Films: Shelly Chopra Dhar’s Successful Use of Commercial Cinema for a Social Message
There have been a rare few films like Fire and I Can’t Think Straight that have tackled the taboo topic of lesbian love in the conservative Indian landscape. But these were arthouse or offbeat films with a distinct “adult” feel, and had limited audiences. Now, here comes Ek Ladki Ko Dekha Toh Aisa Laga, a big banner Bollywood film with all the typical fare of dance, music, and melodrama that very delicately portrays the tender romance between two women. The kicker is director Shelly Chopra Dhar’s deft use of a family-film to convey to the masses, and not just the elite art cinema crowd, that we are all ‘different’ and need the space to become what we want to be.
In an exclusive interview with Khabar, Dhar, who is based in Michigan, talks about her influences and intentions behind the film.
Shelly Chopra Dhar is all about breaking stereotypes. She proves that anyone can do anything with their life. Dhar, 62, the first-time director of Ek Ladki Ko Dekha Toh Aisa Laga, attended film school only when her fourth and youngest child was in middle school. She pooh-poohs conventionally held ideas of ageism, and says, “I believe in constant learning—I’m not intimidated by age or what people will say.”
A computer professional, she remade herself and attended The Motion Picture Institute in Michigan to learn a whole new skill in her 50s. She recalls, “After being a full time wife and mother and taking care of the kids for many years, I found it very exciting that I was on the verge of a new horizon with the ability to do anything I wanted.”
From being a wife and mother in Michigan to becoming a director of one of the biggest Bollywood films seems a big jump, but Dhar does have her links to the Indian film industry. She belongs to a film family—she is the youngest sister of seven brothers, the oldest being the renowned filmmaker Ramanand Sagar and the youngest being Vidhu Vinod Chopra, a contemporary heavyweight in Bollywood. Her life has indeed run on two parallel tracks: Mumbai’s Bollywood and Michigan, where she lives with her family. Often the two worlds juxtapose and have shaped much of her thinking.
Shelly Chopra Dhar (pictured, middle) with the stars of the film, Anil Kapoor, Juhi Chawla, Sonam Kapoor, and Rajkumar Rao.
Ek Ladki Ko Dekha Toh Aisa Laga is produced by Vidhu Vinod Chopra and stars for the first time the father and daughter duo, Anil Kapoor and Sonam Kapoor, playing father and daughter. The film also stars Rajkummar Rao, Juhi Chawla, and an ensemble cast. It is being lauded for its courage in dealing with a taboo topic.
Growing up in Mumbai she was always an activist on gay issues, often organizing street plays. “I’ve felt for a long time that representation for this community has not been done at all in the mainstream in the way it should be done,” she says. “In parallel cinema you had films like Fire and now Aligarh, but those were films with a serious take and very limited audience in a different style of cinema. So I felt it was important to have this subject be the first on the mainstream platform. It was intentionally, consciously written.”
This is the first time that the topic of same-sex love is being shown as a love story in Bollywood with all its music and dance and drama. Dhar admits, “It is sugar-coated. I had to see what my goal was in making this film: my goal was to have it be accessible to as many people as possible.”
As she points out, issues change and then society changes. She recalls, “When I was 13, I had gone to a party and I saw a couple kissing. I could not take my eyes off them! I had never seen my parents kiss so this seemed very abnormal behavior. In the same way we are not able to digest same-sex couples, because we have not seen same-sex couples. Today parents are grappling with this issue. Society as a whole does not know how to deal with it. I figured this was a socially relevant story to bring to the mainstream.”
Dhar’s hope is to change what is regarded as abnormal and give people more agency in their own lives—be it age, gender, or the work people want to do. Being your authentic self has always been important to Dhar, and there are several subplots in the film where she brings out these beliefs. Sweety (Sonam Kapoor) is stressed and tormented for not being able to come out of the closet to her conservative family who is always trying to find her a suitable boy.
Even our hero Sahil (Rajkummar Rao) has to contend with the expectations of his father, a millionaire filmmaker who scorns his son’s efforts to be a small-time playwright. Then there’s the business magnate Balbir Chaudhary (Anil Kapoor), Sweety’s father, who had to give up his dreams of becoming a chef because of his own mother’s firm belief that real men don’t cook.
