With Ek Ladki Ko Dekha Toh Aisa Laga we finally have a mainstream Hindi movie that treats same-sex relationships with dignity. It is the kind of movie that might actually encourage and empower families to make homosexuality and same-sex marriages, topics of dinner table conversations. And just as every good movie always leaves you with more questions than answers, I walked out of the movie with several questions swirling about in my mind.
For example, towards the end of the movie the camera cuts more than once to a young girl sobbing silently as she watches a play about two women in love being torn apart by their families because of their ‘forbidden’ relationship. I kept wondering what made this young girl break down? Was she also coming to terms with her sexuality and has been repressing her true self fearing a backlash or abandonment from her loved ones?
Also, what happened to Sweety’s childhood gay friend? Did he grow up to be forced into a heterosexual marriage? What impact did the intense bullying and abuse to which he was subjected in school have on him later in life? We never find out. But Their friendship does give us one of the most memorable scenes in the movie. Sweety and her friend are playing on the see-saw when he asks Sweety who does she like more Shah Rukh Khan or Hritik Roshan, to which she promptly responds, “Kareena Kapoor”, with the brightest smile on her face! It is scenes like this that light up the movie and add to it’s authenticity.
Finally, why did the filmmakers shy away from showing physical intimacy between the two women? No, I’m not asking for girl on girl action, but for the love of god can there be some chemistry between Sweety and Kuhu? The hand holding and hugging did nothing to establish that the women were attracted to each other and fell in love. I can understand how the makers wanted it to be a movie the whole family could watch together, but even Badjatiya movies have more physical intimacy! Sweety and Kuhu didn’t even look at each other in a manner that shows how much they desire and long for one another. I know the focus of the story is Sweety’s internal turmoil of sharing her truth with her family, but does that necessitate ignoring the chemistry in a love story? Why must be de-sexualise our women to ensure they are treated with dignity?
But these questions aside, Ek Ladki Ko Dekha Toh Aisa Laga deserves credit for bringing the Indian lesbian out of the closet without shackling her in stereotypes associated with homosexual women. Neither Sweety nor Kuhu demonstrated any decidedly “butch” or “femme” qualities and full marks to the makers for not letting women out of one closet to firmly lock them up in a silo. In Sweety we meet the ordinary everyday lesbian next-door. In Kuhu we see the more confident woman with the patience, willingness and ability to take things at a pace that suits her girlfriend.
Ek Ladki Ko Dekha Toh Aisa Laga also deserves credit for not tip-toeing past the uncomfortable side of growing up homosexual, especially in small town India. As we see Sweety get shamed and abandoned by her classmates, we see the cruelty of teenagers and the politics of social boycott practiced by people at such a young age. In her lonely scribbles in her diaries, we see the anguish, fear and suffocation experienced by a teen. In the abuse that Sweety’s gay friend faces, we see the ugliest aspect of the bullying and harassment faced by millions of LGBTQIA+ children every day. In fact, it is the fear of being tortured like her friend that makes Sweety firmly lock herself away in a closet. Mental health is seldom touched upon in our movies and I’m thrilled Ek Ladki Ko Dekha Toh Aisa Laga doesn’t shy away from showcasing this very important aspect of the protagonist’s life.
The driving force behind the movie is the dynamic duo of director Shelly Chopra Dhar and writer Gazal Dhaliwal. Dhar ensures each scene remains organic by only shooting in real locations and avoiding sets, except the stage where the play is enacted in the climax. This brings a freshness and authenticity to the visual texture of the story. Dhaliwal ensures the story is multi dimensional, has depth and layers. It is a story with a heart and soul. It is a story that will move every viewer irrespective of their gender or sexual orientation. Amidst all this, it is also to Dhaliwal and Dhar’s credit that the movie never digresses too far from the key plot or even gets preachy at any point.
Veterans Anil Kapoor (as Sweety’s father Balbir Choudhry) and Juhi Chawla (as the ‘mind-shattering’ Chhatro) are in top form showcasing flesh and blood characters who are fighting gender stereotypes and battles of their own. While garment manufacturer Choudhry has always wanted to be a chef, his family that believes that the only time it is acceptable for a man to step into the kitchen is to change the gas cylinder. Meanwhile, Chhatro an aspiring actress-turned-caterer navigates life as a new divorcee determined to live for herself. It also helps that both characters have not lost their sense of humour amidst these struggles. I shipped them so hard!
Regina Cassandra is confident while Rajkumar Rao remains delightful and dependable. Madhumalti Kapoor, Brijendra Kala and Seema Pahwa breathe life into the quintessential Moga household. But it is Abhishek Duhan’s acting chops that deserve credit for making his character, Sweety’s brother Veerji, utterly unlikable despite sounding exactly like how one would expect a young man in semi-urban India to approach the subject of homosexuality. This is significant because in disliking Duhan’s Veerji the audience realises why it is so wrong to discriminate.
But ultimately the film belongs to Sara Arjun and Sonam Kapoor who play the teenage and adult Sweety respectively. Both actresses convey more with their silences and rare shy smiles than with words and both performances have a heartbreaking authenticity.
Watch Sara’s eyes as sketches her dream wedding or scribbles helplessly in her journal. Or when she is beating against a glass case begging her father to let her out. Or when she finds that her crush Gurvinder is not into girls. Watch her as she watches the humiliation of her gay friend… the moment she decides to never let her secret out even if it means a lifetime of loneliness. It is her performance that makes us root for Sweety.
Also, it is Sonam’s restrained and layered performance that makes the movie shine brighter.
You have to be a very brave actor to be the main protagonist and yet not be afraid of sinking into the background because the character you are playing is basically a wallflower and everyone else is way more colourful. Sonam commands respect by never demanding attention. This also helps elevate the scene where she finally tells her father how even he has let her down! With this movie Sonam has walked the talk about supporting equal rights and has cemented her place in the hearts and minds of the LGBTQIA+ community. If Sara and Sonam don’t win all the awards this year, I’m taking hostages!
*Feature Image and all movie stills courtesy Fox Star Studios