SHOMA A.CHATTERJI | 8 FEBRUARY, 2019
Finally Bollywood has come out openly about alternative sexuality
Mainstream Bollywood for the first time, comes out openly about alternative sexuality and that too, between two young women, breaking, in a way, the patriarchal domination that sustains to this day, regional or national. In that sense, Ek Ladki Ko Dekha To Aisa Laga, may, from a given standpoint, offer a feminist reading of the content.
That a young girl will finally gather herself together to face her Punjabi family with its deeply rooted patriarchal values will stand up to insist that she is in love with a girl and will not permit any intrusion into her personal freedom to love who and how she wants to is a cinematic revolution of sorts.
Sweety is the only daughter – she has an extremely domineering and feudal brother – belongs to a typically Punjabi family where her father is a very successful ready-made garment millionnaire in Moga, a city and then a district within Punjab. But Sweety often trips down to Delhi with the excuse of preparing documents to go to England. Why? No one knows.
On one of these trips, she chances upon Saahil Mirza, a filmmaker’s son who is an aspiring but unsuccessful playwright. He mistakes her seeking his help for love because he falls in love with her at first sight. The family is scandalised with Sweety’s brother spills the beans on his sister’s ‘affair’ with a Muslim boy. But later on, for Sweety’s father, who himself goes really sweet on the beautiful divorcee (Juhi Chawla) who assists Saahil, he is ready to accept even a Muslim boy for Sweety, not knowing what Sweet’s wishes are.
Friendships between women have traditionally been ignored. Writing in 1868, William Rounsville Anger notes the “small number of recorded examples of the sentiment,” as well as the common belief that “strong natural obstacles make friendship a comparatively feeble and rare experience with (women.)” Lillian B. Rubin writes – “just as women have been invisible in public life throughout the ages, so their private relations with each other have been unseen as well.”
In contrast, male relations, writes Rubin, have been valorized. Robert Bell finds an absence of any ancient myths of female friendship comparable to those of Achilles and Patrolocus or Roland and Oliver. The same applies to relationships between two women who fall in love with each other. In ELKDTAL, Sweety and Kuhu are far from friends. Neither do they pretend to be friends. Their chance meeting at a wedding turns into something serious and unconventional and precisely because of this ‘unconventionality’ even Sweety thinks that she is not ‘normal.’ Kuhu reprimands her for actually believing that she is not ‘normal’ and says, “If you yourself think you are not normal, how will others think you are?”
One of the few outstanding features of the film is the friendship that evolves between Sweety and Saahil who, once she tells her the story of her very lonely and ostracised girlhood in school where her only friend was a boy who, like her, was fond of boys, he promises to see her dream fulfilled in any which way he can which, in this case, happens to be a play produced by Sweety’s father in lieu of the originally planned fashion show.
Moving against Indian notions that refuse to accept platonic relationships between two adults of opposite sex, cinema has chosen to tread the path of platonic love in myriad manifestations. Guru Dutt’s Sahib, Bibi Aur Ghulam is an excellent example of this kind of love. Through the slow and steady bonding between Bhootnath (Guru Dutt) and Chhoti Bahu (Meena Kumari), the film explores a relationship based on faith, mutual respect and a deep understanding of each other’s needs.
Chhoti Bahu and Bhootnath are diametrically distanced from each other. Yet, they strike a chord of friendship from the minute they meet secretly in the former’s chamber for the first time, till their first and last journey in the carriage out of the mansion. IN South Asian society, where rigid segregation of men and women is more the rule than an exception, any relationship between two members of the opposite sex is viewed with considerable scepticism. India is no exception. Yet, Hindi mainstream cinema has often tackled this issue with a hand so subtle and so controlled that the scepticism is easily replaced with conviction and respect.
