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Is this Bollywood lesbian romcom India’s Love, Simon moment? Kind of

Is this Bollywood lesbian romcom India’s Love, Simon moment? Kind of

Bright, big budget and slightly bewildering, Ek Ladki Ko Dekha Toh Aisa Laga (or How I Felt When I Saw A Girl) is an unforgettable introduction to Bollywood. I was in sensory overload within five minutes.

We’re first introduced to the charming Chaudhary family at the birthday party of Balbir, played by legendary Indian actor Anil Kapoor. A riotous song and dance number spans afternoon and evening. (The textile mogul’s soiree is only out-glitzed by his elderly mother’s later in the film).

There’s more color and theatre here than in RuPaul’s Drag Race, Crazy, Rich Asians and Frozen combined. It’s exhausting.

But if you’re a newcomer to the genre, you’ll acclimatize. Indeed, I was completely distracted by the silly humor, zany characters and gorgeous outfits. So much so I barely noticed at first that the plot was going in a completely opposite direction to what I expected. Then I started to worry.

You wouldn’t know it from the promotional materials, but the movie’s titular ‘girl’, Sweety – played with sweetness and warmth by the astonishingly beautiful Sonam Kapoor – is in love with another girl. There hadn’t been the slightest hint of that yet.

Would the first high-profile movie about same-sex love in India since the decriminalization of gay sex in 2018 completely fudge queer representation altogether? Well, not exactly.

‘Kapoor shines with emotion’

At the halfway point, the floodgates open. Sweety, who’s around 19, shares her story. It comes complete with flashbacks of her struggling with her sexuality as a tween. Her experiences are not exceptional. Bullied by schoolmates. Manipulated by her brother. Forced into a secret relationship. But they are universal. Kapoor shines with emotion, and I cried.

The person she opens up to is would-be suitor Sahil. His screwball pursuit of her takes up the first 60 minutes of the film. Rajkummar Raopur then turns the character on its head, and imbues him with tenderness and empathy.

They concoct an elaborate scheme. Playwright Sahil will stage a huge play about a girl coming out to her deeply religious Punjabi family. The gag? He’ll cast Sweety, her family and her real-life love interest Kuhu (Regina Cassandra) in it. As such, the pair will hopefully provoke some mind-expanding conversation.

Things don’t exactly go to plan, to say the least.

‘It’s a comedy!’ insists overbearing grandmother Beeji (Madhumalti Kapoor) when Sweety’s father recoils at the idea. If it’s not exactly the sentiment the kids are going for, it feels like a small victory.

‘It will arguably change more hearts and minds for its subtlety’

This perhaps sums up Ek Ladki Ko Dekha Toh Aisa Laga. It’s not the all-out queer extravaganza you wish for. In fact, I don’t think I even saw Sweety and Kuhu kiss, and there’s too much focus on Sweety’s dad’s lovelife. But it will arguably change more hearts and minds In India for its subtlety and crowd-pleasing nature.

Not to mention, this is the first time real-life father and daughter Anil and Sonam Kapoor have appeared on screen together. This is a big deal in Bollywood.

And besides, screenwriter Gazal Dhaliwal – a trans woman – seems to be making a meta point about subtlety through Sahil’s play, which deals with same-sex love more heavy-handedly and provokes a hostile reaction from theatre-goers. And while Sweety encounters no violent homophobia in real life, but she almost does in the play. This prompts a very moving reaction in her father.

Last year’s sugar-coated and similarly formulaic US romcom Love, Simon was largely forgiven for its suspiciously palatable LGBTI characters.
I hope How I Felt When I Saw A Girl is at least as warmly-received. Because when you put it into context, it’s actually more daring.

3/5

Ek Ladki Ko Dekha Toh Aisa Laga is in cinemas now

See also:

5 amazing, sexy, romantic Indian LGBTI films as country legalizes gay sex

Southern India gears up for first transgender film festival