By Leonie Helm
Last Tuesday night saw a special screening of Ek Ladki Ko Dekha toh aisa laga, in English The First Time I Saw That Girl at Genesis cinema, Whitechapel.
Amazingly, the film is the directorial debut from Shelly Chopra Dhar, and it is truly ground-breaking, or for those who have seen the film, ‘earth-shattering’. The film has all the touches of a classic Bollywood film, colour, dancing, melodrama, romance, but with a crucial twist. The central love story is between two women. Our protagonist Sweety, played by the wonderful Sonam Kapoor, is in love with Kuha, played by Regina Cassandra, and Kuha is in love with Sweety. Due to the strict conservative and often backwards nature of Indian society, they must hide their love. With an incredible sensitivity and intelligence, Shelly Chopra Dhar tells the story of Sweety’s struggle to gain the acceptance of both her family and society, and the torture of hiding your true self.
Choosing to use the much-loved and heavily influential format of ‘Bollywood’ to tell the story of two women in love is an unprecedented move in Indian Society. On the decision, Chopra Dhar said; “India is a country of music and dance, people want to be entertained not preached at, so this format is important to get people to watch and accept it.” It is a genre defined by misogyny and its influence has led to some dangerous social behaviours. One classic example of this is a technique known as eve-teasing, wherein the pursuing male relentlessly ignores the rejections of the beautiful young women until she finally gives in. In India and the Indian diaspora, eve-teasing has become a major societal issue, as men try to replicate the romantic success of their onscreen heroes.
Shelly Chopra Dhar subverts the classic model and turns Sweety’s pursuer, the playwright Sahil, played by Rajhummar Rao, in to an unlikely friend and ally. After eve-teasing Sweety, she reveals to him that she “likes girls”. After hysterically laughing, he calms down and the two become close friends. Sahil decides to help Sweety reveal her true self to her family and society by staging a play, with her relationship with Kuha at the centre. After being outed by her brother, Sweety is abandoned by her family. The play goes ahead, and in a particularly heart-breaking and poignant scene in both the play and the film, Sweet’s father, bursts in to the playhouse, just as a girl playing young Sweety is on stage in a glass box, crying and begging her father to rescue her from the prison she has been living in her entire life.
Casting some stalwarts of the Bollywood film industry lends huge weight to this film. Anil Kapoor is a firm favourite in India, with a career spanning 40 years in both Bollywood and Hollywood films. Casting his own daughter, Sonam Kapoor, as Sweety adds an emotional weight to the film.
“I really hope this plants a seed in people’s minds, and people realise that we’re all the same, there’s just majority and minority”, says Shelly Chopra Dhar. There is a strong sense that this film is not going away. It will continue to force its way on to peoples screens and it will not be censored or silenced. At the end of the film, Sweety urges Sahil to “Take your play to small towns and villages. There will be plenty of Sweety’s there as well”, the film is about starting the conversation, getting people talking.
It was a true privilege to witness such a unique and ground-breaking take on homosexuality in a hostile environment. Watching Ek Ladki Ko Dekha toh aisa laga feels like watching a piece of history, and this film will undoubtedly play a huge part of changing the way people think about homosexuality in India.