Monday, February 18, 2019

Ek Ladki Ko Dekha Toh Aisa Laga: Review

At the start of A Damsel in Distress, PG Wodehouse mock-complains about the demands on the modern novelist to get to the point of the story. “He must leap into the middle of his tale with as little delay as he would employ in boarding a moving tramcar," he writes. “Otherwise, people throw him aside and go out to picture palaces."

Ek Ladki Ko Dekha Toh Aisa Laga, playing at a picture palace near you, is inspired – as screenwriter Gazal Dhaliwal revealed in an Instagram post – by A Damsel in Distress. It takes from Wodehouse’s novel the idea of a young man following the girl who crashes into his life back to her country home, where a complicated love story ensures. But it doesn’t heed the warning in its opening paragraph. Far from leaping into the middle of the tale, Shelly Chopra Dhar’s film only comes out and says what it must when it’s halfway through. This arrives in the plainest possible form: Sweety (Sonam K Ahuja) saying, “Main ek ladki se pyaar karti hoon (I’m in love with a girl)."

Up till this point, the film dances neatly around the unhappiness of Sweety and the fury of her brother, Babloo (Abhishek Duhan). The makers, too, danced around the topic while promoting the film, avoiding any direct mention of queer romance, putting just enough in the trailer to suggest that the problem isn’t Sweety falling in love with a Muslim man, Sahil (Rajkummar Rao), but elsewhere, in particular the brief visual of two women being pulled apart.

How necessary is the elaborate build-up to the big reveal? Some might say that Hindi cinema has waited over a hundred years to say something like this, and another hour won’t kill anyone. This is true, and there will be audiences who would prefer to be eased towards it, even if they know what’s coming. Never underestimate the gingerliness with which Indian viewers react to same-sex love on screen. When Sweety tells Sahil her secret – he’s fallen in love and tracked her to her hometown, Moga – he bursts out laughing. So did several people in the theatre, even though the scene isn’t played for comedy.

These nervous laughers are the ones Ek Ladki is hoping to appeal to. In the run-up to the release, it was suggested that this might be mainstream Hindi cinema’s first queer romance. It achieves something less exalted: the first major Hindi film in which queer love is a central plot point. The actual romance is bundled into one flashback. By placing Sweety’s partner in another country, the film avoids having to depict same-sex attraction. The film has a lot to say about how queer love affects heteronormative family structures, but not much about queer love or identity itself.

The setting is small-town Punjab, but there’s none of the specificity and sharpness of Luv Shuv Tey Chicken Khurana or Jugni. Chopra, a first-time director, collaborated with Dhaliwal on the script (the dialogue is by Dhaliwal). The writing feels somewhat old-fashioned, with comic routines announcing themselves as such, with silly music and exaggerated accents. Nor is it exactly subtle. Acting in Sahil’s play, Sweety appears on stage in a glass box. It’s almost as if she… wants to break free?

I don’t want to suggest that a Bollywood star playing a gay character in a big-banner film isn’t a huge step forward. This is a country where a 1996 film about a lesbian romance was violently protested, and which still regularly censors non-hetero narratives. For all its frustrations, Ek Ladki may be the sort of patient queer-love explainer India needs. The parallels with Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayenge are likely no accident: a girl who won’t go against her father’s wishes; a plan hatched to win the family over. The classic modern hetero romance becomes a model for a same-sex one. Sweety even has Simran’s passivity, allowing her father, then her brother, then Sahil, to speak for, and over, her.

During the opening credits, names appear on screen, then burst into what seem like petals. Dhar’s mild-mannered film does something similar, setting off a bomb under a hetero cinema tradition, but turning it into something soft and pretty so as not to alarm the viewer. The most self-aware line comes right at the end, when, faced with the prospect of a pairi pauna from Sweety’s partner, her grandmother says: “I haven’t changed that much." But she’s changed a little.

This review appeared in Mint.

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