Ek Ladki Ko Dekha Hits Close But Not Hard Enough

Read__19 February 2019

As “Bollywood’s first mainstream lesbian love story, Sonam Kapoor starrer Ek Ladki Ko Dekha Toh Aisa Laga had a lot riding on it for the queer South Asian community. A lot that, somewhat expectedly, it failed to deliver. A film that was more intention than attempt, it did less to visibilize lesbian relationships than it did to glorify the film’s patriarch and male savior.

 

Ek Ladkisets its scene at that most typical of Bollywood settings: a large Punjabi wedding. We are introduced to the Chaudhary family as a remake of a traditional Punjabi wedding song “Gud Naal Ishq Mitha” plays alongside visuals of raucous partying. Somewhat predictably, Balbir, played by Anil Kapoor, is spotted looking for a husband for his daughter Sweety, played by his real life daughter Sonam Kapoor. So far, we remain safely within the realm of the Bollywood family drama ouvre.

 

It’s only about 45 minutes into the film that we learn Sweety isn’t particularly interested in finding a husband because she’s in love with a girl in London. In the meantime, she meets a young playwright named Sahil Mirza, played by Rajkummar Rao. Sweety and Sahil’s encounter leads Sahil to fall deeply in love with her, to the point where (of course), he follows her all the way to her hometown of Moga.

Ek Ladki & Lesbian Love in Bollywood

What proceeds is a predictable hodge-podge of events which begins with Babloo, Sweety’s rigidly conservative brother, telling the entire family that Sweety is dating a Muslim boy to shake her into giving up her relationship with a girl. The family reacts much as is expected – with shock and horror. This should be enough to deter Sweety from ever coming out to her family. As a deus ex machina, Sahil is roped into the narrative as Sweety’s reliable savior, who first acts as a stand-in for the fictional Muslim boyfriend, then, having been accepted by her family after much implausible lecturing, teaches them to understand same-sex love through a play (!!). The movie ends with a nauseating amount of sermonizing about how society should accept all kinds of love while Sweety and her father reconcile in a grand public display for the entire town.

Despite its utter improbability, Ek Ladki performs the crucial role of putting lesbians into the context of Bollywood. The title, picked up from a song in Anil Kapoor’s hit film1942: a Love Story, makes a clever attempt to write lesbianness into Bollywood’s history. Yet,Ek Ladkiseems to go out of its way to make a POINT, rather than to actually deal with the messiness and joy of the very cause it claims to get behind. Labeling the relationship between Sweety and Kuhu, played by Regina Cassandra, a lesbian one seems significantly more important than engaging with the relationship itself.

Despite its utter improbability, Ek Ladki performs the crucial role of putting lesbians into the context of Bollywood.

As a consequence, a total of three scenes actually feature the couple together, amounting to about 10 minutes of the 2 hour long film. The rest of the movie goes into creating implausible scenarios in which the patriarch and male savior go off on rants about why same-sex love is, or isn’t, acceptable. Kapoor herself has little to do in the film besides brooding pensively over drawings of herself as a young and oppressed lesbian.

It would have been a far better use of everyone’s time to see more of Sweety’s girlfriend, Kuhu, who, in the few moments she actually shows up, is bright, engaging and seems more real than any of the other stereotypical characters injected into the film to invoke formulaic Bollywood. Her and Sweety’s relationship is deliberately downplayed to keep the film easy to swallow, while other characters force “love is love” type cliches down our throats. But aside from one pivotal scene in which Sweety declares herself “normal” despite being in love with a girl, the couple itself does next to nothing to move the plot forward.

Ek Ladki & Lesbian Love in Bollywood

Unfortunately, the erasure of alternate sexualities is a phenomenon entrenched deep within Bollywood history. Blockbusters like Kabhi Khushi Kabhi Gham, Dil Dhadakne Do and Dilwale Dulhaniya Le Jaayenge all take place within the frame of a “typical” Indian family, where typical is defined as Punjabi, patriarchal and heteronormative as hell. Each of these films features a heterosexual romance in which the boy and girl must wade through a series of obstacles to find their way to each other. When they end up together, the family comes together in a big riotous celebration to mark the success of the heterosexual couple. This narrative maintains the status quo in which heterosexuality is the default and thus, heteronormativity prevails.