“These are different paradigms we grew up with in India, which are very common: boys don’t go to the kitchen, boys don’t cook.” She adds jokingly, “My brothers don’t even know how to bring a glass of water from the kitchen! It’s not that they are bad people—it’s just that my mother never encouraged them to do that. It’s like they are taken care of. It’s the norm—and I tackled that.”
In the film, Juhi Chawla plays Chatro, the feisty caterer who falls in love with Balbir Singh. She has her own issues and failed dreams: she had wanted to be an actress, but once again society did not permit her. Dhar, of course, knows of society’s resistance to a film career for women. She recalls, “I was in and around films all my life. But where I come from, films and families were treated in a very conservative fashion; it was very clear that girls don’t act in films. It was out of question for you to even think about it. I got offered some jobs in television as a voice artist, and my family said no.”
(Right) Shelly, as a child, sitting next to actress Sadhana, while her older brother Ramanand Sagar gives a speech in Oberoi Hotel in Kashmir during the shooting of his movie Arzoo.
I asked her about her life growing up in a famous film family, and she had many charming stories to tell. She visited the sets all the time, and her earliest memories are of visiting the sets of Arzoo starring Sadhana and Rajendra Kumar, a film by her brother Ramanand Sagar. She says, “I have so many pictures with Sadhana and Rajendra Kumar, sitting with them, a little girl with two braids. That was the first time I flew in a plane from Srinagar to Delhi for the premiere of this film and then, believe it or not, they didn’t let me go to the premiere, and I was instead sent to a park to play! I did get to go to the premiere of Jab Jab Phool Khile, and I literally sat in between Shashi Kapoor and Nanda. I was the only little girl, and you know how people are very nice to little girls!”
As for the script of the movie, Dhar writes about what she believes in. She and her collaborator Gazal Dhaliwal, who is a transwoman, work together on the scripts. They have earlier written two other scripts together. Says Dhar, “Gazal came to Michigan and stayed with me while we worked on the script of Ek Ladki. We have a rapport and good understanding with each other.”
The landscape is a welcoming one for Ek Ladki Ko Dekha Toh Aisa Laga. Critics have been giving it really good reviews, people are enjoying it and recommending it to their families. So what’s next for her? She says, “I have so many ideas, so I think I will take a short break and decompress a bit and will start working on a new story.”
“I think the role of a filmmaker is a very responsible one,” she says. “India is a country that is deeply into oral myths and folklore and storytelling. If you remember the Jataka tales, they were entertaining tales with a moral in the end. Then cinema came in and took over the role and became the largest social agent.”
Shelly Chopra Dhar has come belatedly into the world of cinema, but she is a filmmaker to watch because you can expect thoughtful yet accessible cinema from her.
Continue reading for Lavina Melwani’s review of the film Ek Ladki Ko Dekha Toh Aisa Laga.
Ek Ladki Ko Dekha Toh Aisa Laga
Starring: Sonam Kapoor, Rajkummar Rao, Regina Cassandra, Anil Kapoor, Juhi Chawla.
Director: Shelly Chopra Dhar.
Pushing the Envelope around the Typical Big, Fat, Bollywood Romance
Song, dance, romance, music, and melodrama…it’s all there! The twist? It’s about girl-meets-girl—making this a milestone film in commercial Bollywood cinema.
Ek Ladki Ko Dekha Toh Aisa Laga begins, in true Bollywood fashion, with a Big Fat Indian Wedding, but as you meet the people in this universe, you soon realize that it’s not more of the same, and that Bollywood is actually taking some risks.
(Left) The real life father-daughter duo of Anil Kapoor and Sonam Kapoor perform as father-daughter in the film.
You have all the ingredients for a romantic comedy/drama with bankable stars: who doesn’t love Anil Kapoor—Mr. India—and the lovely, feisty Juhi Chawla? Then there’s everyone’s current favorite, Rajkummar Rao. And there’s the fact that for the first time a real life father and daughter, Anil Kapoor and Sonam Kapoor Ahuja, are actually performing together—and as father and daughter. The catchy title song “Ek Ladki Ko Dekha” has memories of the hit Anil Kapoor-starrer 1942: A Love Story for most diehard film buffs. These factors are enough to park filmgoers in their comfort zone, ready to absorb whatever comes next.
