Mainstreaming homosexualityFor as long as films have been made, one basic narrative form, also known as the ‘Classical Hollywood Narrative’, has been the norm—there’s a hero, who is male, and he falls in love with a heroine, who is female.
For as long as films have been made, one basic narrative form, also known as the ‘Classical Hollywood Narrative’, has been the norm—there’s a hero, who is male, and he falls in love with a heroine, who is female.
Ek Ladki Ko Dekha Toh Aisa Laga too begins with a hero pursuing his heroine. Rajkummar Rao, who plays playwright Sahil Mirza, is trying hard to prove to his parents that he can make a living off writing theatre. He meets his love interest Sweety Chaudhary (Sonam Kapoor Ahuja) after she storms into one of his rehearsals. It’s love at first sight for Sahil, who has no idea what is to come.
Had this been any other mainstream Bollywood film, we’d see Sahil fall for Sweety, understand love, become a better writer, and a better person as a whole. Because that is what years of Bollywood cinema has trained us to expect from a film, and especially because the film is titled, Ek Ladki ko Dekha Toh Aisa Laga. What we expect is what we get, but only until the interval. It’s here that Classical Hollywood Narrative is shattered and for the first time in a mainstream Bollywood film, we see the heroine fall in love—not with the hero, but another woman.
It turns out that Sahil is not the hero but only a narrator for Sweety. This is her story and she falls in love with another girl!
This is the story of the many Sweetys, all across small towns in India who can never imagine declaring their feelings owing to the patriarchal, conservative structures of society. In the film, Sweety’s only confidante is her diary, where she lets out her feelings and sketches what she wishes would be her future. Our hero Sweety’s only goal is to come out to her family, especially her father Balbir Chaudhary (Anil Kapoor).
Gazal Dhaliwali and Shelly Chopra Dhar (also the director) collaborated on the screenplay for the film and they give Sweety a few obstacles to overcome before achieving her primary goal. The writing ticks all the boxes of a mainstream Bollywood masala. But it definitely feels honest because writer Dhaliwali is herself part of the LGBTIQ community. She lived most of her life as a boy and therefore, has a good grasp on how frustrating and emotionally draining it can be to be closeted. The writer has always unapologetically spoken against the film and TV mainstream culture of ridiculing LGBTIQ characters over the years. There are moments that will derive genuine laughter from the audiences but never at the expense of the lesbians depicted on screen.
Sweety’s major obstacle comes in the form of her brother, Babloo Chaudhary (Abhishek Duhan). Babloo becomes aware of Sweety’s sexual preference after he catches her with Kuhu (Regina Cassandra) and resorts to blackmailing her. Owing to his conservative upbringing, Babloo is hell bent on getting his sister married off to a man. He’d rather accept Sahil, who is from a different religion, rather than a girl as Sweety’s life partner. However, Sahil, the good-natured human being and just the ally Sweety needs, will help her through. Penned as the biggest antagonist, Babloo never accepts Sweety as a lesbian. Even when the film is over, you’re left to conclude that not everyone in India will accept lesbians whole-heartedly.
Anil Kapoor, who plays the father, is a joy to watch. His character is not written to be stern like those played by Amrish Puri in the 90s; rather, he is a happy but confused man who just requires some time to adjust. Many of the emotional scenes are a direct result of brilliant performances, especially from the veteran actors. Playing a father to his real-life daughter, Anil Kapoor lightens up the screen. The audience is left wanting more of him. His scenes and chemistry with another veteran, Juhi Chawla, bring a familiar joy.
The film’s producer Vidhu Vinod Chopra deserves a mention here. Chopra is famed for socially-responsible hit films like Munna Bhai MBBS and 3 Idiots. Besides being entertaining, those films made clear cases on the medical and educational sectors, respectively. Chopra is known to select projects that convey his discrepancy towards Indian culture. And it’s not just issue selection, his films put in the effort to make themselves appealing to both young and older audiences at the same time. And this effort has worked, because for a rather controversial subject like this, the film has earned a general certificate, which is in itself a huge achievement. Through Ek Ladki Ko Dekha Toh Aisa Laga, the filmmakers, and the Indian film fraternity, want to encourage family members to be more accepting of their children coming out as homosexuals.
The film does have drawbacks, which may not align well with the filmmakers’ cause. First, is the placement of the theme song. Similar to the name of the film, the theme song was popularised by Manisha Koirala and Anil Kapoor’s performance from Chopra’s 1994 hit 1942: A Love Story, and it plays almost haphazardly, multiple times—sometimes to establish locations and other times, almost forcefully trying to inject romance into mundane cheesy sequences.
Another drawback, sadly, is the lead actor. Sonam Kapoor looks like she’s trying too hard. She is dedicated to the film and her conviction is obvious, but that’s not a good thing for an actor. Her dialogue delivery is yet another problem, and it’s possible that these are highlighted even more because of the other splendid actors this film boasts. Sara Arjun who plays the younger Sweety Chaudhary is far more convincing an actor than Sonam. Even with only a few scenes, she draws more emotion than Sonam from her entire performance. We can’t help but wonder if the film would have felt different, in this case more convincing, had the lead actor been somebody else.
But the film is not entirely about performances; rather it’s about the issues it deals with. This film is already being called India’s ‘lesbian groundbreaker’ because it is the first mainstream film to dwell on a lesbian love story. Indian queer films make regular appearances in film festivals all over the world, the most popular being Deepa Mehta’s Fire featuring Shabana Azmi and Nandita Das romancing on screen some 20-plus years ago. Recently there was also Hansal Mehta’s Aligarh, which saw Manoj Bajpayee and Rajkummar Rao as a gay couple. But as is the nature of independent films, they were only appreciated by critics and cinephiles.
This film can be categorised as the first attempt by a mainstream Bollywood film to bring homosexuality to the common folk’s attention. Films like Brokeback Mountain and recently, Moonlight have been commended with various awards for bringing LGBTIQ stories to mainstream Hollywood.
However, the South Asian region that Bollywood communicates with culturally is far more orthodox than the other side of the world. In that regard, Ek Ladki Ko Dekha Toh Aisa Laga is the film our region needs to at least begin a discourse, and hopefully encourage others to follow suit.