Bollywood's first lesbian love story is in theatres now — and it's a big deal for queer South Asians
For these Toronto moviegoers, Ek Ladki Ko Dekha Toh Aisa Laga's barrier-breaking storyline hit close to home
Spoiler alert: this article mentions key plot points of the film Ek Ladki Ko Dekha Toh Aisa Laga.
In a key moment of Ek Ladki Ko Dekha Toh Aisa Laga (which translates to "How I Felt When I Saw That Girl") — described as Bollywood's first mainstream film to feature a lesbian romance as its central plot — the main character Sweety talks about her lonely experience growing up. As a young girl, she quickly understands she's different, that no one will understand her. So she pours herself into her diary, as it's the only safe space for her to be herself.
Watching the scene unfold at a downtown Toronto movie theatre on Saturday earlier this month, Pritwinder Kaur could not contain herself. As Sweety finally spoke her truth to her family, Kaur sobbed freely into the comforting embrace of her friend Kabir (not his real name), who cried alongside her as other friends passed tissues along to the duo.
"I think 70 per cent of the people I know have the same thing. We all put ourselves in the diary, and then we burnt it because we were scared — what if someone saw it? At least [Sweety] had the permission to keep her diaries. I didn't even have that, and that made me cry," says Kaur, speaking after the movie was over. Surrounded by her friends, who enveloped her in a group hug after they left the theatre, Kaur was still catching her breath as she explained her visceral reaction. Although she's now out to her family — who still don't fully accept her lesbian identity — as a child growing up in India, Kaur was scared for her life.
"I come from a [conservative] Sikh family in India. Whatever I wrote in my diary, I kept it for a month or two, and then I burnt it. I kept another one for another month or two and then I burnt it. Because I was scared that if anyone found my diary, I would be killed."
Kaur and Kabir were part of a group of a dozen people made up of members and friends of Queer South Asians and Allies of Toronto (QSAALT), who watched Ek Ladki Ko Dekha Toh Aisa Laga on opening weekend. Most of the attendees were recent immigrants from India who had moved to Canada between six months to two years ago. They described their outing as an opportunity to watch Bollywood take its first steps to come out of the closet, especially after India repealed a colonial era law in 2018 that criminalized homosexuality.
In the film, Sweety Chaudhary — played by one of Bollywood's A-list starlets Sonam Kapoor — is a young woman who grew up in the small town of Moga, Punjab. She belongs to a loud Punjabi family: there's the father Balbir (played by Kapoor's real-life father Anil Kapoor, famous outside India for his role as the game show host in Slumdog Millionaire), a conservative brother Babloo (Abhishek Duhan) and a doting grandmother Beeji (Madhumalti Kapoor). A series of circumstances and mistaken identities lead Sweety's family to believe that she's dating a Muslim playwright Sahil Mirza (Rajkummar Rao). However, Sweety is smitten with someone else.
Immense interest in the movie began to gather, especially from the South Asian queer community, after the release of the trailer in December 2018 with the tagline "The most unexpected romance of the year" and #LetLoveBe. The fleeting glimpse of two young women running together, holding hands was seen both ways: the movie could be a celebration of same-sex love — or it could be a cautionary tale that focused less on the romance and more on the challenges faced by the characters.
Nevertheless, the trailer promised a big step forward from the usual representation of queer identity in Indian cinema. Barring recent movies such as Kapoor & Sons and Veere Di Wedding that have shown sensitive depictions of queer supporting characters, Bollywood tends to cast queer characters as stereotypes: effeminate men, tomboyish girls or villainous eunuchs. Other movies that focused their lens of queer characters dealt with themes such as AIDS. In fact, Deepa Mehta's 1997 film Fire is considered to be the first film by a Canadian director of Indian origin that featured a lesbian romance; it drew widespread criticism from conservative quarters in India and its diasporas on its theatrical release.
"Movies like Ek Ladki Ko Dekha Toh Aisa Laga are not only progressive in a way that makes us feel good and pats our own backs, but they are essential and important to each and every child who feels out of place and abnormal," says Deepak Kashyap, a psychotherapist and founder of QSAALT. It so happens that two years ago, Kashyap — who was born in India and migrated to Canada via England and Dubai — used to be roommates with the film's co-writer Gazal Dhaliwal. Dhaliwal identifies as a trans woman and has brought some of her own lived experiences to the script. "This movie makes a wonderful point that the fight to accept queer individuals is not just won in court houses alone, but also in the hearts and minds of people we share our lives with," adds Kashyap.
Some film critics pointed out that for a movie that was known to feature a queer love story and had employed #SetLoveFree as part of its social media campaign, the actual plot was very conventional to a typical Bollywood rom-com. The same-sex love needed to be approved by the patriarch at the end, who delivers a rousing "Live your life the way you want to" speech — somewhat mimicking the closing scene from the iconic 1995 Bollywood romance Dilwale Dulhaniya Le Jayenge. Others called Kapoor's stilted acting a sticking point.
Ladki Ko Dekha Toh Aisa Laga are not only progressive in a way that makes us feel good and pats our own backs, but they are essential and important to each and every child who feels out of place and abnormal.- Deepak Kashyap, psychotherapist and founder of QSAALT
While Ravi (not his real name) understands where the criticism is coming from, he points to the ways in which the queer community try to make allies. Besides, after gay stereotypes in Bollywood movies contributed to his experience of being bullied as a child, he appreciates the lessons being gently told in Ek Ladki Ko Dekha Toh Aisa Laga.
"When you are trying to introduce such a radical point of view to an audience that's very conservative, you have to preserve some elements of familiarity for them — the big fat Indian wedding, the close knit family, respect for elders," he said. "This paves the way for someone else to focus more on the things that some people said are missing [in the movie]. You have to start somewhere, and the best way to get people in a movie hall for a topic that's hush hush is to leave some amount of comfort in there."
For Kabir, Ek Ladki Ko Dekha Toh Aisa Laga was not a lesbian romance.
"It's about a character who has struggled her whole life," he says. "She doesn't need anyone's approval because she was in the process of running away. But we come from a community where parental approval, approval of your siblings and other family members is very important, whether you are gay or straight. So in this movie, the ending is actually quite beautiful."
As far as Kashyap is concerned, casting Kapoor in the title role of Sweety was actually something of a casting coup. Besides the fact that she's an A-list Bollywood actor who will bring audiences into cinema halls across India and the diaspora, she is known to be a vocal and visible ally for the Indian queer community.
"There isn't a bigger name Bollywood ally than Sonam," says Kashya. "She's one of the very few big name Bollywood people who just comes out in support. She has attended Pride festivals in India openly. She has come dressed for the festivals."
"Also, this is a Fox movie. This is a Vidhu Vinod Chopra movie. It has to make money."
Ek Ladki Ko Dekha Toh Aisa Laga is in select theatres now.