Major Spoilers for Ek Ladki Ko Dekha Toh Aisa Laga
(Only if you have not seen the trailers)
The emergence of a large number of mainstream Hollywood LGBT films in recent years, like “Love, Simon,” (2018) “Milk,” (2008) and “Battle of the Sexes,” (2017) has led film writers to question the relevance of New Queer Cinema – a term used to define a particular style of filmmaking that distinguishes queer cinema from heterosexual cinema. In films that continue to adhere to this specific queer aesthetic, there is no expectation to be accepted by the audience. The brashness and free-spirited nature of the narrative and filmmaking are what define this style of filmmaking, and aptly distinguish it from what is believed to be the constrained structure of heterosexual cinema. Majority of the commercial LGBT films of recent years, however, have begun to adopt the heterosexual cinema aesthetic that suggests little difference between queer cinema and heterosexual cinema, indicating the non-otherness of lesbians, gays, transgenders, and bisexuals. While some writers criticize this homogenization of the queer aesthetic in the mainstream (read more in E. Alex Jung’s insightful article), I believe that this slight canonization suits the mainstream better, particularly in Bollywood. For a country like India in which perceived otherness, constructed according to one’s religion, class, gender, or sexuality, is rarely given the opportunity to express itself, it is essential to first sympathize with people who have been treated poorly by society, and to understand how similar, on a human level, they are to what we perceive as correct.
Shelly Chopra Dhar’s directorial debut “Ek Ladki Ko Dekha Toh Aisa Laga” (2019) fits squarely in this category of a mainstream LGBT film – one that wants to spread the message of acceptance to everyone in India, especially the “smallest of towns and villages.” To achieve this kind of mass appeal, Dhar smartly decides to open her arms to a well-worn 90’s template of Bollywood filmmaking (“Hum Aapke Hai Kaun,” “Dilwale Dulhaniya Le Jayenge,” and most obviously, “1942: A Love Story” being reference points that feature in some form in the film). Dhar, therefore, nicely sets up the audience’s expectations for the story they have come to expect. She knows that they know that boy and girl meet. She also knows that they also know that the music will cue in to suggest that the boy has fallen in love with the girl. And, finally, she also realizes that they know that the family will cause the “syaapa” (trouble) in their love story. By feeding the audience this familiar template, Dhar is providing them with all the pleasures of 90’s Bollywood – the songs, the romance, and the drama. But, by re-painting it in LGBT colors, she is also radically suggesting the malleability of that story for a “new age.”
These post-modernist delights of Dhar’s film, however, do not automatically suggest that she has made a great movie. To enjoy these subversions alone, you could view how differently the makers have cut together the teaser and the first trailer of the film to realize how both of them suggest entirely distinct stories. The film’s teaser sets up “Ek Ladki…” as a quintessential old-fashioned love story between a boy and a girl. The first trailer, on the other hand, reveals it to be the second mainstream lesbian love story in Bollywood (Deepa Mehta’s 1996 film “Fire” being the first). These differences between these trailers can only suggest the filmmaker’s (admirable) ability to subvert expectations. In no way, however, do they provide a definite indication of the film’s actual quality.
The problem with the central story in the first half of Dhar’s film, in fact, remains that it only feels like a minor extension to the trailer, an exercise in interesting subversion and nothing more. The filmmaker places in the details nicely, using Sweety Chaudhary’s (Sonam Kapoor) innocent narration, and pictorial diary to suggest that she is a small town girl who dreams of getting married. She also introduces the character of Sahil Mirza (a charmingly understated Rajkummar Rao), an aspiring Muslim writer who finds inspiration in Sweety to write his story to suggest that this boy will fall for her. Furthermore, Dhar also sets up smaller details that attempt to subvert the audience’s expectations like her brother telling Sweety’s father (a genuinely endearing Anil Kapoor) that he is angry with her because she has a Muslim boyfriend, and showing Sweety’s childhood love for a certain Gurpreerat. But, the trailer very clearly gives away the reveal that Dhar is building up towards throughout the entirety of the first half, which took away from my engagement with the film. The bigger problem, however, I felt, was that Sonam Kapoor’s central performance never managed to convince me even when my attention in the drama was wavering. There is a strenuousness in her attempts to act as a small-town shy and docile girl, with each of her gestures always feeling too calculated, and performed for me to buy into a character who at its very core is the personification of genuineness.
My attention then gravitated towards the technical elements and the sub-plots in the first half of the film, both of which provided a sense of freshness that I felt the central story lacked. The most notable attempt to aestheticize this film slightly differently to a traditional Bollywood romantic film is its consistent use of the color pink in its mise-en-scène. The different shades of this color grace not only the production design but also the majority of the costumes worn by the females to match the colors of the lesbian pride flag. It’s a nice little detail that Dhar integrates unfussily (and sometimes even unsuccessfully because of the dimly-lit frames) into her film, making it feel slightly distinct from films of this ilk. Dhar’s attention to detail given to her supporting characters, and sub-plots, however, is her biggest triumph here as she manages to evolve these characters beautifully, without ever making them feel like unnecessary comedic digressions. The sub-plot involving betting between the house-help at the Choudhary house-hold offers both comic relief, and pointed observations on the “one-directional” thinking in India. The even more sweet sub-plot between Sweety’s father and her grandmother packs in “chocolate barfi” amounts of warmth, and again supports the central idea of the film, demonstrating that suppression hampers everyone’s lives in Indian society.
The second half of the film, unburdened by the weight of the reveal it had been building towards, feels freer, and more dramatically engaging. Dhar, again, does not revolutionize story-telling here. But, adopts simple, well-worn techniques used by several Yash Raj Films in the past (“Aaja Nachle” kept coming back to my mind) to create more “syaapa” in a way that provides more of the “feeling” that Sweety keeps referring to in the film. Even when the film is at it’s preachiest, this genuine good-hearted feeling in it’s messaging never turns to cringe. Perhaps, this is because Dhar spends the entirety of the first half setting up her film as a movie that subverts Bollywood tropes that when she has her characters explain why that subversion should be accepted here, I was not bothered. Or, maybe it’s also because the performances from the supporting cast are so convincing, especially in a dinner scene that uses comedy to mask the absurd way in which some Indians assign homosexuality even lower importance than religion, that I was won over.
The intention of Dhar’s “Ek Ladki…” is to revolutionize, to become the “new age” love story that wants to “Let Love Be.” I’m not sure as a piece of cinema it’s much more than a heart-warming love story that intelligently subverts Bollywood cinematic tropes. But, that may be a good enough place to start here, to sow the seeds of acceptance of otherness in a film that appeals to a wide audience, and does so in an engaging fashion.