The last time a mainstream Hindi-language film featuring a lesbian lead was released in India was in 1996. The movie, Fire, about two women who fall in love after the failure of their respective marriages, had to be recalled from theatres when Hindu extremists vandalized 15 cinemas where it was playing.
In many ways, then, the positive embrace of Ek Ladki Ko Dekha Toh Aisa Laga (How I Felt When I Saw That Girl) 23 years later on February 1 of this year represents a stark devation from Fire’s release. The movie, directed by Shelly Chopra Dhar, is about Sweety, a young woman living in the state of Punjab whose family wants her to marry a young man who loves her. She, however, is in love with someone else—a woman, Kuhu—and the plot follows her attempts to gain everyone’s acceptance, particularly her father’s.
Ek Ladki’s release comes on the heels of the Supreme Court’s ruling overturning Section 377, a colonial-era law banning gay sex, in September 2018. Public opinion on homosexuality in India, however, remains divided. A 2017-18 survey by the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies and Azim Premji University asked 15,222 people across eight states whether they thought that sexual relationships between two men or two women should be accepted by society. The suvey found that 28 percent of people agreed or somewhat agreed, 46 percent disagreed, and the rest had no opinion.
The dominant narrative in media coverage and in the marketing of the film has been its potential to transform these views. This theory was encapsulated by Ek Ladki’s lead, Sonam Kapoor, who in 2014 remarked, “I think movies can influence the way people think sometimes, and if we do start making love stories or we start making movies about people who are amazing human beings, people who have done something in life, people who are inspirational who aren’t necessarily only straight, I think people will start appreciating them more.” This statement not only reveals implicit assumptions of the causal link between on-screen and off-screen change, but also sets a standard for how queerness is depicted on screen.
To understand the conditions under which queerness is made visible in Bollywood and mainstream cinema generally, we must ask where and why this narrative of transformation falls short. What changes have allowed these stories to be told at this particular moment in this particular manner? What are the consequences of the mainsteam’s co-option of both marginalized experiences and of language that celebrates difference—and how do these considerations shape content?
This approach by no means aims to invalidate the importance of queer representation in the mainstream. Depictions of homosexuality as a whole in popular Bollywood cinema prior to Dhar’s landmark film have been minimal. When present, homosexuality has functioned as a comedic conceit, as in the 2008 film Dostana, in which two men pretend to be gay but are actually in love with their landlord’s daughter; or as a shorthand for deviance, as in the 2018 historical epic Padmaavat, in which homosexuality is associated with the villainous (Muslim) king and his scheming associate, used to underscore their deviance from the Hindu, heteronormative ideal.
I also saw firsthand the excitement of my fellow South Asian queer friends who organized trips to go see Ek Ladki the day it was released. In an essay for the Guardian, Sharan Dhaliwal similarly described a London screening of Ek Ladki that was filled to capacity with South Asians who by the end of the film were in tears, having watched their story told and existence reaffirmed.
We can recognize diverse representation as socially important while being aware of the ways in which it is shaped by assumptions of normative queerness and audience attitudes. Surface-level queering of casts and stories can create the illusion of progress; true representative representation cannot occur without corresponding economic and political changes in their process of production and in society at large.
Profitability governs decisions around which screenplays are financed, who gets cast, and how the resulting film is marketed. One consequence of this fact is that movies require star power: Seeing mainstream actors who audiences know and love play queer characters is a positive development as it works towards normalizing homosexuality. In the case of Ek Ladki, this comes in the form of real-life father-daughter duo Sonam (Sweety) and Anil Kapoor (Sweety’s father Balbir). Their acting dynasty has been in the spotlight since at least the 1980s, when Anil Kapoor first started appearing in Hindi films. What’s more, this is the first movie in which they have appeared together, which cannot be extricated from the audience’s experience. It not only serves as an effective marketing ploy, but also grounds the fictional story within a known, realistic context. This casting also means, however, that Sonam Kapoor, who is a straight woman and enjoys all the privileges and safeties of that status, profits from playing a queer woman. Further, it takes away the opportunity for a queer woman to play the role and thus forecloses a valuable opportunity to present not only a fictional but also a real-life role model for audiences. This is particularly important given that no prominent Bollywood celebrities are openly gay, which means that homosexuality in Hindi-language cinema remains strictly in the realm of fiction.
