Bollywood film on lesbian love released on Friday is pushing boundaries in a country where most audiences find the subject too embarrassing to mention.
Ek Ladki ko Dekha Toh Aisa Laga (How I Felt on Seeing the Girl), a light and humour-laced production, centres on the relationship between a lonely small-town Punjabi heroine and her doting father, who is eager to marry her off in an “arranged” match.
A lot of us felt uneasy walking in to the screening of the film. Bollywood relies 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 normalized in South Asian communities.
On being introduced to prospective grooms, she quietly but firmly states that no boy can win her heart.
Instead, she declares her love for another woman, a claim that evokes drunken laughter from her putative husband and excuses from her family that she is unwell and in need of treatment.
As the film progresses the heroine struggles for her right to lead life on her own terms.
“It’s an unusual theme and one that a majority of Indians find difficult to accept and come to terms with” said Ms Seema Mustafa of the Mustafa of the Centre for Policy Research in New Delhi.
“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.
Same sex love isn’t a frequently broached topic by Bollywood but of late some productions have grudgingly admitted that it exists, she added.
Fire, an earlier film with a lesbian them, evoked violent reactions after it was released in 1998.
Offended by the overt gay love it portrayed, Hindu zealots from the right-wing Shiv Sena in Mumbai smashed glass panes in city cinemas, burnt posters and shouted slogans, forcing theatres to cancel its viewing.
But things had changed over the past two decades.
After years of campaigning by gay rights activists, India’s Supreme Court de-criminalized homosexuality last September, ending an archaic Colonial-era law.
Prejudices, however, persist amongst the general Indian public against members of the LGBT community – something films like Ek Ladki seek to change.
Film director Shelly Chopra Dar’s understated and gentle characters bear no resemblance to Bollywood’s typically exaggerated characterization of homosexuals as she endeavours to portray the growing reality of gay love in Indian society.
The film is part of a trend of taboo-breaking Bollywood films in recent years. Veere Di Wedding (2018) featured a gay character in a minor part, but the film was more controversial for being the first to show a woman masturbating.
Pad Man (2018) cast the megastar Akshay Kumar in the story of an Indian pioneer of cheap menstrual pads.
Dhar says she deliberately set Ek Ladki outside of a major city to break stereotypes. “Critics say, [homosexuality] is for modern people, it has come from the west,” she says. “I’ve broken that.”
But ultimately its success will depend on something more traditional: whether the film is entertaining. “The golden rule of cinema is entertainment,” she says “And if you don’t follow that, it’s not cinema.”