Imagine a less spunkier, (irritatingly) happier but equally ‘syappa’ version ofGeet from Jab We Met meeting our rich, emo-boy Aditya in a theatre. Imagine love at first sight with the dreamy sequence of “ek ladki ko dekha…” from 1942: A Love Story playing, a replay of your first love memories running at the back of your head, the protagonists on screen being replaced by you and your pehla pyaar. Imagine a frantic, high paced bedlam of our modern villain archetype on an angry chase for the heroine, resorting to beating, spying, plotting in meeting his end. Yeah yeah, you know the drill, so why not go ahead and imagine our hero jumping all the obstacles off and finally taking the first local with his heroine with full family approval, their happy end signified by a blur of their silhouettes ingressing into oblivion.
Sounds like almost all hindi mainstream films we swear to have never liked, hai na? And the story of Ek Ladki Ko Dekha Toh Aisa Laga (ELKDTAL) is not so different, except that it is, so much that word of mouth owing to its trailer outweighed the scanty promotions of an otherwise multi-starrer film, in turning enough curious heads. The trailer which suggested a possibly lesbian or bisexual identifying Sonam Kapoor (who plays Sweety) echoing the thoughts of many from the LGBTQ+ community with “sabka dimaag ek hi direction mein kyu chalta hai?”, caused a lot of us to feel our distance from a DDLJ moment bridging. What added to the excitement was the context of living in a Section 377 free nation, of years of struggle and activism yielding much needed constitutional recognition. Such was the zeal that my expectations kept growing by the possibilities of what could happen, hence this review.
ELKDTAL seams the gravity of depicting a lesbian relationship in our largely shushed society and the expected dreaminess of standing in a wheat stalk field waiting for love to sweep you by, a mainstream Bollywood trope for heterosexual love. And in doing so, has its share of crests and troughs. When the trailer subtly hinted a lesbian relationship I was eager to see if the elephant was named. It wasn’t. To see this as a failure by focusing on the singularity/fear of the filmmakers and the film would be a dive into reductionism. It is 2019 and naming and labelling identities is as complex as making efforts of depicting the ones that rarely make up the mainstream quota of Bollywood. And as far as we can go in our debates around putting a name to identities: either saying we don’t care about labels, or arguing how naming is essential to articulating one’s politics, legitimising one’s feeling; naming in 2019 remains a negotiation for even the most renowned filmmakers. In not choosing to stumble through designations, the film does the important task of ‘depiction’ well. And although we might have our qualms about not hearing ‘lesbian’ even once, we have to take in the context of censorship, of mainstream Hindi cinema (finally) getting on the wagon, and of thinking if the future ground for more vocal projects like this has been bred.
And negotiations like these were done throughout. Sweety’s family hailing from Moga, a small town in Punjab is upper caste/class who might have had aggressive reservations in accepting her identity, for the fear of their status and values being questioned addended to the task of them swimming away from their own socialised heterosexual framework, does eventually get by. Sweety’s father, Balbir (played by Anil Kapoor) sees the agony, the hurt Sweety went through manifested in the diaries she kept for years, the imagined glass closet from which she begged her father to come out, and calls her kind of love ‘natural’. They are lesbian like we are hetero, he says, an hiccuped invocation of biology as a deciding parameter for our sexualities, instead of demystifying the complexities around gender. The chosen (faulty) simplification was probably done for the intended audience of the film: the parents of the LGBTQ+ identifying individuals for whom the gender web would have been more complex to decode/a little out of scope for all the things the film was trying to do but that doesn’t stop me from thinking about alternatives of biological determinism that the film could have chosen.
If they didn’t get this aspect of gender right, they got the one all of us struggle with: gender roles. How refreshing it was to see a man, Balbir, so devoted to cooking and not letting his mother’s coercion of gender boxes affect him! He knew that some dreams take longer to fulfill, that life might get in the way but to harbour a dream is to protect it anyhow, even if in secret or in taking a detour or sometimes doing both, like he did. It was equally exciting to breathe Chatro ji’s (Juhi Chawla) liberal and feminist living. To see them live their dreams in negotiations and later in ‘partnership’ was to feel light and strong headed at the same time.
It wasn’t an all happy picture, mind you. If Balbir could accept the relationship, Sweety’s brother and grandmother couldn’t. Her brother, who knew about Sweety’s orientation since their childhood, went as far as agreeing to let her marry a Muslim, Rajkumar Rao’s Sahil Mirza, a strict no-no in their Hindu family. Revealing a hierarchy in stigmatization which the film aptly and often comically points out: that a Hindu girl cannot marry her Muslim love interest because of the apparent ‘culture clash’, but at least it’s better than having a same-sex relationship, therefore, the pressure of marrying a Muslim Sahil by her dogmatist brother.
But what about Sahil, yaar? ‘Hero’ ko bhool gayi? Well, our ‘hero’ whose desperate efforts to reunite with his heroine landed him in a lot of ‘syappa’ initially laughed Sweety off when she refused his drunk proposal but later understood and supported Sweety in coming out of the closet. Although it was like a thandi hawa ka jhonka to see a cis-het man not pushing to ‘convert’ a lesbian woman, I wondered why is it always a man who does the rescuing? Didn’t it seem like if it wasn’t for him, Sweety would have either become his “habeeb” or forever remained within the pages of her diary for her family’s honour?
Khair, let me tell you one of my queer friends felt deprived of Sweety and Kuhu’s romantic relationship. “Thoda aur (romantic) trajectory dikhate na, toh bas!”, they said pointing to the ‘extra’ that could have completed the film for them. Agreed yaar par you weren’t the targeted audience, I told them. In a post section 377 context, the film burgeoned on the idea of acceptance from families of queer folks which might be why we only get a couple of Hauz Khas Fort style romance scenes between Sweety and Kuhu and longer shots of her family negotiating with her identity. My first reaction after watching the film was to ask my parents to see it because I knew they’d get the message without me having to read between the lines for them. This leads me to envision a future of similar more accepting projects based in queer lives which will do justice to the till date stigmatized representations of the community as mere comic tropes, in their honesty.
ELKDTAL, in all its Moga greenery, its take on inter-religion marriages, on liberal parenting, and of course on same sex love did clear the windscreen for a more diverse future of Hindi films. It asks you to listen to it from your heart and not your brain. Maybe because there are certain things that the heart understands better than the brain does. Maybe because it asks you, in all its syappa, to at least hear out the ones coming out to you, to listen to build bridges and not burn them, to be there for your loved ones, because if that isn’t love, what is?