beginning.
Reeling in reality
As a student, Shonali - born to Bengali parents and brought up in Mumbai and Delhi - took part in theatre activities but did not see herself taking up the cinema professionally. She was an activist at heart and later resorted to films as an effective means to communicate ideas about social and political change. She saw filmmaking as an activist’s best friend. And the few films that Shonali has produced masters her purpose. Her debut film Amu – which was adapted from her own novel of the same name - traces an immigrant Indian’s route to the anti-Sikh riot of 1984, looking at the turbulent period with a personal touch. Amu won the National Film Award for the for Best Feature Film in English in 2005.
A political science graduate from Columbia University and trained at the UCLA Film School, Shonali pours her heart into work. She has said, “My whole thing is to use my art to convert an issue into a story that is emotional and relatable, so that people who don’t care about the issue of sexuality or disability— or genocide or communal violence—will be drawn into that.”
Now in her mid 50s, Shonali has also directed short films like The Gendarme Is Here and Undocumented, and a documentary titled Lifting the Veil. Her most recent work, The Sky Is Pink, based on the motivational speaker Aisha Chaudhary, was screened at Toronto film festival last month.
Fighting as a woman, for women
Shonali was determined to continue as a filmmaker after completing her first short film at UCLA film school at the age of 29. She was pregnant and while there were fathers in her class, she became the first woman ever in the film school to have a child. This was 1992, when the field of production was primarily dominated by men. The lack of space and empathy from the administration made things difficult for Shonali. Two weeks after giving birth, she came back to the school fearing she’ll lose the scholarship funding.
But in her own way, she made it clear that she was here to stay – as a working woman with a child, raising eyebrows along the way. In fact, once when she was directing in a male-packed television studio, her sister brought in her infant son who was hungry. The room fell silent as Shonali breastfed him while commanding her direction.
At the time, she said, “I'm not going to stop directing right now because Ishan's hungry! Ishan can be with Mama and Mama can still work.” These, Shonali recounts, were her little additions to diversifying the workplace.
If the scholarship had not come her way, Shonali has said, she would have returned to India and settled with teaching history and contribute to social change. But that would have deprived the world of some radical storytelling, would have been a loss for everyone except herself. She would have carried on impacting lives of her students in ways we shall not know.