Ek Ladki Ko Dekha Toh Aisa Laga (How I Felt When I Saw That Girl) gets its title from a classic 90s love song, sung from a man’s perspective. It revels in earnestly romantic imagery, comparing his lover to a blooming rose, a ray of sunshine, a moonlit night, a deer (as you do when in love, apparently). This 2019 release asks ‘What if the singer was a girl?’
In many ways, this story, directed by Shelly Chopra Dhar, marks a definite milestone. It is the first mainstream Bollywood movie with a lesbian love story at its core. Not as the butt of a joke or a side-lined surprise twist, which somehow is a lot to ask for, even in 2019. It was released mere months after the repeal of Article 377 of the Indian Penal Code in September 2018, a decision which decriminalised same-sex relations in the country.
The story depicts Sweety Chaudhry (Sonam Kapoor), who suffers from shame and anxiety as she deviates from societal expectations. Budding playwright Sahil Mirza (Rajkummar Rao), helps her overcome this by organising a play to tell her story.
The movie starts in the ultimate hetero-normative setting: a big Indian wedding, featuring all the extravagant marriage rituals. Sweety is confronted by the undercurrent of match-making in the wedding, but there is a playful sense of irony here, as this is where Sweety meets and falls in love with her girlfriend, Kuhu (Regina Cassandra).
Kapoor plays Sweety as a reticent, long-suffering woman, defined by her difficulties with her sexuality. Her character is missing depth and her love story is restricted to a mere three-minute, albeit beautiful, montage scene. Ek Ladki is at its best when Sweety talks about her school experiences– her first crush, becoming an outcast, and witnessing her brother bully her only friend for being gay. The movie doesn’t shy away from underlining her loneliness or desire for permanent escapes from her problems.
Sweety’s choices are subjected to patriarchal notions of izzat (honour), and the unique challenges of being a queer woman are especially evident in her affectionate yet controlling relationship with her older brother. Anil Kapoor, the real-life father of Sonam Kapoor, gives a delightful performance as a loving parent. His eventual acceptance of her sexuality is heartbreakingly beautiful.
My initial impulse was to criticise Ek Ladki, but in the end I sympathise with the makers of this film. There is so much to argue, so much to defend, all while playing nice with a notoriously unreasonable censor board. Even if Ek Ladki is not perfect, it is a move towards a better future in the Indian LGBTQ+ movement where one can move beyond the conversation of basic human rights.