Bollywood’s first mainstream lesbian love story is missing the actual love story
‘Ek Ladki Ko Dekha Toh Aisa Laga’ wants you to believe it’s a quintessential Bollywood love story. It has all the right elements to convincingly pass as one: a wedding romance, a love triangle, family opposition, a runaway heroine, climactic realizations on theatre stages and, of course, a happy ending. But underneath that veil, the film speaks up about a community that the South Asian society only talks about in whispers.
Smart, beautiful Sweety Chaudhary (Sonam Kapoor Ahuja) crosses paths with Sahil Mirza (Rajkummar Rao), a struggling writer, while trying to escape from her brother Babloo (Abhishek Duhan). Entranced by her, Sahil follows her to her Punjabi small town Moga, hoping to find inspiration in her mystery and possibly even a love story of his own. But as he confesses her feelings to Sweety, she blurts out her biggest secret. She’s already in love… with a woman named Kuhu (Regina Cassandra). Although his initial reaction is laughter, Sahil quickly begins to sympathize with her and promises to have her back. With Sahil as an ally, Sweety tries to figure out whether to follow her heart, even if it means hurting her own family.
The film is very clear about the issue it is tackling – homophobia, and is extremely self-aware about the way it handles it. This isn’t a film about Sweety and Kuhu exploring their sexuality, as both characters never express any doubt about their identity. The story is about how their homosexuality is perceived by society, and the damaging ways it frames a person into bleak resignation. More importantly, it puts the onus on the community to reflect on how their prejudices affect the LGBTQ+ members of society. As a related sidetrack, the narrative also explores how much of our own happiness we give up because of societal pressure, through Balbir Chaudhary’s (Anil Kapoor) secret kitchen escapades, or Chatro’s (Juhi Chawla) desire to become an actress.
It’s ironic that Bollywood’s first mainstream lesbian love story is missing the actual love story.
What’s lovely about the film is the respect with which it treats its characters. Bollywood has had a tendency to oversexualize lesbian relationships in the past to please the male gaze. But writer Gazal Dhaliwal and director Shelly Chopra Dhar seem to have approached Sweety and Kuhu with a tenderness that hasn’t been seen since Deepa Mehta’s ‘Fire’ (1996). Unfortunately this also results in an extremely sanitized, family-friendly romance that is missing a lot of spark. In an industry that doesn’t shy away from kissing scenes in children’s films (Hrithik Roshan-Priyanka Chopra in ‘Krrish 3’ (2013), for example), it’s dispiriting to see that ‘Ek Ladki Ko Dekha Toh Aisa Laga’ was too afraid to go beyond cute winks and friendly hugs. The makers acknowledge this in the film, along with other eggshells they are walking on, hoping to justify the deliberately safe approach. While understandable, this choice makes the romance underwhelming for those who are a part of, or allies to the LGBTQ+ community.
It’s ironic that Bollywood’s first mainstream lesbian love story is missing the actual love story. All we get is a montage of Sweety and Kuhu falling in love, a few looks, and an occasional hug. We never get to savour their love or root for it. The film is so focused on getting the audience to advocate for their right to love each other that it just skims over their romance. Sweety could have fallen in love with any other woman at the wedding and it would make no difference to the film emotionally. The audience is not given enough time to invest in Sweety’s love for Kuhu, which is unfortunate because Cassandra works so beautifully with Kapoor.
Abhishek Duhan manages to project a certain humanity in a character that could’ve easily been perceived as the villain. You may not agree with Babloo, but thanks to Duhan’s portrayal, you can understand where he’s coming from.
Despite the shortfalls, the film’s almost perfect cast makes it a joyful experience. Regina Cassandra quietly commands each scene she’s in, leaving you unsatisfied with her lack of screen time. Sonam Kapoor Ahuja, who always exudes admirable confidence in her own skin, shines whenever Sweety courageously embraces her truth, but falls short every time she has to depict Sweety questioning her identity. Rajkummar Rao is the perfect ally, never letting Sahil overshadow Sweety’s story. Madhumalti Kapoor, Brijendra Kala, Seema Pahwa, Anil Kapoor and Juhi Chawla add so much fun and energy to the film. Abhishek Duhan manages to project a certain humanity in a character that could’ve easily been perceived as the villain. You may not agree with Babloo, but thanks to Duhan’s portrayal, you can understand where he’s coming from. Talent aside, Dhar has managed to equip her actors with a conviction to the story that has empowered them to boost each other’s performances instead of stepping on each other’s toes.
‘Ek Ladki Ko Dekha Toh Aisa Laga’ is a cliché Bollywood film aiming to spread a new message. But is it too sugar-coated to make any difference for the LGBTQ+ movement in South Asian communities? Or is the subject still too taboo for the intended audience, despite attempts to make it more innocuous? It’s hard to judge, but as Sahil tells Sweety, we have to start somewhere, and ‘Ek Ladki Ko Dekha Toh Aisa Laga’ feels like a step in the right direction.