June is Pride month across the world—a centralized moment to celebrate all identities and walks of life. While brands turn their logos rainbow, many people turn to Hollywood where you can have your pick of the litter to scratch the itch and bask in the glory of unified storytelling. Some watch recent award-winning films like Blue Is the Warmest Color and Call Me by Your Name, some go for campy classics like Hedwig and the Angry Inch or tear-jerkers like Boys Don’t Cry.
Earlier this year, Bollywood threw its hat into the ring with a beautiful lesbian comedy/drama from transgender writer Gazal Dhaliwal and director Shelly Chopra Dhar. Adapted from the 1919 P.G. Wodehouse novel, A Damsel in Distress, Ek Ladki Ko Dekha Toh Aisa Laga (which translates to “How I felt when I saw that girl”) is the first mainstream, studio-produced Bollywood film to feature a lesbian love story.
Sweety (Sonam Kapoor) is plagued by her family’s constant marriage inquiries when she meets Sahil (Rajkummar Rao), a flailing playwright who is instantly smitten with her. So smitten, in fact, that he travels to her small hometown and opens an acting school in an attempt to spend more time with her. After months of his persistence, she finally tells him that she’s in love with a woman. Unfazed, Sahil recalibrates and commits himself to helping her tell her family in the only way he knows how: an elaborate musical play. As expected, familial drama ensues as her father and brother struggle to accept her identity.
The story of Ek Ladki Ko Dekha Toh Aisa Laga is simple in its vision, highlighting the engrained homophobic tendencies that hang over Indian communities, and then working to eviscerate them with a literal song-and-dance show. Released in February, the film appeared in theaters only a few months after the landmark court ruling that decriminalized homosexuality in India. As the first studio Bollywood film of its kind, it is no doubt a direct response to the subcontinent’s long-held discriminatory views, though not quite a whole middle finger to the intolerance—Ek Ladki is more of a classic Indian twist bringing family to the forefront.
Ek Ladki Ko Dekha Toh Aisa Laga is not without its flaws: Sweety’s love interest barely appears in the film, making the central love story hard to bite into, her brother’s villainy is drastic to a cartoonish extent, and for American audiences, the entire plot might sound like an overly theatrical and outlandish story. But for Indian cinema, it’s a welcome step out of a closet that has been in the dark for too long.
During its release earlier this year, Ek Ladki Ko Dekha Toh Aisa Laga was hailed as one of the first lesbian Bollywood films, but it’s joining a very small group of notable LGBTQ+ films in the industry that puts the topic of sexuality at the forefront. Past entries have ranged from Dostana, which tiptoes around it by having the two men at the center of the film fake their gayness in order to get close to a woman, to Loev and Aligarh, two films that show the real-life circumstances—both personal and professional—of coming out in modern-day India. But this film, now streaming on Netflix, makes a conscious effort to expand the worldview of what these marginalized communities can look, act and feel like.
The world still has a long way to go to fully accepting identities that outside of centuries-old cultural norms, but there was a moment when, while seeing Ek Ladki Ko Dekha Toh Aisa Laga in a packed theater in Midtown Manhattan, I looked around at my fellow theatergoers with a smile on my face. Filled with melanated immigrants, people who looked like my parents, and curious New Yorkers of all walks of life, my theater was eagerly watching a Bollywood lesbian love story unfold in front of us.
Director: Shelly Chopra Dhar
Writer: Shelly Chopra Dhar, Gazal Dhaliwal (screenplay); Shelly Chopra Dhar, Gazal Dhaliwal; Gazal Dhaliwal (dialogue); P.G. Wodehouse ( novel by)
Starring: Sonam Kapoor, Anil Kapoor, Rajkummar Rao, Juhi Chawla, Abhishek Duhan, Regina Cassandra, Madhumalti Kapoor
Release Date: February (India); available on Netflix
Radhika Menon is a pop culture-obsessed writer and filmmaker living in New York City. Her work has appeared in NY Post’s Decider, Brown Girl magazine, and Syndicated Magazine. She is a proud alumna of the University of Michigan and is one-half of the comedic video duo, PromRad. She loves puns and thinks she’s funny on Twitter.