Of the already tiny pool of films featuring queer characters, very few have seriously attempted to subvert this norm. The vast majority of queer representation has been of gay men, where these characters are punchlines peppered into otherwise heteronormative narratives. Lesbians, on the other hand, have been relegated to the absolute back of the shelf, with just about a handful of films even acknowledging their existence, let alone focusing on their stories. A count of Hindi-language films since 1983’s Razia Sultana, often considered the first film with even an indication of female same-sex relations, reveals that there are only between 10-15 movies that hint at lesbianness as a phenomenon.

With the sparseness of lesbian-centered films, it is easy to read Ek Ladki in a vacuum. However, thanks to a less visible set of indie filmmakers, we can afford to set the bar a little higher. Indeed, Indian cinema was dabbling with intimate female relationships long before they entered the Kapoor family’s purview.

Ek Ladki & Lesbian Love in Bollywood

Deepa Mehta’s Fire has been written about time and time again as the sole example of a standout Indian film centered on a same-sex female relationship. Released in 1998, Fire carried the weight of the Indian lesbian community’s desires on its shoulders for almost a decade. There was a stray lesbian film here and there – Girlfriend in 2004 and Men Not Allowed in 2006 – but these were largely pornographic spectacles aimed at a straight male audience rather than attempts to depict a real lesbian relationship. For a long time, Fire remained the sole torchbearer for Indian cinema’s lesbian scene.

There are a couple of problems with this: First, Fire was far from perfect. The entire premise of the lesbian relationship rested on the two female characters seeking companionship and intimacy in one another after being shunned by their husbands, reinforcing the notion that good heterosexual relationships can turn people straight and vice versa. Second, Fire isn’t really a “Bollywood” film in the commonly understood conception of the word. Deepa Mehta is an Indo-Canadian filmmaker whose elements trilogy, of which Fire is the first, was never intended as a wide release Bollywood film. Any impact it could have on perceptions of lesbian love, therefore, was limited to a niche “arthouse” audience.

Shonali Bose’s beautiful portrayal of bisexual love in 2015’s Margarita with a Straw comes a little closer to the mark. Dealing with a bunch of marginalizations all at once – bisexuality, immigration, physical and mental disability – it was only too easy for the film to have dissolved into a tick the boxes form of activism trending in Bollywood with films like Angry Indian Goddesses, Padman and Pink. Instead, Bose’s ability to dwell in discomfort without commodifying it created a film which shows the relationship between Laila, a girl with cerebral palsy, and Khanum, who is blind, just as it is, normalizing the relationship through visibility rather than sermon.

Ek Ladki & Lesbian Love in Bollywood

There is a scene in the film in which Laila, played by Kalki Koechlin, and Khanum, played by Sayani Gupta, are seen making love for the first time. Laila, who has never been sexual with a woman before, is initially hesitant, while Khanum is slightly ashamed, slightly defiant. The scene is intimate, exploratory and ever so slightly uncomfortable. There is no music, nothing to dramatize or sexualize the moment. We see skin, but it is as much tummy rolls as it is cleavage. Laila’s palsy isn’t played up, nor is Khanum’s blindness. The two are simply people, ungendered, unlabeled, exploring the erotic possibilities of each other.

 

Ek Ladki could have been this. It could have been a romance that lingered on the love the two women have for each other. Instead, it was a festival of male saviorism and advocacy which drowned out the voices of the women who were being fought for.

 

We have come to expect silly contrivances from mainstream Bollywood. To expect the narrative to be nuanced and logical is a little unfair. But to expect a romance to actually focus on the romance is a reasonable ask. After all, if we can have a Raj and Simran, a Rahul and Anjali, an Aman and Naina, don’t we deserve a Sweety and Kuhu to root for too?

Written by Mallika Khanna