The second consequence of the demands of profitability is the need to appeal to the largest possible audience. The movie’s marketing campaign, for example, was deliberately vague so as not to alienate potential viewers. Neither the character Kuhu nor Sweety’s sexuality are shown or explicitly mentioned in trailers, posters or by the cast themselves in the run-up to the film’s release. Although the secrecy partly served to generate marketing buzz, it was also likely out of a desire to avoid alienating viewers or causing controversy which would impact box office revenues, a real concern in a country with a long history of boycotts, violent protests and state censorship of movies depicting female sexuality.
Queerness in Ek Ladki is further constructed around what is thought to be legible for domestic audiences. The film is grounded in familiar tropes of the Bollywood romance, from the opening wedding scene in which Sweety is asked when she is going to get married to a song in which Sweety and Kuhu hug among ruins. This intentional familiarization extends to the title, which is taken from a hit song from the 1994 blockbuster 1942: A Love Story, starring Anil Kapoor. This juxtaposition constitutes Ek Ladki as a kind of re-imagining of 1942, drawing an analogy between its same-sex love story and 1942’s heterosexual one.
Ek Ladki also equates the challenges faced by queer love with cross-religion love stories, which are relatively common in Bollywood romances, through a brief illustration of Sweety’s family’s bigotry toward a potential Hindu-Muslim marriage. By portraying different kinds of difference as equal, the film obscures the political demands and unique challenges faced by queer people, which are from different from those of India’s Muslim minority.
Moreover, the impact of going mainstream—in terms of number of viewers—is overstated. Ek Ladki underperformed at the box office, bringing in $3.3 million on a budget of $4.3 million. Although these numbers do not reflect the value of the media attention around the movie, which presumably reached a wider audience, Ek Ladki’s potential to change attitudes towards homosexuality and its impact within India have been exaggerated. This raises questions of the value of compromises made in the name of appealing to the masses if their attitudes remained largely unchanged, as well as of who this narrative of revolutionary change most serves.
Relatedly, Ek Ladki’s breakdown of domestic (35 percent) as opposed to foreign revenues (65 percent) is lopsided, whereas the average for other Bollywood movies is closer to 50-50. Given the importance of foreign audiences, Ek Ladki attempted to make queerness legible not only in a domestic but also transnational context. The ‘backwardness’ of Sweety’s family’s views, for example, is grounded in their location in rural India. The plot is built upon an implicit dichotomy between repression and liberation, wherein coming out moves Sweety and those surrounding her into the ‘modern’ world. Further, what it means to be queer can take different forms across cultural contexts. Queer studies scholars have thus argued that adopting Western constructions ignores alternative ways of being queer that may be particular to an Indian context. Incorporating the perceived limits of audience attitudes towards queer representation impacts how groundbreaking any attempts in mainstream cinema can be at transforming them.
The dominant narrative of this film’s revolutionary politics of these movies constructs media consumption in and of itself as a political act. This can be positive, as audiences can essentially vote with their wallets, showing studios the value of producing content outside of the norm. It can, however, obscure how the producers of mainstream narratives are themselves the ones who emphasize that these representations are novel and transformative. These characterizations present audiences with a false choice of watching or not watching the film as evidence of their politics. This not only forecloses debate on all the other potential narratives that could also be on the screen, it also makes it so that the movie’s consumption seemingly stands in for other types of political action. Finally, the economics of mainstream media production make it so that the film’s financial performance will affect any similar attempts in the future.
The mainstream’s self-characterization as revolutionary can thus overshadow the progress still needed when it comes to minority representation in mainstream cinema, particularly the need for re-evaluating the very structures that shape both onscreen and offscreen representation of Indian queer people.
Queering Bollywood has to go further than queering characters and plots. It also requires asking why certain representations exist in the mainstream and others outside if of it. The answers to these questions are necessary to implement the broader structural changes needed to allow these stories to be told more often and in multiple ways.
