Shelly Chopra Dhar’s directorial debut Ek Ladki Ko Dekha Toh Aisa Laga has a lesbian love story between Sweety (Sonam Kapoor) and Kuhu (Regina Cassandra) at its heart. But, for Shelly, the love story just forms the central narrative around which other subplots of the film are woven.
For the debutante director, “it’s a film about a family, a community and a brother understanding the emotion of love.” She believes if the audience will watch it with an expectation of seeing an LGBTQ love story, they “will be disappointed because that’s not what the film is about.”
We talked to Shelly and tried to find out her inspiration behind the film, how the co-writer of the film Gazal Dhalival, a transwoman, contributed to the script and why did she take the safe route to tell the story of same-sex love.
Here are excerpts from the conversation:
Q. What was the inspiration behind Ek Ladki Ko Dekha Toh Aisa Laga?
It’s a subject very close to my heart from a very long time and I knew I want to make a film on it from the time I joined film school. But I didn’t know this would happen to be my first film, but it did and I am very happy about it.
Q. Ek Ladki Ko Dekha Toh Aisa Laga has a bold theme. What special care did you take to present it without being preachy?
It was very important to not make the film preachy because nobody likes to hear a lecture or be preached at. India’s tradition seeps in folklore and storytelling. We have those Chitra Kathas, Jataka tales and ‘kahaanis’ where we listen to entertaining stories and come back with a small moral lesson.
Entertainment is the number one rule of cinema. You first entertain your audience and then within the story include a message. That’s what we tried to do. We first give you an interesting fun story with many characters and take you for a ride and then within there we have built in the message.
Q. You are both the writer and director of the film. So did being the screenwriter help you while shooting it?
Being the screenwriter, I knew the characters of the film from the back of my hand. I had a part in developing them. They were very much a part of me already, so I could not go wrong. For me, it kept me and actors on track. Because I knew these characters so well, nothing could be out of line.
When the writer and the director are different, just like an actor, the director also has to turn the script into his own script. I, as a director, should connect with those characters and situations because unless I can connect to that script or theme, I cannot do justice to the direction.
Q. Your co-writer for the film Gazal Dhaliwal is a transwoman. So did her perspective help you while writing the screenplay? If yes, how?
Definitely. Gazal herself has gone through many difficulties. People have teased her, laughed at her, so she has been through those emotions. When we were writing, all of our emotions came from there.
Q. When the film was about same-sex love and presented a story which is rarely told in Bollywood, why did you decide to keep Regina Cassandra’s character a secret?
Because I think the movie is more than just a love story between Sonam and Regina. I think it’s a film about a family, a community, a brother. So if you would start promoting it from the aspect of it as an LGBTQ love story, you would be disappointed when you will go to see the film as that’s not what the film is about. Regina is hardly there for 15 minutes.
I am mostly dealing with the emotion of love in the movie. I am not dealing with the physicality of love. I am talking about people’s presence in your life, say when you are in love with somebody. It’s the emotion and it’s about the family being able to understand that emotion.
Q. Also, in the movie, there are not many scenes which show Kuhu and Sweety’s relationship. What was the thought behind it?
I did not want to hijack the film into something else that it was not meant to be. Love is important and the love story is important because that is the foundation for everything else. But I wanted to deal with all the other emotions. I wanted to deal with a father’s emotion of finding out that his child is a gay, how does a brother deal with that, how does a community deal with that and how does she herself deal with that believing that she is not normal.
Unfortunately, we grow up hearing all of these things. She (Sonam’s character) heard that when she was 11 years old. Her brother told her that the kids who indulge in such things are bad. So she grew up believing that she is dirty, bad and abnormal. That for me was the emotion I wanted to share. Also, this is what people feel about themselves because they haven’t seen it any other way. They can only see themselves through the reflection of the communities. We are the reflection of how people see us. It’s about those issues.
Q. Some critics while lauding Ek Ladki for being the first mainstream film to talk about same-sex love have also called out the film for taking the safe route to tell the story. Did you fear alienating the audience by talking too much about same-sex love in the film?
Yes, whether we agree with it or not, it might be a normal relationship for us but it’s not a normal sight for us. We are used to seeing heterosexual couples holding hands. Now, we have got used to them kissing as well. But watching two men or two women kiss or hold hands is a sight we are still not accustomed to. So, if you suddenly see that too much, it’s bound to take the attention from something else because you have not seen that before. So I wanted people to come and experience the emotion and not get distracted by the fact that I am showing them something that they are uncomfortable with. But love you are not uncomfortable with. We have all felt love. So I figured that let’s show love without getting into the physicality of it.
Q. We have heard a lot about Anil and Sonam Kapoor’s equation as father and daughter. How were they as co-actors?
Amazing. They are very good. The chemistry they share in their private life, they have translated that onto the screen and it shows in some of the scenes of the film as well.
Q. How was it managing an ensemble cast in your directorial debut?
Fortunately for me, they were all professional actors and they were all there because they loved the script and all of them had faith in me. Nobody gave me a hard time because they believed that I knew what I am talking about. For actors with experience like that of Anil Kapoor and Juhi Chawla, it takes less time for them to get into the character, they have so much experience in showing emotions, in working late night and long shifts and things going wrong. They have seen it all. So, it got easier to work with them.
Q. Was setting the film in a small town of Punjab a deliberate attempt?
Yes, very much so. Somehow people’s perspective is that this happens only in modern cities and it has come to us from the West. It only happens when you wear short skirts and that is really ridiculous. So, I figured that if I will place it in a city, suddenly the city will take the whole blame for the film. And, if I will place it in a small town then it will be an average Indian person’s life.
Q. You had a big name of Vidhu Vinod Chopra Films associated with Ek Ladki Ko Dekha Toh Aisa. Did that add any pressure? How was it being associated with him?
A lot of pressure was there since you have to live up to the standard of the banner and that pressure helped me to make a better film. Vinod is a somebody who if likes a script doesn’t interfere in the director’s vision during the filming process. He allows him/her to follow the vision, which he did in my case as well and I am very thankful to him for that.