As we take our seats for a screening of Ek Ladki Ko Dekha Toh Aisa Laga, the song of the same title from 1942: A Love Story, made in 1994 and starring a young Anil Kapoor, plays softly in the background. The room, full mostly of LGBTQ+ people, hum quietly along. Initially sung by a man about a woman he falls for, the song has been rebranded as a queer anthem for the new blockbuster Bollywood film of the same name. Roughly translated as “I felt something when I saw that girl”, it is now being sung joyfully by queer women around the world, with a sly smile.
A lot of us felt uneasy walking in to the screening of the film. Bollywoodrelies heavily on sexism, homophobia and racism as the butt of its jokes, so there was an anticipation of disappointment. An older Anil Kapoor stars in this “unexpected romance” as the father of Sweety, played by Sonam Kapoor (the first time this real-life father and daughter have appeared in a film together). The jokes could be mirrored in our own families – so when we’re introduced to Sweety’s abusive brother (played by Abhishek Duhan), the only person who knows her secret, it’s no surprise to a lot of us. The forceful patriarchal ideology held by certain Indian communities has been the driving force of a lot of abuse endured by women. They would consider him “protective” – an old-fashioned term used in abusive relationships, that can be normalised in South Asian communities.
One questionable aspect: at one point, in order to continue hiding her secret from the extended family, Sweety’s brother claims that she is in fact seeing a Muslim boy, Sahil (played by Rajkummar Rao), opening the film up to deep-seated Islamophobia in Indian communities. Reactions of shock fill the dining table as they attempt to come to terms with the concept of their Sikh daughter falling for a Muslim man. This plot device has been crafted to set up a reveal later in the film – but Muslims have been thrown under the bus for the sake of storytelling.
Ek Ladki Ko Dekha Toh Aisa Laga sets us up for a typical Bollywood romance – a woman’s worth is determined by her eligibility as a wife. In the first five minutes, during a wedding celebration, Sweety is asked when she’s going to get married and I can almost feel the collective eye-roll in the room. Most South Asian women have been asked that question by some bored auntie who spends her time assuming the role of matchmaker. We know the storyteller is on our side this time though, when Sweety rolls her eyes with us.
We are then taken on a familiar narrative journey with Sweety, as she explains her story to Sahil. We meet her girlfriend and join their quest to normalise her life. Sahil takes on the role of the male saviour, telling us that homosexuality is acceptable only when it impacts heterosexuality. At the same time, though, we welcome an ally: in a world where these conversations aren’t had, every hetero man who wants to be a saviour is welcome.
But by the end of the film, we’re all in tears. The queer people in the room have just watched their story told: not just a queer story, but a queer Indian story. It’s not the first ever – Fire, directed by Deepa Mehta, was released in 1996 – but it’s the first big mainstream Bollywood film that centres on a lesbian romance. It stars some of the biggest names in Bollywood – names that our families have uttered – and it helps make us feel that little bit more accepted. Not only has it reaffirmed our existence, it talks about the mental and physical abuse endured by some queer Indian people.
After the screening, a few us huddle together, still wiping away tears and grinning widely. Our families will watch the moments they experienced with us on a big screen and it reaffirms our lives. Ek Ladki has helped us take a step further into the right direction.