From Fire to Ek Ladki Ko Dekha Toh Aisa Laga: A Brief History of Homosexuality in Indian Cinema


From Fire to Ek Ladki Ko Dekha Toh Aisa Laga: A Brief History of Homosexuality in Indian Cinema

Illustration: Shruti Yatam

Bollywood’s definition of homosexuality for most of its lifetime has been simple but problematic. An effeminate man with a dangling hand + comedy background music = gay. But in the last 10 years or so, our mainstream movies seem to have learnt a lesson or two in sensitivity.  

The industry has come a long way since 2007’s Honeymoon Travels Pvt. Ltd., where two married men silently yearn for each other and 2008’s highly problematic Dostana, where its two leads pretend to be gay to rent an apartment with a girl they both like. Almost a decade later, we saw Kapoor and Sons (2016), which breaks away from all the stereotypes of homosexuality. Fawad Khan plays a gay author with a secret boyfriend abroad – his sexuality is only incidental to his personality. It does not define him or make him any different from everybody else. Since then we’ve seen Karan Johar’s short in Bombay Talkies, Netflix’s Loev, and Hansal Mehta’s Aligarh.

And yet, even compared to these few examples of gay characters in Bollywood, lesbians have never managed to pervade the mainstream consciousness in family-friendly flicks. There’s the ultra-trashy Girlfriend (2004), about an obsessive lesbian stalker, that plays straight into salacious stereotypes. Thoughtful films like Margarita with a Straw (2014), where Kalki Koechlin stars as a girl with cerebral palsy who is finding her sexuality, or Dedh Ishqiya (2014), a crime thriller which features a romance between two conwomen, sit on the fringes, hammering diligently at homophobia and patriarchy, and go unnoticed by most moviegoers.  

Until now, the only film with a lesbian relationship that has captured the public imagination is 1996’s Fire — and not necessarily for the right reasons. A loose adaptation of Ismat Chughtai’s Lihaaf (1942), Fire focuses on the budding relationship between two sisters-in-law, Radha (Shabana Azmi) and Sita (Nandita Das), stuck in an unhappy joint family: Sita’s new husband cruelly ignores her and cheats on her, while Radha’s has turned brahmachari, forcing her to act as sexual bait to test his own willpower.

Both women are trapped in loveless marriages, expected to cater to their husband’s desires without having any of their own. Fire explores the sheer infeasibility of such an existence, and is less about same-sex love than the societal burdens that drive Sita and Radha together in the first place. The film ends with them leaving their old life behind, without knowing where they will turn next.

It’s a fitting metaphor for the country’s attitude towards the LGBTQIA+ community – a large part of which still considers homosexuality taboo. Only in September last year, did the Supreme Court strike down the archaic Section 377 of the IPC that described homosexuality as “carnal intercourse against the order of nature”.  

It’s a fitting metaphor for the country’s attitude towards the LGBTQIA+ community – a large part of which still considers homosexuality taboo.

Section 377’s vagueness allowed authorities to target the queer community, demonising sodomy and “unnatural” penetration. As for where women fit into this this narrow understanding of sex? Legally, the concept of female sexuality is all but passed over — not just in Sec 377. According to the IPC, rape, like adultery, can only be committed by men against women, and it must involve penetration.

Of course, these outdated laws ignore the existence of the lesbian community entirely. But they also speak to a culture where women’s desires are totally irrelevant.

Which is why the first lesbian love story of the post-377 era is cause for celebration. Ek Ladki Ko Dekha Toh Aisa Laga is a sensitive rendering of a lesbian girl, Sweety (Sonam Kapoor Ahuja), whose truth is in conflict with her small-town Punjabi milieu. Once a boisterous child, she’s becomes used to not speaking her mind, and believes she has to get married for the sake of her family. As Sweety swallows her sense of self to please her father, Ek Ladki Ko Dekha Toh Aisa Laga drives homes the fundamental injustice that the LGBTQIA+ community, and its women, face with an aching familiarity.

At the same time, Ek Ladki Ko Dekha Toh Aisa Laga is the charming, popcorn-worthy Bollywood movie that the genre has been sorely missing. Sure, the film remains studiously chaste, skipping over any suggestion of sexuality. But that allows it to act as a primer for young girls, gay or straight, whose existence is a struggle against stigma. When the soft-spoken Sweety finds her voice, she makes it clear that she will no longer sacrifice herself.

Most heartening, however, is the audience’s warm welcome. In 1996, Fire was met with riots and outrage. Politicians leapt over themselves to denounce the film as a threat to Indian culture, and while many moviegoers defended the release in the name of free speech as much as LGBTQIA+ rights, plenty more objected to the film’s religious allusions and negative portrayal of the joint family. Today, Ek Ladki Ko Dekha Toh Aisa Laga has received the kind of acclaim and acceptance that, not so long ago, seemed impossible.

The overturning of Sec 377 is a big step in our fight against prejudices, and there is a long way to go before we truly see equal rights enshrined into law. But Ek Ladki Ko Dekha Toh Aisa Laga has shown that behind the clamour of human rights battles and interminable legal wars, ordinary people have been quietly opening their minds to women like Sweety. In a post-377 India, that’s the greatest victory.