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Bollywood’s First Lesbian Rom-Com Is Bringing Queer Love to Indian Cinema

The mother of a gay child, Shelly Chopra Dhar, and Gazal Dhaliwal, a trans woman, co-wrote the script for a groundbreaking new movie in India in the hopes of getting through to parents of LGBTQ children.

by Alyssa Klein
Mar 8 2019, 4:56pm

Photo courtesy of Fox Star Studios

A new Hindi-language, coming-of-age romantic comedy is making waves and disrupting heteronormative cinema in India this year. Ek Ladki Ko Dekha Toh Aisa Laga, which translates to “How I Felt When I Saw That Girl,” is the first Bollywood movie to portray a lesbian love story—or any LGBTQ story, for that matter—in a meaningful way. Unfortunately, despite having encouraging reviews from Indian film critics, Indian cinema-goers aren’t exactly flocking to see it.

According to the filmmakers, the movie is performing better overseas than back in India, where a landmark ruling legalized gay sex in September 2018 and the country’s movie industry is having its own #MeToo conversation (speaking of which, the film dropped veteran Bollywood filmmaker Rajkumar Hirani’s credits as a co-producer on Ek Ladki in the wake of sexual assault allegations against him).

Nonetheless, it’s a major breakthrough in an industry that up until now has only portrayed queer folks as comedic material.

As for the quality of Ek Ladki, it’s as wildly entertaining as one would come to expect from a Bollywood movie, where characters regularly break out in song and dance. It’s hilarious, too. In it, Bollywood superstar Sonam Kapoor stars as Sweety, a young Indian woman with a secret that she’s afraid to tell her father (played by her actual father, fellow Bollywood superstar, Anil Kapoor)—that contrary to her family’s wishes, she does not want to marry a man. Spoiler: She’s in love with a woman and has loved women her entire life, though it’s only within the past year that she’s begun to find self-acceptance with her lesbian identity.

Her father, meanwhile, has his own progressive storyline that suggests the filmmakers are also speaking to gender norms—to the dismay of his mother, his passion is to cook. The action kicks into gear when Sweety crosses paths with Sahil, a Muslim-Indian filmmaker and aspiring playwright played by Rajkummar Rao. Smitten by this mysterious woman he’s just met, Sahil hatches a plan to host an acting class in Sweety’s small town to win her over. Little does he know...

It would be easy for Ek Ladki to feel contrived or campy. Thankfully, the story is in good hands with newcomer Shelly Chopra Dhar, a first-time feature film director at 62. The mother of a gay child, Chopra Dhar co-wrote the script with Gazal Dhaliwal, who is a trans woman, in the hopes of getting through to parents of LGBTQ children. The result is a deeply moving tale that touches as equally on acceptance as it does the power of representation—a key plot point in the movie.

Broadly caught up with Chopra Dhar in New York City for a conversation on LGBTQ representation in Bollywood, her advice to fellow parents, and why you shouldn’t let age stop you from following your dreams.

What were you doing before you directed your movie?

I’m 62 years old. So I’ve had a whole profession before this, which was in computers. I did my bachelors in computers. I got married at an early age. I went to Canada when I was 20, after marriage. And I studied computers there for a couple of years, in Saskatchewan. From there I moved to Michigan, and I started working in a school district as a programmer. I gradually kept moving up—I became a systems analyst and then I [became part of the administration]. I became the supervisor of systems and programming, and then the last few years I was sort of the technology head in the school district.

How did you end up directing a major Bollywood movie?

I constantly believe in growing and learning and doing different things. Computers kept me very busy because it’s the kind of job that changes every day, and it’s very creative. And then I got into the family. I have four children. So my priorities shifted. I went full force into taking care of my family. When my children were in elementary school I had three or four hours a day [to myself], and so I got into pottery and painting. I ventured into the arts.

[Meanwhile], my family in India is into films. My older brother is a very big Bollywood producer. He started to work on a Hollywood project called Broken Horses. One holiday, he came up to Michigan and said “Shelly, do you want to help me manage the place?” So I went to LA, Beverly Hills, I booked a place, and [my brother] started to meet people there. And I kind of just organized. But then just like a month before shooting, some administrative issues happened and they could not continue at that time. So my brother packed up after one year of being there and went back to India, and I went back to Michigan. That happened to be the same time that my children started middle school, and suddenly I found I had nine hours of the day with nothing to do. So I decided to go to film school.

What happened next?

I did my due-diligence as a student. I made my first film. The little films that I made, I would send back to my mentors. Those were well appreciated. They really liked my work, and they said “Keep going. Do it.” After I graduated, I was in India and I started to assist on a couple of feature films there. I did different things on three or four big films. I’m a good editor also, so I edited some of the promos. I did behind the scenes.

