You may have heard of the recent Bollywood film Ek Ladki Ko Dekha Toh Aisa Laga. Although Hollywood films generally take more attention worldwide, this movie is ground breaking because it is the first mainstream Bollywood movie to feature a lesbian relationship to not be banned in India.
It has received great attention and whilst it is still banned in a several other countries including UAE, it has thus far been well received in India. This is a country which only just legalized homosexuality in September 2018 and where hijra (often used to refer to people who are intersex or transsexual) are treated like second class citizens and admitting to being part of the LGBT community can still get you disowned, beaten or worse.
The movie features Anil Kapoor and Sonam Kapoor, which is the first time the legendary father and his daughter have acted together, as well as popular actress Juhi Chawla, which attracted a huge crowd. These names may sound unfamiliar to some of you but in Bollywood terms they are the equivalent to Cameron Diaz and Ashton Kutcher, so you can understand the draw having these big names would bring.
The movie feels like a typical rom com to begin with complete with a guy who’s just fallen hard for the lead girl enough to follow her to where she lives in a rural town in Punjab. Midway through, her sexuality is revealed to the audience and the boy who’s been chasing her, who agrees to help her come out in an elaborate Bollywood fashion.
We get the feel good ending we expect with a rom-com where there is any sort of forbidden love and the difficulty in accepting different sexualities is portrayed well through the touching father daughter relationship between the two Kapoor’s characters.
The actual lesbian relationship however is rather tame as the two women don’t share enough screen time together. This may show that Indian audiences are still not quite ready to see lesbian relationships as fully fledged as straight ones, both on screen as well as in real life. Nevertheless, the existence of this non heteronormative narrative on screen at all is still a much appreciated step.
The fact that the main characters eventually accept this relationship, even with some of them admitting they do not understand it, or it is with reluctance, reflects some reality. It would seem too saccharine and unrelatable if all of the characters were eagerly accepting this in their life, given the fact that many Indian families do not accept the idea at all. Homosexuality is still widely misunderstood in India and British Asian communities, so the fact that there is social commentary on this is a huge step.
Previous Indian LGBT movies may have been more out there in comparison to this relatively tame and ultimately accepting portrayal of LGBT love but they had been banned in India when released and they featured much smaller actors. This movie has the potential to reach as far wider audience and can introduce homosexuality to the audience in a more palatable way, complete with the singing, dancing and vibrancy you expect of a Bollywood rom-com.
It is ground-breaking because although still relatively mild and timid with the leading ladies not getting a chance to kiss or have a wedding scene most straight couples would, it is brave to bring this into the mainstream for everyone to see. People can take this movie and learn about what it means to love someone of the same sex, they can learn it is not something to criminalize in their minds too (which makes the movie’s release well time with the recent law change) as legal change alone cannot enact social change.
So many LGBT youth of Indian backgrounds still engage in marriages of convenience in order to appear straight and suffer poorer mental health or even suicide because of it. Whilst the movie shows Kapoor’s lonely childhood and negative thoughts, and even shows the bullying of another gay classmate from when she was younger, there isn’t time and wouldn’t be fitting for this light-hearted movie to delve deeper into the more extreme effects of being gay in India.
However, it fulfills its aims to entertain the crowd whilst bringing acknowledgement and validation to homosexuality in the community. It’s also refreshing that there is also a respectable face for an LGBT character in Bollywood instead of the tired archetype of LGBT people being the butt of a joke, instead of part of someone’s lived reality.