By Neha Kirpal
The recently released Ek Ladki ko Dekha to Aisa Laga, directed by Shelly Chopra-Dhar, is a sensitive take on the controversial topic of lesbianism. While mainstream Bollywood films have touched on the subject cursively in the past—in entertainers such as Fire and Girlfriend—most of these films have been mired in controversy largely due to their bold, graphic scenes. Ek Ladki…, on the other hand, manages to break Bollywood stereotypes about the LGBTQ community.
The film shows women who dare to feel differently, yet are bound by society and convention. The fact that it does not hyper-sexualise lesbians as porn usually does, and does not threaten patriarchal codes while suggesting women’s right over their own sexuality, makes this film a breezy ‘family entertainer’. Moreover, the characters are relateable and play their part in an absolutely natural and believable way.
Despite dealing with the stigma that homosexuality brings with it, the film has a positive ending—so it leaves you with the quintessential feel-good factor that Bollywood is known for. However, it also manages to get across a larger message of inclusivity to the audiences. It’s refreshing to see a big-banner film (usually associated with the fluff of foreign locales and inane love triangles) take on this very important issue, and portray it in a perceptive way.
The film also scores on another count: its authentic setting in small-town India. While the LGBTQ theme is quite prevalent in pop culture in the country’s metropolitan cities, there is an acute problem of acceptance in smaller towns and villages. The film is shot in Moga, a relatively small town in Punjab with an expectedly patriarchal mindset and lifestyle. The nature of the so-called ‘malaise’ of homosexuality is explained through the protagonist’s simple, honest story, which makes it palatable for small-town audiences.
It’s befitting that the film’s screenwriter, Gazal Dhaliwal, is a transwoman who used her own life experiences to write the story. Dhaliwal was born with gender dysphoria, a condition where a person does not associate with the biological gender he or she is born with. Born as a man, she knew she was a woman by the time she was five. Like the film’s protagonist, she too grew up in a small town in Punjab—Patiala—where she had to face a lot of opposition at home and bullying from children at school.
This rings true of most of India’s small towns and villages where LGBT people routinely grapple with violence from their families and society. Finally, in 2007, she underwent a Sex Reassignment Surgery (SRS) with support from her parents. Needless to say, it was hard to convince her family but it liberated her and she felt no longer ‘trapped in a cage’.
Like the film’s ending, Gazal’s story ends happily too. Ever since, she has become a sort of voice for LGBTQ rights. She has given INK talks on the subject and even appeared on an episode of the popular TV show Satyamev Jayate. She was also part of the Indian team that attended the first International Visitor Leadership Program (IVLP) for transgender rights in the US.
Previously, she has written the screenplay for films such as Qarib Qarib Single, Wazir and Monsoon Date as well as written dialogues for the critically acclaimed Lipstick Under My Burkha.
Small-town India is replete with many such secret love stories. In September 2018, the Supreme Court decriminalised gay sex even though the law does not allow same-sex marriage. Perhaps emboldened by the verdict, two women from Hamirpur, Uttar Pradesh, ‘married’ each other in December 2018. While the marriage has not been registered, the couple is demanding social recognition.