While the Indian film industry is one of the biggest and most profitable moviemakers worldwide — a feat accomplished in large part because of the hundreds of Bollywood films it releases each year — it has never released a mainstream movie featuring a same-sex relationship — until now.
Starring the real-life father and daughter pair of Anil and Sonam Kapoor, "Ek Ladki Ko Dekha Toh Aisa Laga" ("How I Felt When I Saw A Girl") tells the story of a family that desires to marry daughter Sweety to a respectable boy. Though Sweety wishes she could satisfy her family, she has a secret: she is attracted to women.
While the Indian entertainment press has heavily hinted at the film's same-sex love story, the actual plot of the film was largely kept secret until the day of its release.
“It’s a very important story and it has to be told,” director Shelly Chopra Dhar said of her debut film.
While there have been several Indian arthouse films about same-sex relationships, Bollywood has typically portrayed them in a "caricature-ish manner, which is the opposite of good representation,” Dhar said.
Sonam Kapoor, who plays Sweety, said she thinks her character will be relatable for audiences both in India and abroad, particularly if they are from rural areas similar to the Punjabi countryside in which the film is set.
“When I decided to do this film, I was thinking about how hard it is for young kids these days, especially in India, to tell their parents the truth about themselves,” she said, noting that while Sweety’s truth was about her sexuality, the story could also resonate with anyone who feels the need to break away from societal norms.
The release of “Ek Ladki Ko Dekha” comes at a time of significant change in India for LGBT rights. In September, India’s Supreme Court decriminalized gay sex by overturning the colonial-era Section 377 of the country’s constitution. While many in the LGBT community in India are still reluctant to tell their families about their sexuality or their partners, many hope that the ruling and films like this one will lead to further progress when it comes to human rights.
“We started this film two years ago when 377 was still very much in place, but we still decided at that time that this is a story that needs to be told and that we were not afraid of the consequences,” Dhar said.
Both Dhar and Sonam Kapoor were also quick to point out that while the same-sex storyline has been heavily covered in the press, their film at heart is a story about a family and a young woman’s coming of age.
“I think sometimes — especially in India — women think their happiness is secondary and everybody else’s happiness is primary, especially in their families,” Sonam Kapoor said. “But Sweety realizes that she is not happy, so she decides to look out for herself. She realizes that love and connection come very rarely in life.”
For Dhar, the moment she took the film before India’s often notorious Central Board of Film Certification validated her belief that “Ek Ladki Ko Dekha Toh Aisa Laga” was a film that first and foremost was for families to watch together.
“The censor board — who I thought was going to kill me and was going to tell me to change everything — did not cut one thing from it,” Dhar said, adding that the only reason the film received the Indian equivalent of a PG-13 rating was because of a scene in which some characters were drinking alcohol. “I think that was historical and I was really proud of it.”