Soon, though, you realize that this is not a typical boy-meets-girl romance. It’s actually a girl-meets-girl romance—a big no-no in Bollywood. We first saw a taboo lesbian love relationship in Deepa Mehta’s Fire, but that was art cinema, and yet it caused a lot of outrage.
While gay relationships have been seen in My Brother … Nikhil, Kapoor & Sons, and Dostana (albeit a faux gay relationship), a girl-loves-girl story has not hit the screen except for the powerful Margarita with a Straw which took you into the complex life of a teenager with cerebral palsy.
So one wonders, are lesbian relationships not taken seriously on the Indian screen or just don’t merit a film in the male-dominated industry? Can women really speak up about what they want, and be heard? Do producers worry about the box-office returns?
With Ek Ladki Ko Dekha Toh Aisa Laga, Bollywood takes a stab at a difficult issue, delivered in the Bollywood way, with comedy, music, dance, wedding scenes, and family—loads of family. There’s an emotional, over-the-top grandmother, father, brother, and assorted relatives, for in India you don’t just marry a boy or a girl—you marry the whole extended family.
(Left) Sonam Kapoor as Sweety and Rajkummar Rao as Sahil.
Sweety, a closeted lesbian, has to come out to her conservative Punjabi family and does it with the help of Sahil, a young playwright in love with her. He creates a play to open the eyes of her resistant father and the society of their hometown, and gets the unwitting family involved in its production.
With a woman director, there’s a good grip on the father-daughter relationship as well as on what women go through to keep their lives secret just to live without rocking the boat.
Since it is set in Moga in rural Punjab, more of India’s masses may identify with the goings on when the family reflects one like their own. Urban families are already familiar with gay and lesbian issues, but the film may open some dialogue in the hinterland.
Social reform through the easy device of a play is a bit hackneyed, nor does Sahil seem a particularly effective playwright, but the performances keep you involved. Rajkummar Rao is always wonderful and as Sahil, the man who’ll do anything for the woman he loves, he’s a winner. Sonam Kapoor as Sweety and Regina Cassandra as Kuhu, the woman she loves, are believable, but more of their love story could have been shown to really engage you.
Anil Kapoor as Balbir Chaudhary, the father who changes his mind, and Juhi Chawla as Chatro, the feisty caterer who helps him see things differently, are both wonderful and need to be seen more in cinema. The supporting cast fits into the town as if they were real residents, and there are solid performances from Abhishek Duhan as Sweety’s fiery brother Babloo and Madhumati Kapoor as Beeji, the colorful matriarch.
Shelly Chopra Dhar, who wrote the story with Gazal Dhaliwal and directed the film, brings in several engaging subplots, each showing that we should follow the path that makes us happiest.
Anshu Rai of Sholay Events is part of the LGBT community in New York. “While there could have been more depth to Sonam Kapoor’s relationship with her girlfriend, I was touched and very emotional during the scenes portraying the extreme bullying and homophobia endured by Sonam as a young schoolgirl and by her best gay friend,” she said.
“Some of the most touching moments were the reactions of audience members watching the play: the young girl with her parents possibly dealing with her own issues of homophobia, and the older gentleman in his seat sobbing as he’s watching. This movie is a small step for Bollywood and I hope to see the floodgates open.”
Indeed, the movie brings taboo topics out in the open. It may lead to more complex and honest films from the many notable Indian filmmakers. Some independent films have already tackled hard issues, but as Bollywood pitches in, more people will watch and be influenced.
While Ek Ladki Ko Dekha To Aisa Laga is not earth-shattering, it does venture into new territory for Bollywood. It is an entertaining, fun comedy with something meaningful to say and maybe even the power to change some minds. Hopefully the box-office will reward it.
The film garnered many heartfelt comments on YouTube. One said, “As a bisexual girl who’s struggling to find acceptance, this trailer very nearly brought tears to my eyes. I can’t wait to watch this. Thank you for giving me a chance to make peace with my family.”
Another wrote: “I will go mad…so much positivity in the comments….I am literally getting goosebumps….lgbtq in mainstream this is truly rocking….I think I will be out to my family after letting them watch this masterpiece… love for the casts and crews….”
Now what better endorsement for a film than that?
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