Cutty Snark: Ek Ladki Ko...Four More Shots Please

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You know there’s something wrong when a film that is ostensibly about two women falling in love ends up presenting the audience with two crush-worthy male heroes instead. By the end of Ek Ladki Ko Dekha Toh Aisa Laga, the two people you’re staring at with heart-eyes aren’t the ladies, but Anil Kapoor and Rajkummar Rao’s characters.

It’s no surprise that Rao wins the audience over. He is, after all, one of our most gifted actors and capable of improving the most gormless films with his performances. But Kapoor! For those of us old enough to remember Kapoor as a 1980s’ hero who thought it was sexy to have three mullets on his person – one on his head and two on his shoulders – in addition to the hair shirt that was his chest, it’s shocking to find yourself not just noticing how well the actor has aged, but also rooting for him to get a happy ending. If not anything else, this is a victory to which Ek Ladki… can lay claim.

Seriously though, there’s a lot to applaud in Ek Ladki…, which is the first film to take #MeToo allegations seriously enough to drop co-producer Rajkumar Hirani’s name from the film’s credits. It’s not the first Hindi film on homosexuality, but director Shelly Chopra Dhar’s decision to treat the story of Ek Ladki… as any other Bollywood masala romance underscores the point that the only difference between standard romances and this one is that Ek Ladki… features lesbians (a word the film carefully avoids articulating). From the pretty and superficial characters, to the wedding in which the lovers meet, the lectures that characters deliver while pretending to have conversations, and the tearjerker end, everything about Ek Ladki… is formulaic – but for the detail that the star-crossed pair comprises two women instead of a man and a woman.

If only all these good intentions added up to make a good film.

Unfortunately, in its effort to mainstream the lesbian romance, Ek Ladki… misses too many marks. Instead of keeping the spotlight on the love story, the film becomes a showcase for the allies, particularly two men. Given Sonam K Ahuja’s acting prowess, it’s not surprising that scriptwriters Dhar and Gazal Dhaliwal wanted the talented actors to do the heavy lifting in the script, but as a result, we get a story about two women who find their voices because of the men and who need the heroes to rescue them.

Rao plays Sahil, a playwright who falls in love with Sweety at first sight and follows her in a non-stalker way to a small town in Punjab. When he realises he doesn’t stand a chance at winning her affections, his first reaction is hurtful. But Sahil is an earnest wokebro who literally wakes up to wokeness, apologises to Sweety and becomes her ally. Kapoor plays Sweety’s father, Balbir, a big shot in a small town who loves his daughter dearly. So much so that he’s ready to embrace a Muslim man as his potential son in-law. However, it turns out that being gay is worse than falling in love with a Muslim (interesting social commentary there, given our current hypernationalist times). When Sweety comes out, Balbir is furious and his first response is to reject her, but we see him work through his anger and anxieties to deliver one of the best lines in the film (“You’ve taken after me. I also like the ladies!” Balbir says to Sweety). Both Rao and Kapoor deliver stellar performances, but they’re not supposed to be the ones in the spotlight.

The critical problem in Ek Ladki… is that the two leads – Sweety and Kuhu – make no impression at all. Ahuja is a star for backing this film and picking the role of Sweety for her first post-wedding release, but her behind-the-scenes smarts don’t make up for her insipid acting performance. As Sweety, her monologues are bland, the emotional scenes are theatrical and the only hint of personality lies in Sweety’s delusion that she’s artistically inclined despite her illustrated diaries offering proof that her drawing skills have not improved since age 14. Kuhu, played by Regina Cassandra, gets even less definition and depth from the script and fails to add any layers with her performance. When the film’s only aggressive homophobe – Sweety’s brother, played by Abhishek Duhan – ends up to be more memorable than the heroines, there’s a problem.

You’d think two women writers wouldn’t struggle to write heroines with depth and charm, but this is apparently our lot in Indian entertainment. Recently, a web series that is clearly attempting to be a desi version of Sex and the City premiered on Amazon Prime. Four More Shots Please has a female showrunner, a team of women writers and its director, cinematographer and editor are all women. Judging from the first few episodes, the title refers to the amount of alcohol you need as a bare minimum to make it through an episode without your brain hurting.

In Four More Shots Please, the quartet is made up of a journalist obsessed with her gynaecologist; an overweight woman whose mother is obsessed with getting the daughter married; a bisexual gym trainer who seems obsessed with sex; and a single mother obsessed with her ex-husband. Clearly, as far as Four More Shots Please is concerned, if you’re not obsessed, you’re not a woman. Perhaps there are single mothers and gym trainers who will find two of the four relatable, but speaking from personal experience, if you can’t tell the difference between an opinion piece and an investigative report, the chances of you being making it as a journalist – let alone an editor – are slim, no matter how smart those black-rimmed glasses make you look. Also, throwing temper tantrums at readers is not advisable. And don’t even get me started on the edit meeting that’s conducted like everyone’s in a classroom or the ‘meeting’ with the people funding the website, which is called investigator.com. (Where’s the stab-your-eye-with-a-for GIF when I need it?)

No doubt I’m going to be called the black hole of fun, but if you want the audience to take a female journalist, why not have her doing journalisty things in her introduction scene? Guess how Damini, editor of Investigator.com, is introduced in the show? By daydreaming about having sex with her gynaecologist in a board room, while others watch. Just in case you were wondering, she’s actually supposed to be paying attention to the old men in the room because they’re discussing her website.

It doesn’t help that every set in Four More Shots looks pristine and artificial, like a video game version of a millennial, grit-free Mumbai that exists only in the writers’ fantasies. Of course, it’s not as though Sex and the City was particularly realistic, but if felt credible and the women were charming. Everything about the Indian show, beginning with the four women, feels like a tinny replica. It’s obvious that the women are trying to replicate the crackling personalities of Carrie, Miranda, Charlotte and Samantha, but while those four women felt authentic, the quartet in Four Shots Please come across as wannabes. It’s terrifying to think that this web series is an example of what is considered intelligent entertainment, packaged for women.

Next to neon fluff like Four More Shots Please, Ek Ladki… feels genuinely heartwarming despite its many flaws. You may not get a sense of who Kuhu or Sweety are, but their family and friends feel delightfully and painfully real thanks to the superb supporting cast. The film tries to use the formulae that make Bollywood seem hackneyed to its advantage, and for an audience that has grown up on Bollywood, it works. A Rs 3 crore opening isn’t impressive by regular Bollywood standards, but it is a respectable number for a Bollywood film about a lesbian couple coming out to a conservative family in small-town Punjab. Let’s not forget that until last year, homosexuality was a criminal offence in this country.

It’s tempting to imagine how a film on this subject that’s actually well-written, acted and directed would have performed at the box office; a fun and commercial film that’s also smart and progressive. Would it have done even worse than Ek Ladki…? Are the Bollywood pundits right when they assume that a story has to be dumbed down for it to ‘work’ with the ‘masses’? For all you know, maybe what we need to push our societies towards a more open-minded worldview is mediocre Bollywood. That and more than four shots of whatever is on offer at the bar.

Deepanjana Pal