It was everywhere last week with the director in London and now in the US, but are the Indian public responding…
NO INDIAN director has ever been this explicit about a Bollywood film and the subject of homosexuality: “It’s been a subject very close to my heart for a very long time and I always felt that in Indian (mainstream) cinema there was never any true representation for this community,” said Shelly Chopra Dhar to acv earlier this week.
By now, more than a week on from its worldwide release on February 1, many of you, Indian film watchers will know the name of this film, ‘Ek Ladki ko toh aisa Laga’ (roughly translated as ‘How I felt when I saw that girl’).
This title is derived from a song in the film, ‘1942. A Love story’ (1996), directed by Vidhu Vinod Chopra, one of Bollywood’s must successful producers and directors, who also happens to be Dhar’s brother.
Dhar is based in the US and for many years was a computer programmer and a very successful one, but after children and during their later schooling, studied film in the US.
More recently, she has produced some of her brother’s work and has written film scripts before – so she is not quite the novice that is a first time director.
Vinod is the executive producer of ‘Ek Ladki ko toh aisa Laga’ (‘ELKTAL’) and probably the main reason why Dhar has been able to assemble such a starry Bollywood cast to what is her first film as a director.
She said it wasn’t difficult getting the stars, though South Indian film beauty, Regina Cassandra, proved more tricky as the primary female love interest of the central character.
In the lead role is Sonam Kapoor – who it has to be said looks great and does just enough. Her father in the film and her father in real-life Anil Kapoor brings his years of experience to count.
Juhi Chawla and Raj Kumar Rao show their talent as supporting cast and are very believable as the independent divorced woman looking for her next adventure, and the young writer, trying to find his voice, amidst the success and pressure of coming from a well-established and wealthy Bollywood family, respectively.
“Why would you not want to the start at the top – why not get Brad Pitt? You got to imagine it,” Dhar posed to acv’s question about recruiting A-listers to a risky Bollywood proposition.
She reiterated that perspective at a post-screening Q&A at Genesis Cinema in East London, talking to Sharan Dhaliwal (editor of Burnt Roti) and Ryan Lanji (of Bollywood Hungama, a London karaoke club night dedicated to tunes from popular Indian cinema). It was part of a very concerted effort to reach the largest number of people she could, she emphasised.
“I wanted to do something different – it has been done in parallel (independent) cinema and it’s usually very serious or sometimes, it’s been done in a very comic relief sort of way and it was damaging more than helping.
“It’s a mainstream Bollywood film with music, and comedy and it’s entertaining. The idea is to make a difference and the only way to do that is to reach as many people as you can and in order to do that – you have to give them something familiar,” argued Dhar.
Before the film was released, ‘ELKTAL’ had a relatively understated selling tag line, it was simply ‘the most unexpected romance this year’ and nothing was given away in the trailer.
Since its release the lesbian angle has been writ very large and while the attendant publicity helped, and the film continues to draw plaudits – the American Academy of Motion Pictures and Sciences – the Academy responsible for the Oscars – ordered a copy for its library, its box office collections has tailed off around Rs20 Crores this weekend after a solid opening last week.
This was always likely happen to some degree, but whether it will make enough money to change hearts and minds in Bollywood is debatable.
It might still be saved by the diaspora, young people (and ardent followers of Sonam Kapoor) and India’s metro cities, where homosexuality is not the issue it might have been once (especially since the repressive section 377 law, outlawing homosexual relations, was repealed only last year).
Whatever its eventual takings, or commercial success, Dhar has done something brave.
She has put same sex relationships centre stage and hasn’t flinched.
For that she should be warmly commended – she introduces the subject wrapped in a recognisably Bollywood tale.
First boy (Rao) inadvertently meets girl (Kapoor) and becomes infatuated.
Initially ‘Sweety’ (Kapoor) does very little to oppose ‘Sahil’ (Rao) and angry brother ‘Babloo’ (Abhisekh Duhan) who know and goes along with it, thinking any man – even a Muslim – is preferable to his sister loving another woman. Sweety after all comes from a very well-to-do Sikh family from Moga, Punjab.
How this is all resolved we will leave to you to see the film – but there is a play within the film and the audience, if we understood correctly, was a real one, and not made up of film extras.
Of course, some are appalled, others stay and are quietly moved by this love story.
Dhar felt a sense of achievement when those people stayed and were not upset by the subject matter, she told the audience at Genesis.
In some ways, the commercial success of the film rests on people just watching this movie as a movie and not bringing their prejudices to it.
It may still be a bit too soon for some, but Dhar has pushed the Bollywood envelope and it can’t be resealed.
“People learn from cinema and they come out of cinema and a lot of them imitate what they see.
“When I finished this script, I knew this was a historical film – the first in mainstream Bollywood to tackle this subject. This is the first serious attempt at showing that love is love, and it does not need qualifications or labels or is different – it is the same,” said Dhar.
The jury that is the Indian public remains out (or not so…) – is that because they don’t like the film or its subject matter?
‘Ek Ladki ko dekha toh aisa laga’ is out now