Romantic comedies don’t usually start with solemn disclaimers warning the audience that the filmmakers have no wish to cause “outrage to any religious groups or castes.” But Ek Ladki Ko Dekha Toh Aisa Laga (“How I Felt When I Saw That Girl”) isn’t your average rom-com.
“Every phase of my life, I’ve had a different set of priorities,” Chopra Dhar told Refinery29 in a phone interview. A former programmer and an assistant analyst for the Pontiac school district in Michigan, she was a full-time mom caring for four children when she started taking an interest in film. Her brother, Vinhud Vinod Chopra, is one of India’s biggest producers, and helped her develop her burgeoning talent by giving her small jobs behind the scenes. “They used to call me the script doctor because I used to read the script and rip it apart from page 1 to page 80 — I would catch the inconsistencies,” she said.
At 50, when her kids were in middle school, she enrolled in film school at the Motion Picture Institute in Troy, MI, the oldest person in a class where the average student was in their mid-20s. Still, Chopra Dhar wasn’t cowed. As a young graduate student newly arrived from India, she once had to take a remedial math class. One of her classmates was a 72-year-old man seeking to finally complete his high school diploma.
“I took such an inspiration from him, and I never forgot the fact that he was 72 and didn’t care,” she said. “I truly feel that age should not be a barrier for us. We should never be intimidated by age. Because what is that? It’s just a number.”
Had she gotten an earlier start, she might not have had the life experiences that led her to this historical moment. It was in film school that she first got the idea for what would become Ek Ladki Ko Dekha Toh Aisa Laga. As the mother of a gay child, she was unsatisfied with the way the LGBTQ+ community was being portrayed on screen.
“It was either handled in a derogatory fashion or in comic relief,” Chopra Dhar said. “They would show very stereotyped gay people in the mainstream. I wanted to very consciously make a Bollywood mainstream film that would be organic, not lose the backbone of how I want to tell a story, but still involve music and storytelling in a way that I can make it more reachable, more identifiable, so people can actually associate with it.”
The result is a film that feels akin to 2018’s Love, Simon in its fresh, empathetic approach to a beloved and well-trod genre.
“So much talent just stays within and doesn’t get to see the light of day. It should come out.”
Shelly Chopra Dhar
The action centres around Sweety (Sonam Kapoor), a young woman from Punjab forced to fend off her traditional-but-loving family’s constant pressure to find a husband, even as she conceals the fact that she’s fallen in love with a woman.But in most ways, Ek Ladki Ko Dekha Toh Aisa Laga checks all the boxes you might expect from a major Bollywood romance. There’s singing and dancing, piles of food, sumptuously designed costumes, romance — an immensely entertaining spectacle that ends on a teachable moment.
Its name hails from an incredibly popular 1994 film, 1942: A Love Story, starring a young Anil Kapoor, who also appears in this film alongside his real-life daughter Sonam Kapoor. The casting of Bollywood superstars is yet another way that Chopra subverts stereotypes: It gives huge mainstream appeal to a story that has lingered in the shadows for far too long.
While gay relationships have been depicted on screen in India before— Deepa Mehta’s 1996 art house film, Fire, for example, was about two women stuck in loveless marriages falling for each other — Chopra Dhar’s film is the first to tell this story on such a large scale, and for a broad audience. It’s a responsibility she does not take lightly.
“If you look at the mythological stories in India, they all sort of tell very entertaining stories, and in the end they come back with a little kernel of some moral value,” she said. “Whether it’s ‘don’t cheat,’ ‘don’t steal,’ ‘don’t be greedy’ — all the little anecdotes. And then when cinema came into the country, it kind of took over as the main socialising agent. People like to go see movies, it’s the biggest source of entertainment in India. Directing a film, telling a story, you’re in a privileged place because you are going to have impact on people. It’s very important to be aware of what it is you’re showing.”
That’s why visibility and familial acceptance are key themes in the movie. Rather than focus solely on the romance between Sweety and Kuhu (Regina Cassandra), Chopra and co-writer Gazal Dhaliwal, who is trans, pivot the emotional core to centre around Sweety’s relationships with her father, Balbil (Anil Kapoor) and her brother Babloo (Abhishek Duhan) and their respective roles in keeping her closeted for so long. As a result, the film acts as a roadmap for parents in the audience who may be struggling to confront their own biases around their children.
“I brought in all of the emotions from the siblings, from the parents, from the community — all of those I have felt and lived,” Chopra Dhar said. “And [Gazal] has gone through the transformation of being closeted and feeling that herself.”
Still, attitudes take time to shift, hence the disclaimer. “Just because something goes away from a paper doesn’t make it go away from the mindset of people,” Chopra Dhar said. “It takes time.”
But she’s been pleasantly surprised by the lack of negative attention from conservative factions within the country. When filming started back in January 2018, the law known as section 377 of the Indian penal code was still in effect. Its repeal in September has created the perfect climate for the message of tolerance she’s trying to convey.
Ultimately, Chopra Dhar also hopes her own story of finding her passion later in life will resonate with women across the country, in the LGBTQ+ community and beyond. “I want all the women to not feel suppressed or intimidated because they are so concerned with what the next door neighbour is going to say, or family,” she said. “So much talent just stays within and doesn’t get to see the light of day. It should come out.”
“The world is in front of them,” she added. "It’s like I said in my film: ‘If you don’t consider yourself normal, nobody else will.’ I say that to all the women. If you don’t consider yourself equal to everybody, then nobody else will either.”