This week’s release, Ek Ladki Ko Dekha Toh Aisa Laga, directed by Shelly Chopra Dhar is one of the very few films that talks of a same-sex romance, but between girls. What’s truly significant is that is a mainstream film with stars like Anil Kapoor, Juhi Chawla, Sonam Kapoor and Rajkummar Rao goes into the LGBTQ space
However, let’s not forget that the key was first turned to open the closet by Deepa Mehta’s 1996 film Fire, when LGBTQ issues were still locked in. Even though the film suggested that women turn to each other when they are dissatisfied with their husbands—which is not always the case—it revealed more about Indian middle-class hypocrisy than about marriage and sex.
The story took its inspiration from Ismat Chughtai’s famous story Lihaaf (1942), that spoke about lesbianism in the zenana of a Muslim family, and got the writer hauled to court for obscenity. There was a lot of protest against Fire too. The Central Board of Film Certification (CBFC) gave it an ‘A’ (adults only) certificate and asked for a character’s name to be changed from Sita To Nita. (Those were relatively sane times, one cannot imagine the repercussions today if lesbian characters were called Sita and Radha!). Still, right wing organizations attacked theatres playing the film, burnt the posters and claimed Fire was against Indian culture.
The film was recalled by the CBFC for re-examination, that prompted a group of film personalities, in a rare show of solidarity, to send a petition to the Supreme Court, citing the freedoms granted by the Indian Constitution. The film got equal amounts of approval and hate as the controversy blew up; if there were candle-light processions for freedom of expression, there were also ridiculous incidents like Shiv Sena men stripping to their underwear and agitating outside Dilip Kumar’s house, because he voiced his support for the film.
So what was it that was that got people so riled up? The film is set in a middle-class Delhi colony, where Sita (Nandita Das) comes in as the new bride of Jatin (Jaaved Jaafery). It is a typical Indian joint family, with the paralysed mother Biji (Kushal Rekhi) as the matriarch watching silently over two sons; the older one, Ashok (Kulbhushan Kharbanda) is married to the docile Radha (Shabana Azmi). A cheeky servant, Mundu (Ranjit Chowdhry) completes the domestic set-up.
The brothers run a small provision and video rental store. Jatin has a Chinese girlfriend, so neglects Sita, who finds that she, like Radha, is reduced to cooking, cleaning and tending to the mother-in-law. If Sita is sexually frustrated, it is revealed that Ashok also ignores his wife, after coming under the influence of a swami, who tells him that desire is the cause of all suffering so abstinence is the way to go The situation is even more difficult for Radha, because she is childless.
Radha has mutely accepted her fate for over a decade, but Sita is not the kind to put up with it. Their unhappiness leads them to seek solace in bed with each other; they find the tenderness and love they did not get in their marriages. Their secret relationship is witnessed by Biji, who cannot speak. It is Mundu who finally outs them.
There is outrage at home, Sita packs up and leaves right away, while Radha stays back to pacify her husband. While Ashok and Radha are arguing, her sari catches fire, and he does not make a move to help. The last bit of traditional reticence is destroyed by this act, and Radha leaves to join Sita.
The film was hailed for its boldness and upholding of feminism, but also criticised for its over-simplification of the issues, and turning it into a lesbian fairy-tale; the filmmaker, however, always maintained that the relationship between the two women was not the whole point of the story, it was about their breaking out of the mould patriarchy set for them.
Subsequently the fight for gender inclusivity raged on in Indian society for years, leading to the scrapping, last year, of Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code, that crimininalised homosexuality. Because of the star power behind Ek Ladki Ko Dekha Toh Aisa Laga, the closet might just be kicked wide open.