And then my brother’s project got picked up again. He asked me if I wanted to do the behind the scenes. So I picked up my camera. I worked on the film from A through Z, and that was a big learning curve for me. We started with casting and auditions and we started to put the whole project together. For the wrap party, they said to me “Make something special,” so I thought about it and I said “You know, my brother is from Bollywood, and I’m doing this in Hollywood.” So I made a short film introducing the entire Broken Horses crew with Bollywood song and dance. It was so well received. Everybody just loved it. And my brother didn’t know who directed it. He said “Whoever has done that can make my movie.” And I said, “I did.” So he said “Huh, OK. Well, start writing.” So I started to think about scripts and finally, after three scripts, this is the one that got greenlit.

Why was this a story you wanted to tell?

It’s a subject that’s been very close to my heart for many reasons. It’s a story I feel that needs to be told. And also I personally went through figuring this out for myself because I have a gay child. It took a few days of thinking about it, of changing my perspective, to understand it and accept it the way it should be. I really felt that I’m making this film so I can help children as they’re growing up, if their parents see it. In India especially, being the conservative community that it is, people don’t even understand it, let alone accept it. It’s beyond their concept of what love is. They only know love in one way. They don’t understand that love doesn’t require any qualification. It’s not gender-based or caste-based or religion-based. It’s a totally pure emotion above all these things.

So I wanted to make a film breaking that paradigm in India, because these are paradigms we grew up with. I feel it boxes them. In my film I show the protagonist locked away. You know, we call the LGBT community “in the closet.” I truly feel the other side is also in a closet. They are equally tied down to old thoughts, which it’s not like they’ve even thought about and then put it in their brain. It’s coming to them from the community as they’re growing up. As children they probably grasp it from the community and the world around them. They never take the time to question it. I truly believe that parents all love their children; if they can just change their perspective, it’s the solution to all problems in the world.

Over the course of your film, representation and the power of art to change hearts and minds actually becomes the plot of the movie. Was that something you were thinking about?

Yes. The LGBT community has been marginalized over hundreds of years. In mainstream Indian cinema, it has never been represented right. Either it’s been represented in a very derogatory fashion or it’s been represented in a comic relief way. People are made fun of. Their mannerisms are made fun of. I feel it does more damage because people always come back learning something from the films they see. Whether you like it or not, you absorb—either the mannerisms or the fashion or the hairstyle—you always come back with something from films. That does a disservice. So I feel the responsibility of a filmmaker is really great. It’s a privilege and a responsible position that you’re in. What you’re saying in your film is going to be absorbed by so many people, and they are going to take it with them whether you like it or not. It was very important to me to represent the [LGBT] community in the regular, normal, respectful way, which they deserve.

Do you feel like you had any particular challenges getting this specific story made?

See, the biggest thing is you need a producer. That’s the biggest challenge of all. Fortunately for me, the producer really liked the script. When I wrote the script, I wrote it with a co-writer. She is a trans woman. So the two of us wrote the script together, and it was a great culmination of both our experiences that came through in the script. The producer really liked the story and the script and the way we weaved it together so organically. Once I got the go-ahead from the producer, other problems just went away.

In the movie, the father character has his own passion—he really wants to be a chef. Do you have an equivalent of that in your own life?

Actually, not really me—but my husband is very fond of cooking. Even though he’s a very successful businessman, his passion is cooking. My intention [with the character of the father] was to break paradigms. Not just one paradigm, but as many as I could incorporate. It’s very common in India for people to live a compromised life and not follow their passion because it’s not the “right” thing to do, because the community doesn’t think it’s the right thing to do. So yes, the LGBT [paradigm] was one aspect of this, but so is this thing about males not being able to enter the kitchen and not cooking.

What has the reception to Ek Ladki been like in India?

In the smaller cities in India people are still not receptive to the subject. In terms of reviews and critical acclaim, I couldn’t do any better. But in India, they are still not there [in terms of the subject matter]. Even though Article 377 has gone on with our lives, even though the film has a great rating—it’s like a PG film, anyone can go see it—we still don’t have people flocking to see it in India. That saddens me. But I know that this is a film is [going to have an impact].

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Are you planning on making more movies?

Yes, of course. I’m going to take a short break, because I have imbibed these characters into my system for the last two and a half years. I want to try and break [every paradigm] that people are closeted about.

Is there something you’ve been wanting to talk about or put into the world?

I also wanted to tell people about me—that I’m 62 years old, I’ve had a profession, I’ve done all my duties, I’ve taken care of my children. I want to tell people don’t be intimidated by age. Don’t be intimidated by other people. Follow your heart. If you believe something is right, do it. Life is too short to sit there and start worrying about “Oh, I’m already this old.” Nobody is done until you’re really done. Just go out there and live your life properly, with conviction and passion.