Ek Ladki Ko Dekha Toh Aisa Laga writer Gazal Dhaliwal talks about bringing LGBTQ stories to mainstream Bollywood
Gazal Dhaliwal, a trailblazing transwoman, defends her Roma, Ek Ladki Ko Dekha Toh Aisa Laga, and why she 'held herself back' while telling an LGBTQ story.
In an industry obsessed with deifying the star, the spotlight often evades those who work tirelessly behind the scenes. The success of a film is often attributed to its face but seldom to those who constitute the spine. And so, in this column titled Beyond the Stars, Firstpost highlights the contributions of film technicians who bring their expertise to the table.
Mumbai witnessed the biggest Pride parade in recent memory when members of the LGBTQ community took to the streets of the city on 2 February, 2019. Over 15,000 people participated in the annual march that also celebrated the striking down of parts of Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code, which led to the decriminalisation of homosexuality last year. The participation increased multi-fold as hundreds of members of the community came out, in more ways than one.
One tall figure, that walked rather calmly amidst the chaos, was Gazal Dhaliwal, a trailblazing transwoman and a co-writer of mainstream Bollywood's first tryst with homosexuality as the focal point, Shelly Chopra Dhar's recently released Ek Ladki Ko Dekha Toh Aisa Laga. "I make it a point to attend the Pride parade every year, if I'm in Mumbai. Last year, I missed it because I was shooting for Ek Ladki Ko Dekha Toh Aisa Laga in Patiala," says Gazal, in an exclusive interview with Firstpost at Mumbai's annual Pride parade.
While the Sonam Kapoor Ahuja-starrer is set in Moga, Gazal's ancestral town, it was shot in Patiala, her hometown. "In that way too, the film is very close to me," says Gazal, who admits that the story is, to a large extent, semi-autobiographical. "There are many similarities. Just like a transwoman, a lesbian also faces similar challenges of being stifled while growing up. While Sweety's (Sonam's character) dad (Anil Kapoor) was a chef, my father is into music. There is a vulnerable side to him as well," says Gazal. One was curious about the absence of Sweety's mother in the film. "Had there been a mother, Sweety's struggle wouldn't have been as daunting because of the presence of feminine energy in the household. Sweety exists in a house dominated by her father and her brother. Of course, there's the dadi, but even she is a stickler when it comes to gender roles. As we can see, she doesn't approve of her son cooking."
Ek Ladki Ko Dekha Toh Aisa Laga may well be called Gazal's Roma though it is packaged very differently from the Alfanso Cuaron drama. Treated as a hardcore commercial Bollywood film, it boasts of an iridescence that usually, and ironically, evades a Bollywood film about the LGBTQ community. As the rainbows descend on streets of South Bombay, Gazal explains why it was an important, and strategic, decision to walk the tightrope. "When we started shooting, Section 377 was very much in its place. We decided we had to tread very carefully. I think a large number of such films didn't get backing because the producers feared the film would get an 'A' certificate. We ensured that we get a 'U/A' certificate so that kids watch it. We didn't include any kissing scenes in the film because then kids won't be allowed in the theatres. I want them to see the film. I want my nieces to see the film."
While the film got mostly positive reviews, it was criticised by many for holding back while dealing with a taboo as big as homosexuality. "See, I didn't know then whether another of these films will get the backing again. So I had to tick all the boxes as a screenwriter of a masala Bollywood film. That is why we decided to retain our approach towards the film even after Section 377 was struck down. I just hope that even if the film is a small commercial success, there will be more stories about the LGBTQ community that will see the light of the day," explains Gazal.
As our conversation took its natural course, frequent passers-by, some of them vocal members of the Pride parade, intervened politely to let Gazal know how much they loved her attempt at blending the niche with the mainstream. As Gazal politely acknowledged the compliments, I looked around to observe how organically queer people, with rainbow paint tattoos on their cheeks and rubies in their jewellery, mingled with straight allies, discussing the Pride parade. Gazal then continued, explaining the idea behind the film was to be inclusive — of not only the LGBTQ community but also those who have not come out of the closet.
"We were very clear that we were making a film that the LGBTQ community can relate to. They could relate to the struggles they faced in their childhood, with their families, and the road to coming out. But we also made sure that those who are not from the community, particularly those who haven't converted yet, should not feel uncomfortable watching the film. They should not feel that they're being talked down to. I have no shame in admitting that it was strategic. I wrote the film in a way that if my grandfather was alive, he would be okay watching the film," says Gazal.
Gazal's intention behind not diving deep into the romance of Sonam and Regina Cassandra was also because she wanted to explore love as the overriding theme of the film. "I don't think love should be binding. Sweety's brother also loved her but his idea of love was to impose his thoughts and way of living on her. On the other hand, Balbir (Sweety's father) resolves to set himself free of his 'love' for his daughter and lets her chase her own love. Hence, our tagline was 'Set Love Free'. Similarly, even Sahil (Rajkummar Rao's character) sets his love free when he lets go of Sweety, with whom he fell in love at first sight."
As Ek Ladki Ko Dekha Toh Aisa Laga marches on at the box office, slowly and surely like the Pride parade, Gazal hopes that she will not have to "hold herself back" in the next queer love story that Bollywood has to tell. "Terms like 'gay love stories' and 'LGBTQ films' are just labels. They are important as they give many a sense of community and belonging, as we see today. But an ideal world would be one where these stories are defined as just love stories. I know that will take time but Ek Ladki Ko Dekha Toh Aisa Laga is just 'Bollywood meets LGBTQ 101'. I have many stories to tell. There is a whole universe out there."
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