One of the disappointing news from the movie industry is the poor performance at the box-office of Ek Ladki Ko Dekha Toh Aisa Laga, for, Bollywood’s first mainstream movie about LGBTQ love (Deepa Mehta’s 1996 film Fire was for a niche audience) needed more public backing, just to reinforce the feeling that India as a society is changing in these matters in the right direction.
Of course, the lukewarm performance of the film at the box-office does not become a referendum on Indian society’s views on matters like homosexuality and queer lives. A movie may not do well for numerous reasons, and cinematically Ek Ladki Ko Dekha Toh Aisa Laga does slip at a few places, but it is a movie that is full of heart, which in turn is full of love.
At an armchair level, however, it does look like that one of the things that has put off the public is the same-sex love. The mainstream audience, if at all we take it is a homogenous group, does not seem ready for such a theme.
The film, in its treatment, of the love between the two women, actually plays pretty safe and does not push the artistic envelope in any manner. Even the delectable mischief that has gone into the title Ek Ladki Ko Dekha Toh Aisa Laga (an agreeable and clever inversion of the iconic song that had Anil Kapoor crooning at Manisha Koirala in 1942: A Love Story) is missing in the treatment of the film’s story.
The love between Sweety and Kuhu (Sonam Kapoor Ahuja and Regina Cassandra) is told in an underwhelming sort of way, in the sense that it as the ‘romance’ between two individuals barely registers. With a transwoman as the writer (Gazal Dhaliwal) and a woman as the director (Shelly Chopra Dhar), the movie could have worn its ideals on its sleeve more prominently.
If we more or less don’t see the love of the couple, it is because the makers were probably wary of the sensibility of the larger audience (the film went to floors when Sec. 377 was still in place.) In that sense, the makers’ conservatism (if that is the word in this context) in showing queer love in all its beautiful glory can be glossed over.
Also, to err on the side of caution is a shade better than going all out, because that would have pandered to the voyeuristic tendencies of our audiences. That would have been done the LGBTQ movement a bigger harm, as in any case the society sees LGBTQ people sadly through sexual prism alone, as if there is nothing else to them as individuals.
But make no mistake about it, the film is pitch-perfect in its portrayal of other characters, especially that of Babloo (Abhishek Duhan in splendid form), the diabolically domineering brother of Sweety. There has been a criticism in the reviews that his character, dripping with typical male toxicity, has not be called out in the movie.
This harks us back to a bigger problem: The increasing expectation that characters should be politically correct in movies/art. This hope is silly and misplaced. A work of fiction needs its villain, it is the necessary friction that keeps the wheels of the story moving in a gripping manner. Mere portrayal of a politically wrong idea or sentiment is not wrong. In a film, it is objectionable only if backward ideas are celebrated or rewarded (The stalker hero getting the heroine is patently unacceptable.)
But here Babloo is not venerated. His patriarchal toxicity, especially juxtaposed with the love and warmth of Sweety, gets called out much more organically than if he were to be frontally accused by Sweety. That this brother-sister love is never romanticised is this film’s way of disapproving his unacceptable ways. And that is the hallmark of good art. It is never in your face. Yet, it is forceful.
But people can still be more forceful in their show of love to Ek Ladki Ko Dekha Toh Aisa Laga, as it can be taken as an indication that Sec 377 of IPC is not only struck down from our law books but also from our hearts.