The Breakthrough Voice 9th April, 2019

Ek Ladki Ko Dekha Toh Aisa Laga and the Crisis of Queer Intimacy.

Ek Ladki Ko Dekha Toh Aisa Laga is a story of a queer woman Sweety (played by Sonam Kapoor) whose desires are forbidden in the small town where she lives with her family in a traditional household run by a domineering grandmother, somewhat acquiescent father who gave up his own dreams under familial pressure and an overbearing brother. Sweety is in love with a woman—a kind of love that has no socio-cultural sanction, no visibility, no acknowledgement and is hence nurtured in silence and through remarkable resilience in a quaint town of Punjab away from one of the major hubs of queer political organizing that is India’s capital city – New Delhi.  

The movie being based in Moga is able to show that there are places in India where open conversations on gender and sexuality are never had, where queer communities do not seem to exist, where queer folx cannot march down the streets shouting subversive slogans, where non-normative identities do not become political, and where there is no acceptable language to express queerness for any or every experience it offers. Places where the identity and rights discourse is yet to take hold, one can, in the least, claim to have “fallen in love with a woman“, if at all, and that is only how subversive they can get.

This segregation of the “emotion of love” and the “physicality of love” is a false one that often does not exist in allosexual relationships.

Nobody asserts a queer or lesbian or gay identity despite living those marginalized lives because it is essentially about survival, even as every endeavour towards survival brims with aspirations of queer living free from violence and discrimination, with hopes of acceptance, or at least tolerance, of queer love. In that sense, the movie does not discount or delegitimize visibility politics even if it fails to match our expectations of what should count as “political” and that is fine, particularly for a trailblazing attempt at mainstreaming queerness in a big budget Bollywood movie—featuring some of the industry’s biggest names—in post-377 India. However, there are a few problems that need to be addressed for enriching possibilities of braver, more nuanced queer representations in Bollywood in the future.

Most queer struggles take place in the privacy of one’s home and they are often suffered quietly—a tragedy upheld in the movie through the plight of Sweety. However, the problem in the film lies in its attempt to sanctify queerness by not providing adequate screen space and time to intimacy—romantic and/or sexual—between Sweety and her partner Kuhu (Regina Cassandra), making it seem overtly prudent in its approach to queerness. The few hugs and conversations that they share in the movie make their relationship look platonic. Even though the primary attempt of Ek Ladki Ko… is to foreground the struggles of being queer and how acceptance can come about through the cultivation of empathy and the initiation of a dialogue around sexuality, the film does so at the cost of queer intimacy. Kuhu is an absent presence throughout the film who appears only a few scenes before the climax.   

In an interview after the release of the movie, director Shelly Chopra Dhar had stated, I am mostly dealing with the emotion of love in the movie. I am not dealing with the physicality of love. I am talking about people’s presence in your life, say when you are in love with somebody. It’s the emotion and it’s about the family being able to understand that emotion.” What is problematic about her statement is that “love as an emotion” is presented in a manner that does not find expression in intimacy. The emotion of love is thought to exist in isolation of the expression of desires. This segregation of the “emotion of love” and the “physicality of love” is a false one that often does not exist in allosexual relationships.

[The movie] treats “love as an emotion” between two women by making it look platonic and hence non-threatening to a largely heterosexual audience with heteronormative sensibilities.

By treating them as mutually exclusive, the movie reveals an anxiety about visualizing queer intimacy on screen. Instead, it treats “love as an emotion” between two women by making it look platonic and hence non-threatening to a largely heterosexual audience with heteronormative sensibilities. This was perhaps the “safest” option available to the creators of the film as it gave them the opportunity to make a movie that simultaneously is and is not about queer love. In the same interview, Dhar had also stated that Ek Ladki Ko… is not an LGBTQ movie but “it’s a film about a family, a community and a brother understanding the emotion of love.” Thus, even as a love story is made on queer love, it is made secondary to the more universal impulse of “love”, one that is generously shared with friends and family, which then becomes an excuse to further censor queer intimacy on screen.

Moreover, since the movie tries to impart a social message about queer love and acceptance to a heterosexual audience, it seems careful and cautious in its approach. It seems queer intimacy was kept out of the narrative weaving of the film because its purpose was not to unsettle the audience by excluding something that must have seemed potentially “unsettling” to its makers. It goes to show that even in movies that otherwise attempt to portray queer relationships with a great degree of sensitivity, some hidden, unspoken inhibitions remain and they often speak the loudest. Bollywood films are wide-reaching and hence carry enormous responsibilities on their shoulders. Ek Ladki Ko Dekha Toh Aisa Laga is a good attempt which could have been better had it dared to be a little more adventurous.

Also Read: A Review Of Ek Ladki Ko Dekha Toh Aisa Laga

Featured image used for representational purpose only. Image source: Hindustan Times

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