As one of the very few movies with a homosexual woman in the small city of Moga in Punjab and backed by a major Bollywood production house, Ek Ladki Ko Dekha Toh Aisa Laga directed by Shelly Chopra is already transformational on many accounts. It is a coming-of-age story of a closeted woman, Sweety Chaudhary (played by Sonam Kapoor Ahuja). Her brother who has been aware of her sexuality ever since childhood threatens to oust her. He claims that their father Balbir Chaudhary (played by Anil Kapoor), the richest man in their town, would be shocked and be the laughing stock of the town if anybody ever finds out about her ‘disease’; the disease being homosexuality. In one of his frail attempts to threaten Sweety, he tells their family that she is in love with a Muslim man and which then leads to her family wanting her to marry Kabir (played by Rajkumar Rao); him being the Muslim boy she was apparently in love with. She comes out to him, and he, in turn, helps her come out to her family. All this happens in a grand Bollywood-esque gesture replete with monologues and song-and-dance sequences in a play about a lesbian couple that is actually the exact story of the movie. So far, so good.
However, other than it being the first of its kind, what exactly about this movie is new? One of the recurring motifs in the movie is the gender atypical behaviour of Balbir who loves cooking and aspired to be a chef, but his mother forbade him to pursue what they deemed was a feminized hobby. This is the affliction he endured, which presumably led him to understand the guardhouse of glass that being a homosexual woman in a small town. The forced parallel that was drawn here is almost asinine. It almost feels like a superficial understanding and cosmetic treatment of the subject of homosexuality, given that many professional chefs are men. Balbir could have fit right in with this contradiction as it doesn’t affect him much anywhere in the rest of the film. He couldn’t make a career of his hobby, the question that should have been asked by the writers and directors in that is sexuality a hobby that can be erased away? Is the structural oppression against the LGBTQIA+ community pertaining to their marginalized sexuality which then affects other parts of their life such as education, gainful employment, housing etc. similar to the structural oppression of a man being refused to engage in a career that is not a part of his social scripting? Is tackling with the grief of not being able to make money in X way the same as grappling with the fact that not only are you a woman but a homosexual woman in a society that thinks homosexuality can be cured and often burns and kills you for anything that comes in the way of its honour. Of course, forcing men to conform to gender roles is appalling. However, the chances of them being killed for it, or worse, deeming it as illegal is negligible. But the movie makes Sweety conform right in with the idea of a sanskari naari, which brings us to a second point: what’s renegade about a movie whose protagonist is a subservient woman?
Given that Ek Ladki Ko Dekha Toh Aisa Laga has been made post 377, the general understanding is that people with marginalized sexualities have other pressing issues such as the need for supporting caregivers, legal advisors, healthcare facilities, non-discriminatory employment opportunities. Thus, fitting into patriarchal structures is the least of their priorities. It is about creating a new and non-binary narrative that deconstructs the oppressive structures such as heteropatriarchal order. As the movie has been co-written by Ghazal Dhaliwal whose journey as a transwoman has been documented variously, it is rather sad that Sweety needed a cisgender heterosexual man Kabir to become her saviour. While the movie is being hailed as the first ever movie to be made on homosexual women in India, Deepa Mehta’s Fire made in 1996 dealt with the same subject but with a lot more nuance. The sexual desire between female protagonists in Fire was portrayed transgressing the physical and emotional realms of intimacy whereas Shelly Chopra’s movie plays rather safe by limiting the portrayal to a hug between Sweety and Kuhu that was as discreet as the fluttering of flowers in 60s cinema.
It’s rather sad that the Indian film industry has done so little to understand LGBTIQA+ communities given India is the largest film producing country in the world. From the stereotyping of LGBTIQA+ people into wimps, as opposed to the macho heroes of 60s and 70s, to overtly feminized and glamourous hijras in 90s, they have always been represented as an aberration. When one makes a movie on homosexuality in a post-decriminalization India, it can not be completely divorced from the politics of the subject. Apart from the inherent objective of entertainment, issue-based films are also responsible for educating and enlightening the audience. The film could have addressed so many adjacent issues such as transphobic bullying in schools, ‘othering’ of anything and everything beyond heteronormativity etc. The film even failed to develop Sweety’s character and she was predominantly defined by her being a homosexual woman with no other unique character trait or employment or life goals. So yes, Ek Ladki Ko Dekha Toh Aisa Laga might be the very first mainstream positive LGBTQIA+ representation in Bollywood, but does that make it revolutionary? We think not.