Ek Ladki Ko Dekha Toh Aisa Laga is a sensitive queer story, but disregards toxic masculinity of Sweety's brother
Ek Ladki Ko Dekha Toh Aisa Laga never once calls the 'protective' brother's behaviour into question, as is the ritual in many conventional Bollywood films.
In the years to come, Ek Ladki Ko Dekha Toh Aisa Laga will be known for many firsts. It is the first unabashedly mainstream movie to center around a queer protagonist. It is written by Gazal Dhaliwal, a transwoman, directed by Shelly Chopra Dhar, a woman, and stars one of our more progressive female actors, Sonam Kapoor Ahuja with her real life father, Anil Kapoor. It will be known for laying bare the cracks of Indian parentage, one that forces chefs to be businessmen, actors to be wives, and queer children into a heterosexual society. The movie is rightfully being lauded for handling a lesbian romance with sensitivity and affection.
Like many mainstream movies about family, Ek Ladki Ko Dekha Toh Aisa Laga ends on an optimistic note where all is accepted and forgiven. It is particularly refreshing in an industry where so often queerness is limited to stories about suffering. But somewhere in that quest for acceptance, the story also glosses over a prominent male character’s toxicity. A stubborn obsession with family honour and control leaves the character of the older brother as the most problematic link in the movie’s storyline.
Ek Ladki Ko Dekha Toh Aisa Laga is about Sweety Chaudhary, a young queer woman from Moga, Punjab who struggles with her attraction to women. Very early in life, she learns that there would never be any takers of her truth. She grows up by containing all her desire into a secret vault, and lives by occupying little space in her own life.
This solitude, whether willingly chosen or forced, is much too often a reality for queer characters in conservative environments. Barry Jenkins’ Moonlight speaks to this theme evocatively as its queer protagonist Chiron spends much of his time alienated from his world. Sweety Chaudhary too says little, her flight mode forever on as her nervous eyes dart over her surroundings for some semblance of safety. She finds home in Kuhu, a vivacious, flirty young woman who whisks our heroine off her feet. But her desire to cement a companionship with Kuhu is interrupted by Babloo (Abhishek Duhan), her aggressive older brother.
In the present time, we find Sweety fleeing from her brother, who runs after her to foil her visa interview that could potentially unite Sweety with Kuhu. He comes home to admonish her for her shamelessness, breaks her phone, cuts off her internet connection, thereby cutting her off entirely from the woman she loves. Sweety cowers under Babloo’s domineering aggression, her passivity slowly turning to fear and muffled sobs as he yells at her for being unable to be cured of her “disease”.
Babloo holds his knowledge of Sweety’s truth as ammunition, manipulating her into further isolation. He demands that their father marry Sweety off to his best friend, thus maintaining his looming influence over her life. And it is Babloo who strips Sweety of all control over her narrative, ultimately outing her to their father and the community. If Sweety walks, unsure of her journey, then Babloo makes sure his eyes scan and measure her every move.
Ek Ladki Ko Dekha Toh Aisa Laga concerns itself less with Sweety and Kuhu’s relationship, and more with Sweety’s journey toward acceptance. It is a story of a woman who has shrunk inward over the years, growing to assert herself and claim her freedom. Sweety’s loneliness then becomes the film’s most defining queer narrative. And her brother Babloo becomes its chief antagonist. His control over Sweety’s life is never considered alarming by anybody, not even by their gentle, affectionate father. Babloo's behaviour with Sweety is emblematic of an emotionally abusive relationship. He asserts his age and gender to patronise and bully Sweety into the closet. The film would have us believe that Babloo simply does not understand. His constant attempts at shaming her identity are never questioned.
The trope of male patriarchs taking it upon themselves to hinder the relationship of the woman for the sake of family honour has been done to death in popular cinema. Recently, however, that trope has been dealt with a degree of seriousness. Navdeep Singh’s NH10 fully realised the villainy of the brother hell bent on murdering his wayward sister. As did Nagraj Manjule’s Sairat. But as audience of mainstream cinema, we are used to romanticising the brother-sister pairing. We are charmed by a brother’s protectiveness, and the sister’s meek submission to it (think Arbaaz Khan and Kajol in Pyaar Kiya Toh Darna Kya). The idea of a sister stepping up to her brother and standing up for herself is rare, if not downright impossible to recall.
Ek Ladki Ko Dekha Toh Aisa Laga is ultimately a very humane film. It asks of us to sympathise with its queer protagonist, understand her love as we know love. It asks us to accept those closest to us as the father does his daughter, for why would you want to see those you love live dishonestly. Sweety goes from being submissive to standing up for herself after being outed, encouraged by the support of her closest allies. We root for this show of courage.
But the movie gently disregards the brother’s hostility, never once calling his behaviour into question. Perhaps it never wanted to encumber itself with the tonality of toxic male behaviour. Perhaps it most wanted us all to feel acceptance and love, which it did successfully. Perhaps the makers never once felt threatened by Babloo’s rants about family honour and shame. But in a country where even loving outside of your religion can be life threatening, it is hard to watch Ek Ladki Ko Dekha Toh Aisa Laga and not be nervous about Babloo. In a different movie, the Babloos are downright dangerous.
All images from YouTube.
Meher Manda is a poet, short story writer, journalist, and educator from Mumbai, currently based in New York.
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