While it is important to celebrate the media attention and audience that mainstream film (theoretically) garner, to do so inevitably presents a standard for who can be queer and how, to the exclusion of other possibilities. In Dostana, for example, gayness is something that can be performed stereotypically by straight men in order to gain the ideal of heterosexual love. Ek Ladki centers male approval and help, whether in the form of Sweety’s father or Sahil, her friend who preaches tolerance to the villagers—and by extension, the audience—and acts as the mediator between Sweety and Kuhu and the rest of the village. Further, the plot revolves around Sweety’s relationship with her father, which is not necessarily a negative thing in and of itself. This fact, however, erases direct representation of Sweety and Kuhu’s love and relationship.
Studios have the the power to choose which of many potential films to produce, and it is no accident that Sonam Kapoor talks about conventionally accomplished, inspirational queer people as deserving of representation. This film’s frame as the first, and thus implicitly only, positive depiction of queerness in Indian film also erases the decades-long history of non-commercial queer media production by queer people, for queer people, many of which reject a universalizing aesthetic or common notion of queerness.
Queering can also be an approach to the archive of Bollywood films and films about Indians broadly. One example is Bend it Like Beckham (2002) about a second-generation British-Indian woman, Jess (Parminder Nagra), who rebels against her parents by joining a local football team. By the end of the movie (spoiler alert!), she has found an opportunity to play for a club in the United States, a best friend, Jules (Keira Knightley), and a boyfriend (Jonathan Rhys Meyers). Rumors claiming that the Nagra and Knightley's characters were originally supposed to end up together and that the director had “chickened out” for fear of offending Indian audiences, as well as analyses of the movie’s queer subtext, have made the rounds of the internet in recent years. The value of reconsidering existing representations is that it takes texts that are already mainstream and links them to queerness in a way that can also facilitate social change.
Furthermore, the economics of queer media production in India have to be re-evaluated. For the most part, queer representations have required intervention from outside of India. The majority of queer representation that garners media attention in India is in some way made possible by actors outside of India. Fire, for example, was funded by the Canadian government and its director, Deepa Mehta, is Indian-Canadian, while Ek Ladki was financed at least partly by the presence of a large diaspora as a potential paying audience. Streaming services are the most recent manifestation of this phenomenon. Anil Kapoor, for example, cited Netflix as a potential answer to concerns around his remake of Modern Family, thought to be difficult to produce because of it depicts a gay couple. After her 2017 movie Lipstick Under My Burkha was stalled by Indian censors for being overly ‘lady-oriented,’ Alankrita Shrivastava took another project, Made in Heaven, featuring a gay character, straight to Amazon.
The requisite for foreign intervention in domestic queer productions not only obscures the limits of domestic financing, but also means that any content produced requires a transnational legibility. Streaming platforms’ strategies are built around making local content that can also be consumed globally. This inevitably shapes representations of queerness so that they coincide not only with the expectations of global audiences but also those of foreign producers’. These platforms have self-censored out of a fear of decreased profits, just as Ek Ladki’s producers did. Amazon Prime, for example, cut parts of an episode of the car show The Grand Tour, in which the host drives a car made of animal carcasses, including those of cows, which are considered sacred in Hindu culture. The company explained its decision in a statement as bearing “Indian cultural sensitivities in mind.” An understanding of how onscreen representations cannot be separated from the context of their production must accompany any claims to art’s impact on off-screen social relations.
While we may conceptualize censorship of queer representation primarily as suppression by heteronormative governments, media producers, and fundamentalist groups, it can also exist even more insidiously when these representations appear in the mainstream. These films, after all, are still shaped by directors’ and producers’ decisions and their perceptions of what forms of queerness are and aren’t legible to audiences. If we are to avoid re-inscribing new forms of normativity, our demands for queer cultural visibility must be accompanied by demands for the reformation of the structures that have led to invisibility in the first place. On-screen representation cannot replace the value of political or economic representation; conversely, radical representation cannot occur without simultaneous economic and political change.
SAANYA JAIN B’19 thanks the Indy for once more providing, sadly for the last time, the best excuse to procrastinate on her thesis.