Bollywood’s first mainstream movie with a same-sex couple
This article contains spoilers for the movie “Ek Ladki Ko Dekha Toh Aisa Laga.”
In February 2019, the first mainstream Bollywood movie to feature a same-sex couple called Ek Ladki Ko Dekha Toh Aisa Laga released, and Michigan in Color editors Zainab and Sam watched the movie and had some thoughts about it.
Zainab: Why did you watch this movie?
Sam: I saw this movie first mentioned on the Facebook page “Subtle Asian Activists” and it was posted by a South Asian woman who talked about how significant this movie is, since it’s the first mainstream LGBTQ+ Bollywood movie and I thought that was interesting to destigmatize this topic.
Zainab: As a fan of Bollywood, this movie looked really interesting to me because it’s the first mainstream movie that actually talks about LGBTQ+ issues without making it a joke *cough* Dostana *cough*.
Sam: Why is this movie significant for Bollywood?
Zainab: In Bollywood, it’s more common for LGBTQ+ characters to be treated as a joke in the movies and for members of the industry to stay closeted because of fear of the public’s disapproval. This movie is important because it addresses this topic with compassion and doesn’t paint a negative picture of LGBTQ people in India. Section 377, which made “sexual activities against the order of nature” illegal was repealed less than a year ago in September 2018, so it’s incredible to see influencers in India making an effort to destigmatize this issue in the media.
Sam: I don’t watch that many Bollywood movies, but I knew how famous Sonam Kapoor Ahuja was in the Bollywood industry. For this reason, it was significant to me for Kapoor Ahuja to promote LGBTQ+ issues that reach a broad audience.
Zainab: Overall, what were your thoughts on the movie?
Sam: I really liked the movie overall. I especially liked that Sahil (Rajkumar Rao) wrote a play about Sweety (Sonam Kapoor Ahuja) and Kuhu’s (Regina Cassandra) love story. It drew a parallel to us, the actual audience watching the movie. It made the movie engaging because the real-life audience is watching the audience in the movie reacting how we fear people would react to this unconventional love story. I also really like how some of the humorous scenes balance out the serious scenes. For example, the character development of Sahil from being very cringy to a wonderful friend and screenwriter and the quirkiness between Balbir, Sweety’s father (Anil Kapoor) and Chatro (Juhi Chawla) falling in love.
Zainab: I loved the movie as well! Bollywood has come a long way from Dostana. I hope to see more movies like this in the future because I think it’s important for desi audiences to be exposed to these narratives in order for them to be more open-minded. I also really appreciated the scene where the audience watching the play in the movie was reacting to it. I watched “ELKDTAL” in theatres and after the scene where Sweety reveals she’s in love with a woman, I heard multiple gasps and a very loud “what!” from a shocked Aunty. After hearing these very audible reactions, I was afraid people would start saying inappropriate things and walking out, just like the people in the movie did when they watched the play Sahil wrote. I’m really glad I didn’t see anyone actually walk out of the theatre I was in — even if they were surprised by the plot twist, everyone stayed until the end and probably learned a thing or two. Even though the movie was so great and helped open people’s minds, one thing I wish the movie had more of was Sweety and Kuhu’s relationship. They were such a cute couple, but I feel like their story wasn’t shown enough the movie.
Sam: I agree, It portrayed a lot on the struggle of being queer, which is necessary. But I thought it was crucial for it to portray LGBTQ+ relationships with more dynamics between the two people falling in love, their conversations, their interactions, moments they share together. After all, LGBTQ+ relationships can blossom just like any other relationships, so I wish there were more moments in the movie that made me feel warm and fuzzy from a love story.
Zainab: I also think Bollywood really struggles with representing anyone who isn’t part of the majority. The portrayal of Muslims in Bollywood is pretty abysmal, and the portrayal of Sikh people in Bollywood movies isn’t great. I’ve noticed that often times when Sikhs are represented in Bollywood movies, there is an emphasis on their identity in a way that you won’t see for other characters.
Sam: This is also reflected when lesbian characters are played by cis heterosexual women, so I wish the characters were played by actors with those identities in real life to better represent the LGBTQ+ narratives in such a beautiful story.
Zainab: It would have been really cool for the main characters to be played by LGBTQ+ actors! One of the co-writers is actually a trans woman so I’m glad this movie wasn’t completely the product of cis-het people. I think it’s especially important for LGBTQ+ actors to be given these opportunities, especially in an industry like Bollywood. However, I think having Sonam Kapoor Ahuja play the main character was actually a really strategic choice. She’s such a mainstream actress, any movie with her in it is going to draw a large audience. The movie overall had a lot of elements that aimed at bringing in a large crowd. For example, the title itself is a famous song from a movie in the 90s that Anil Kapoor, who played Sweety’s father in the movie, was actually in. And, having Anil Kapoor and Sonam Kapoor Ahuja play a father-daughter duo in the movie was a pretty big deal too since they’re father-daughter in real life and have never acted in a movie together before. Last, my mom told me Anil Kapoor and Juhi Chawla (Anil Kapoor’s love interest in the movie) were actually a famous pair back in the 90s. So, the movie really drew on nostalgia to get older audiences to come watch it and hopefully learn something.
Sam: What did you think about the representation of Muslims in this movie?
Zainab: This movie wasn’t as overtly anti-Muslim as most Bollywood movies are. However, I didn’t love that they used the idea of Sweety being in a relationship with a Muslim man as a stepping stone for accepting that Sweety was lesbian. I understand that the point was that her family was able to accept that she could be in a relationship with a Muslim and that was a sign that they were becoming more open-minded. But, it’s also a reminder of how stigmatized Muslims and LGBTQ+ people are in India. This isn’t a problem specifically in this movie, but it is an important problem to think about in terms of South Asian culture and global society. This isn’t just specific to Bollywood — the stigmatization of queer people is present everywhere, and movies like “ELKDTAL” are helping normalize the idea of same-sex couples, especially in South Asia. I hope there are more movies that are representative in this way, and I especially hope there are more movies that showcase the LGBTQ+ population from all religions and in more nuanced ways.
Zainab: Did you think this movie accurately represented coming out to an Asian family?
Sam: The struggle of Sweety being pressured into going through an arranged heterosexual marriage as a closeted lesbian is a real narrative that I have heard from some LGBTQ+ Asian folx. However, the end of the movie where Sweety’s dad came to realization and defended Sweety’s lesbian identity doesn’t always portray narratives of Asian LGBTQ+ folx coming out to their families, because of religious/cultural reasons, family inheritance and colonialism. I like it better in the movie anyway, because it paints a positive outlook on Asian LGBTQ+ folx and navigating our identity within our families.
LGBTQ+ liberation has been a stigmatized subject in Asia, but we are starting to have more conversations around it. For example, high court in Taiwan ruled in favor of LGBTQ+ marriage in 2017 (currently going through referendums), Nepal and Bangkok, Thailand has become some of the most LGBTQ+ friendly places in Asia. Not to mention, Manvendra Singh Gohil, an openly gay prince in Rajasthan, India, has been doing teach-ins and headlining LGBTQ+ parades in Hong Kong that was broadcasted on mainstream Hong Kong news. After all, I think it is important to show support with issues not just within our own ethnicities, but rather educating ourselves about the broader diverse A/PI community and empower one another.
It’s so great to see that people across Asia are talking about the issues that LGBTQ+ folx face and we hope to see this support continue to grow. Overall, we both loved the movie and highly recommend you go watch it (it’s on Netflix), even if you don’t typically watch Bollywood movies!