From ‘Girlfriend’ to ‘Ek Ladki Ko Dekha Toh Aisa Laga’: How Bollywood handles lesbianism
To titillate or to preach, will Sonam Kapoor break the stereotype?
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Is it just us, or are lesbian characters truly scarce in Bollywood?
As soon as the trailer of Sonam Kapoor, Anil Kapoor and Rajkummar Rao’s Ek Ladki Ko Dekha Toh Aisa Laga hit social media, the question on everyone’s mind was if Sonam’s character in the film is a lesbian.
Technically, sexual orientations of characters do not matter. It shouldn’t matter. If it’s a war movie, really, nobody cares. If it’s a love story, then love remains love, irrespective of gender. But in Bollywood, it is a big deal. And more so because this is perhaps the first time a mainstream Bollywood film and a mainstream A-list actor have come together to tell this kind of a story — but more on that later.
Rajkummar is in love with Sonam in the film. Anil, Sonam’s father, wants her to get married. Rajkummar is not the only suitor she has, and she is of ‘marriageable age’ too. In fact, she loves 'love' and romance and everything about it.
Yet, she can’t get married to any of her suitors.
Clearly, her heart lies elsewhere. And she lies to hide her identity.
In Bollywood this is new.
No, not homosexuality — there has still been some representation of consequence of the gay man. Just lesbianism — which was either introduced in the plot for cheap thrills or remained otherwise out of mainstream Bollywood.
When Mehta's Fire burned Mumbai. (Source: A still from Fire/YouTube screengrab)
When Fire released, Mumbai under the Shiv Sena burned. Deepa Mehta’s courageous film, starring Shabana Azmi and Nandita Das, loosely based on Ismat Chugtai’s Lihaf, released uncut in November 1998 with an ‘A’ certificate — a brave move by the then-Central Board Of Film Certification. Three weeks later, the Shiv Sainiks woke up to it and tore down a suburban theatre in protest.
The ire against Fire was based on a simple idea, beautifully worded by the Shiv Sena chief, Bal Thackeray, when he compared lesbianism to “a sort of a social AIDS” which might “spread like an epidemic.”
But Mehta’s Fire burned bright.
When lesbian love was just about cheap thrills. (Source: A still from Girlfriend/YouTube screengrab)
Karan Razdan’s Girlfriend (2004) — a film made with the sole purpose to titillate — starring Isha Koppikar, Amrita Arora and Aashish Chaudhary, had an identical effect on the Shiv Sainiks and the RSS. Posters were ripped apart and theatres vandalised to uphold ‘Bharatiya sanskriti’ and ‘parampara.’
Brushed aside, not brushed upon, by mainstream Bollywood. (Source: A still from Heroine/YouTube screengrab)
In 2012, way before Sonam — the mainstream A-lister who dared to take up a project like Ek Ladki Ko Dekha Toh Aisa Laga — Kareena Kapoor Khan twiddled with lesbianism in Madhur Bhandarkar’s Heroine. But it was of such little consequence and treated with such insensitivity, that it barely registered in the minds of most of us who saw the film.
Abhishek Chaubey’s Dedh Ishqiya — a film that gave us major Lihaf vibes too — however, somehow slipped under the radar.
Perhaps because of the masterful writing of Chaubey, Gulzar and Vishal Bhardwaj that restricted Begum Para (Madhuri Dixit) and Muniya’s (Huma Qureshi) ‘frolicking’ to a sub-plot. Those who get it, get it. Those who don’t are just not meant to.
When love was kept under a lovely lihaf. (Source: A still from Dedh Ishqiya/YouTube screengrab)
Result? The ending was perfect — and no theatres were burned in the screening of this film.
While Dedh Ishqiya kept lesbianism under the lihaf, another film the same year (2014), Shonali Bose’s Margarita With a Straw, presented us with a problem so twisted that we didn’t know how to react. If we were unable to understand homosexuality back then, how can we possibly understand bisexuality in a differently-abled woman?
Yeah, so no one got it. So no one protested.
When love was so complex that it was left alone. (Source: A still from Margarita With A Straw/YouTube screengrab)
For the first time, however, we're looking at the trailer of a mainstream film — and I keep repeating this word not to irritate but to reiterate — and wondering if Bollywood will do it differently this time.
Will it present the struggle rather than shove some girl-on-girl action just for numbers? And, while they are at it, will it manage to stay 'massy' rather than slip into 'classy' oblivion and lose its audience?
For this is a story that needs to reach beyond multiplexes. Will Vidhu Vinod Chopra and Sonam Kapoor get us to the other side?