India: Bollywood’s first major LGBT+ film splits audiences

Gazal Dhaliwal, a trans woman and writer of Bollywood film ‘Ek Ladki ko dekha toh aisa laga’, in Mumbai, India, on February 7, 2019 – Image: Thomson Reuters Foundation/Roli Srivastava

The big reveal during Bollywood’s first mainstream LGBT+ film “Ek Ladki Ko Dekha Toh Aisa Laga …” (“When I Saw That Girl, I Felt …”) arrives halfway through the feature.

Distraught protagonist, Sweety, played by actress, Sonam Kapoor Ahuja, explains to her besotted male admirer that she is in love with another woman.

The film’s writer, Gazal Dhaliwal, has seen the film four times at cinemas in India after it was released on February 1, and at each screening, saw up to 10 couples or families leave the theatre, as Sweety’s struggle for acceptance took centre stage.

“People are only used to watching homosexual content in the context of comedy or in scenes that make a mockery of homosexual characters”, said Dhaliwal, a trans woman who describes the film as semi-autobiographical.

“In this film, we were asking them to pause, think, introspect their own behaviour. Clearly we have a long way to go, and many more stories to tell before people become comfortable”, she told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

Since India legalised gay sex in September last year, depictions of LGBT+ people on Indian television have improved, shifting from mocking stereotypes to including gay men on dating shows, and drag queens in a singing competition.

Trailblazing political and legal decisions are also chipping away at prejudice, and Dhaliwal’s film has been hailed by the LGBT+ community as a Bollywood game-changer.

“I can’t believe what I saw”, was among the string of complimentary tweets that equal rights campaigner, Harish Iyer, posted in praise of “Ek Ladki…” minutes after he watched the film.

Bollywood has a massive following among LGBT+ people, but has never represented them accurately on screen, said Dhaliwal, who grew up watching transgender characters always portrayed as men “who liked to dress up as girls and attract straight men and sleep with men”.

“It used to make me feel that this is how people would look at me when I came out. It instilled a fear … is this how I will be perceived?” she said.

Born as a boy, Dhaliwal has spoken on public platforms about being mocked in school for her feminine traits, her struggle to behave like a man, running away from home, and returning to her supportive parents.

“The LGBT community is one of the most marginalised and discriminated community in our country and just because they are not comfortable with their bodies or attracted to the same sex doesn’t make them less human”, Dhaliwal said.

The writer underwent sex reassignment surgery over a decade ago, after which her parents visited all their neighbours in the northern town of Patiala, and told people about Dhaliwal’s sex transition, and asked them to address her accordingly.

As a chemical engineer pursuing a dream to write Bollywood scripts, Dhaliwal said her latest film was meant to be an adaption of PG Wodehouse’s “A Damsel in Distress” that she turned into an LGBT+ story.

“I have lived this life. I felt responsible to tell this story at some point”, she said, adding that the film may provide comfort to children who are living conflicted lives to make them feel that “they are not alone, there is hope”.

“This is Bollywood’s first step out of the closet”, she said. “I hope future films now don’t push us back into the closet”.

-Roli Srivastava @Rolionaroll, Thomson Reuters Foundation

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