In early 2019, Bollywood broke brand new ground by showcasing the first lesbian romantic comedy in Indian film history, Ek Ladki Ko Dekha Toh Aisa Laga. Not only that, but major superstars had signed onto the project: Anil Kapoor, Juhi Chawla, Sonam Kapoor Ahuja, and Rajkumar Rao. You would think the Hindi film industry would be celebrating this momentous achievement.
So the film comes out, and nothing. I only heard of this movie when my non-Indian friends alerted me to it. There was zero press. Not even Film Companion, my favorite Bollywood review — and non-review — channel, posted anything about this film.
By the time I, an Indian-American who follows Bollywood closely, found out about the movie two weeks after its theatrical release in America, it was out of theaters. Luckily Netflix, noted savior of all things LGBT (cough Sense-8, cough One Day at a Time) put it on their platform a couple months later, and I finally got to see this game-changer of a movie.
Why did this movie tank so hard that it was almost immediately out of theaters in America? Why did this not get the coverage or accolades it deserved for being the first mainstream Bollywood movie about a lesbian relationship?
Well, long story short, the movie is bad.
Okay, also homophobia and nepotism. But mostly, the movie is bad — because it ignores the lesbian relationship.
Instead, the film follows Sahil (Rajkumar Rao), a wealthy failing playwright who wants to write love stories. He meets Sweety (Sonam Kapoor Ahuja), who sees a rehearsal of his play and immediately diagnoses him as someone who doesn’t know what love is. She’s also running away from her brother who wants to lock her away. She’s the prototypical damsel in distress, who disappears from his life as suddenly as she entered it. In true Bollywood fashion, via song and fight scene (on a train, no less), Sahil immediately falls in love with Sweety.
Sahil then stalks his manic pixie dream girl to her small town, begs her to help him with his play, and in a comedy of errors, makes her entire family believe that they’re in a relationship. And then, finally, he and the audience find out that Sweety is, in fact, not attracted to men and has been in a long-distance relationship for a year. This happens 50 minutes into a two-hour movie.
The film swiftly switches gears to a convoluted rescue mission led by Sahil, in which Sahil will write a play about a lesbian couple, cast the local townspeople, and teach them about acceptance so Sweety can live her true life. Sweety is in the closet to everyone but Sahil and her brother, the latter of whom took away her cell phone and internet and convinced their father to essentially lock her up in their house, and so is the obvious choice for the lead in this play. And who better to play the other love interest than her girlfriend, Kuhu (Regina Cassandra). (Their reunion greeting, of course, is a 1990’s Bollywood-style passionate hug.)
Anyone who has been in the closet for any amount of time, especially if they were in the closet for fear of public shame and potential violence, can see how terribly this plan will go. But Sahil insists that this is the right thing to do in order to be true to the story that he, a straight man, wrote. Or, well, couldn’t write until Sweety gave him her diaries to read and understand what she went through.
Of course, the charade falls apart pretty quickly when Sweety’s brother finds out about the play and Kuhu’s involvement. He beats up Sahil, tries to beat up Kuhu, and then outs his sister to the cast and crew of the production, which includes Sweety’s father and grandmother, who summarily disown Sweety. If this sounds like a lot at once, it’s because it is. This all happens within five minutes, twenty minutes before the movie ends. (This movie has a pacing problem.)
Despite half the cast and crew leaving, Sahil takes a “the show must go on” approach and decides to proceed with the few people they have left. Never mind that Sweety’s entire life just crumbled around her. This is a movie about Sahil learning to write and produce a good play — and good play he must produce!.
The play itself begins. It’s a retelling of the movie we should have been seeing this whole time: Sweety and Kuhu meeting at a wedding, falling in love, and realizing what they must do to keep their relationship a secret. Except, for some inexplicable reason, this play is narrated by Sahil.
Meanwhile, Sweety’s father reads his daughter’s diaries and realizes that maybe, just maybe, his daughter didn’t betray him by being gay — he walks into the show during an emotional moment where a young version of Sweety is begging to be released from a prison. He rushes the stage to rescue his daughter, and in doing so, ends the show with a tearful speech about how he accepts his daughter.
The movie doesn’t end there, though. The movie ends with Sahil finally getting approval from his movie producer parents for being a playwright, and thanks from Sweety.
If that sounds like a strange and complicated movie, that’s because it is, and I left out entire subplots like how Sweety’s father wanted to be a chef but was forced to become a fashion designer, and the brewing romance between him and Juhi Chawla’s character as a comedic 90s throwback. Oh, and the subplot where Sweety’s father tries to be an ally for Sweety’s relationship with Sahil, who happens to be Muslim. All of that was stuffed into this two-hour movie, which is short for Bollywood.
But one thing the movie never got to was Sweety’s character beyond being closeted. We get hints of a personality – based on her diaries, she clearly likes to draw and watercolor – but there’s nothing beyond a girl who is in love and cannot be with her love. And not to mention Kuhu, who has about ten lines in the movie.
There’s a lot of talk about wanting society and small towns to change in this movie, but it never gives us the relationship that would show us the message. We don’t get to see a real relationship between two women. We get the suggestion of a lesbian relationship on the outskirts of the main story about a straight man learning how to be a good writer and an ally. Which, in this case means outing someone against their will through the medium of theatre. And Sahil doesn’t actually grow in this story; he just shifts his misplaced pride in his work to misplaced pride in being an ally.
And those are just my problems with the film. I mentioned nepotism earlier — Sonam Kapoor Ahuja, who plays Sweety, is the real-life daughter of Anil Kapoor, who plays Sweety’s father. I don’t particularly mind this, because Ahuja has proven her acting chops in many movies, and is a star in her own right by now. But in addition to the cast, the main writer and director of this movie, Shelly Chopra Dhar, is the producer’s sister, and only has this film in her IMDB credits. And the mystery of why my favorite Bollywood review site didn’t review this movie stems from there as well. Anupama Chopra, the host of Film Companion, is his wife.
Do I know for a fact that the first lesbian Bollywood rom-com would have succeeded with a more experienced writer and director? No, but I would have at least preferred more members of the LGBT community in India to be involved.
At least now it makes a little more sense why a struggling dramatic writer seeking acceptance from his famous film family was the actual protagonist.
As bitter as I sound in this article, I don’t actually begrudge this movie all that much. This movie was a major first step into making queer relationships mainstream in India. Being gay was only just decriminalized in 2018. A version of the law that criminalized it was on the books since the British first colonized India in the 1600s. Trans people have only been allowed to have gender-confirming surgery since 2014. My personal experience with being Indian and gay has not always been a good and comfortable one, and I may have teared up when hearing Sweety’s diary entries. LGBT rights have a long way to go in India, and if this movie made the slightest dent, even while padding it via a straight male lead and a sense of humor I don’t quite understand, it will have been worth making.