The relationship between the alcoholic lawyer (Sunny Deol) and his client Damini (Meenakshi Sheshadri) in Raj Kumar Santoshi’s Damini is another good example of bonding between two virtual strangers who meet in dramatic circumstances. The lawyer is also the rescuer of his would-be-client in distress. The bonding lasts as long as the court case does. The lawyer, having given up law, takes up her case because he now has a cause to fight for.
Through confidences exchanged, Saahil’s access to Sweety’s diaries filled with beautiful sketches including one where both wedding partners are women decked up in bridal attire, the rehearsals for the play, the friendship gathers strength and warmth and it is Saahil’s way of expressing his true love for Sweety. “Will you have married a munda?” asks Balbir Chaudhary of Saahil and his prompt answer is “No, never.” And the message is conveyed clear and loud.
Later, Sweety’s father Chaudhary enters his daughter’s room to ‘touch’ her lonely life as a growing girl whose only ‘friend’ were her diaries filled with short sentences and lots of sketches where the focus is on “not being loved” and “loneliness”.
Two other features offer a feminist perspective in the film’s content. One is Balbir Chaudhary’s fascination and passion for cooking and all that goes along. He wanted to be a Chef he says but his mother did not approve so he became a garment industrialist and a very successful one at that. His passion for cooking does not leave him however, and he gets into the kitchen chopping and washing and putting tadka in every moment he can spare.
In fact, in a hilarious scene, Saahil who wants to send a love note to Sweety peeps into the kitchen and thinks Chaudhary is the bawarchi! This Punjabi family is ruled and run by a matriarch – Chaudhary’s mother who firmly believes that a man should enter the kitchen only when the gas cylinder needs to be changed! She is not a doddering old hag but is bubbling with energy much more than what her grand-daughter Sweety has. In a touching scene, we find Chaudhary letting off steam by briskly chopping radish on the chopping table of the kitchen.
There is third angle presented through the character portrayed in an over-the-top performance of Juhi Chawla who is a divorcee but develops a massive crush on Chaudhary, a mutual feeling. She subtly persuades him about the importance of letting children choose their own partners and live happily ever after. Here is a beautiful Punjabi woman who speaks wrong English with a heavy Punjabi accent and is not bothered about the chuckles that follow. She is open about having divorced her husband after living “others’ lives for 22 years” and then deciding to live her own!
There are too many songs and the film opens like most Punjabi-centred films do, with a marriage scene where Sweety and Kuhu meet for the first time. The music is on the louder side reflecting the loudness of Punjabi culture. So far as performances go, the prize goes directly to Anil Kapoor in a mind-blowing performance as Balbir Chaudhary followed by Rajkumar Rao as Saahil and the debutant Jessica Cassandra who is sparkling, bubbly and intelligent. Sonam Kapoor as Sweety looks awkward in most scenes but that may have been designed by the director.The supporting cast, including the old family retinue, a woman who runs bets in the very house with other domestics, is hilarious and entertaining.
. The only check box which will not get ticked is the abbreviated and on-the-surface relationship between Sweety and Kuhu. It is largely an exercise in celluloid escapism though the director and the writer are both women. Kuhu at the most, has a cameo appearance and is not fleshed out well and all we know is that she lives in England which makes it easy for the couple to settle down away from India? The passion they have for each other does not go beyond the terrible negative reaction by the family and part of the audience to the play. The camera focusses on the face of a little girl in the audience whose eyes turn moist and one identifies with her possible pain of being “different.”
That said, the outstanding quality of ELKDTAL makes a strong statement on alternate sexuality between two young woman without compromising to the elements of entertainment that define Bollywood. Examples are – song-dance numbers, a lot of intelligent humour – the scene where in a party dance, Chaudhary feels he has seen Saahil somewhere and Saahil flees – is just too funny, violence where Sweety’s brother leaves no chance to bash up Saahil and so on.
But the near-empty theatre at a fancy multiplex in a fancy neighbourhood in Kolkata with young members in the audience laughed in the wrong places was truly disappointing.