Say it just as you see it, no?

Published: Feb 13, 2019, 07:32 IST | Mayank Shekhar

The monolithic idea of mainstream no longer exists neither should such archaic notions among those making them

Say it just as you see it, no?
A still from the film Ek Ladki Ko Dekha To Aisa Laga. Pic/twitter

Mayank ShekharHard to pinpoint, I thought, when asked recently by an academic researching a book on Shah Rukh Khan, on why romances with a grand sweep, that you call 'Bollywood' in the first place - songs, dances, the works; directed by Raj Kapoor, Yash Chopra, Subhash Ghai etc, over generations - had stopped getting made altogether.

I wonder if that's even true, besides the fact that, unlike in the past, a hero-heroine romance in a supposedly Bollywood way, doesn't need to be force-fit into a film, regardless of its genre, for it to be considered 'mainstream' anymore.

And so Uri: The Surgical Strike needn't go schmaltzy even for a few seconds, like JP Dutta's Border (on 1971 Battle of Longewala), in order to be a 'safe', 'super-hit' picture! Uri can cross R200 crore at the box office, being simply a gritty movie on a military operation; no more, no less.

As for a pure Bollywood romance itself, there are enough getting made, if you consider that even contemporary directors - Sanjay Leela Bhansali, Aditya Chopra, Karan Johar, Imtiaz Ali et al - who effectively championed the genre in later years, continue to do so still. Even Anurag Kashyap's Manmariziyaan (2018), although wholly subversive, was for all practical purposes, Bhansali's Hum Dil De Chuke Sanam (1999).

Be that as it may, it's the second line of bread-butter filmmakers/writers who, at some point, over the changing years, may have begun to face an obvious obstacle: stitching together a fine soundtrack, they could no longer simply churn out the 'Maine Pyar Kiya' type, rich-boy, poor-girl (or vice versa) kinda comfort movies, at the same rate - and get away with it.

This could be because the chief obstacle in those scripts - jallad of a father (of the bride, or groom), lording over a large Hindu family - didn't seem so much the insurmountable wall for an urban couple, in real life, at home. It would seem equally dated in a film.

Do we still long for such big, beautiful romantic pictures, though? '90s 'nostalgists' do. Which is why I finally walked into Ek Ladki Ko Dekha Toh Aisa Laga, directed by debutant Shelly Chopra Dhar, produced by her brother, veteran filmmaker Vidhu Vinod Chopra. The title track, a fine mish-mash of RD Burman's song of the name from Vidhu Vinod's 1942: A Love Story (1994), and composer Rochak Kohli's opening riffs, is what perhaps drew me to the theatre. It plays gently in the background as the hero-heroine separate.

Anil Kapoor, even in a 20-year flashback in the film, looks younger at present. He plays a caring, yet understandably conservative Hindu dad in a Punjabi small town, with a bunch of folk providing comic track.

The hero can't get the heroine, because he's Muslim. He faces issues with his own father. There is the wedding song. The night-club number. And this is pretty much three-fourths of the film. But, but, but: Wasn't the central conflict the fact that the girl is lesbian? You know that from the promos, already.

In a rather truthful moment, mainly destroyed by infantile moments to make for the picture's hyper-climax, there is a play being performed within the film. The play is about a lesbian couple. The hope is that the Punjabi small-town audience watching this play would develop a certain understanding for this couple, and their relationship. In the same way that this picture itself, with Sonam Kapoor in the female lead, could generate compassion for the part she plays (in small towns, especially).

This play appeared to me a lot like a documentary a young boy had made on gender identity, and that he played for his parents in Patiala. He was a woman trapped in a man's body, a fact that to his parents seemed like a 'phase' that would eventually pass. It never did. The boy struggled, even ran away from home once. Unable to change notions of gender and sexuality around him, he went to Mumbai's Xavier Institute of Communications to pursue his filmmaking dreams, and made that documentary (during his mass media course), which also spoke about how you could surgically change your gender, to live a freer life.

Moved by his film, his parents asked him, "So, when do you want to do it?" He is now Gazal Dhaliwal, a trans woman - warmly accepted by parents and extended family alike. She's a popular screenwriter. Her credits include Wazir, Lipstick Under My Burkha, Qarib Qarib Singlle. Dhawal is also the credited writer of Ek Ladki Ko Dekha Toh Aisa Laga.

Her personal story moved me to bits when I watched it on one of the most 'mainstream' non-fiction shows (Aamir Khan's Satyamev Jayate) on Indian television. Her film, in some ways inspired by her life, however left me feeling neither empathetic, nor entertained. And, maybe because it was trying so hard to be 'Bollywood', which as the all-encompassing genre we traditionally knew it to be, feels fake. Or simply doesn't exist anymore.

Mayank Shekhar attempts to make sense of mass culture. He tweets @mayankw14 Send your feedback to mailbag@mid-day.com

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