The first thing I tell Gazal Dhaliwal when I meet her is that Gone With The Wind by Margaret Mitchell is my favourite novel as well. “It’s my THE favourite,” she tells me and then asks with a raised eyebrow: “I have never spoken about it – how do you know that?” I subtly plug in my research skills as a journalist and the conversation gets underway. Dhaliwal’s IMDb page categorises her as a writer and an actor.
She’s worked on Wazir, Lipstick Under My Burkha, Qarib Qarib Singlle and the recently released Ek Ladki Ko Dekha Toh Aisa Laga. While she’s understandably proud of her work as a scriptwriter, she makes a face when I enquire about her acting career (she doesn’t want to talk about it and I don’t pry).
Dhaliwal is hot property in Bollywood right now – she had already made a name for herself with Lipstick and now, Ek Ladki has been hailed by many as a pathbreaking project, one that has handled the subject it seeks to address in a sensitive manner. Many have often wondered if India is ready for a Brokeback Mountain. Ek Ladki may just have carved the path for one. It’s made the critics happy and has set the cash registers ringing. She’s charming, exceptionally witty and her eyes light up as she talks about her work and plans for the future.
Post a photoshoot and an in-depth conversation on the crazy housing rates in Mumbai, we sit down for an interview where she discusses her work, her future plans and her journey so far as one of the most prominent voices in the LGBTQ + community.
On Ek Ladki‘s success:
“Ek Ladki Ko Dekha Toh Aisa Laga is our labour of love. Just like love, it is flawed, yet extremely special and essential. I know that the film has got many good reviews, but to me, what matters the most is the messages that members of the LGBTQ community send me and share their stories around the film, how it touched them and their families and made a difference to their lives. When I see audience members walking out in the middle of the film (Yes, some people do that), it makes my heart sink. But when I hear several people clapping at the end of those same shows, my heart soars. I’m aware that we have a long way to go before LGBTQ representation in our mainstream films gets widespread love and encouragement, but a journey of a thousand steps has to begin with that first step. I’m proud that our film took that first step.”
On how Ek Ladki came about:
“You know it’s very interesting that all of my things have gone quite linearly from one to the other. I’d written a spec script in 2010 and I didn’t know anybody at that point so I dropped copies everywhere. An ad film director happened to read it and he was good friends with Tanuja (Chandra). Tanuja was looking for a writer for a small film that she was writing with somebody else. So, he suggested my name and she met me and we connected. At that time, Vidhu Vinod Chopra was looking for a writer so she recommended me to him. That was Wazir ka time so he got me for that. Through Vinod Sir, I met Shelly Chopra Dhar. Shelly lives in the US so she went back but she stayed in touch with me. She reached out to me saying that she really wants to make something so why don’t we write another script? She loves this book called A Damsel In Distress by PG Wodehouse and she said ‘how about we adapt this book?’”
“It’s a very sweet book but it’s not meant for today’s time – 70s mai banti thi waisi films India mai. Mujhe laga ki sweet toh hai and I had some ideas to change it and make it new. I went to the US and stayed with her for a couple of months and we wrote our first draft. That’s how Ek Ladki happened. We flew back and narrated it to Vinod Sir and he was on board. Thankfully, woh script ke basis pe humne jisko bhi approach kiya, they were on board right away – Sonam (Kapoor) was on right away. Then Sonam told her father (Anil Kapoor) that if there’s one film we should work on together, its this one. He heard a narration and was on right away. Raj (Rajkummar Rao) came to read the script in the office. He was locked in a room for an hour and a half, he read it and came out and said “I’m doing this film””.
On working with a male director in the future:
“I think it would be a great experience. I would love to work with Karan Johar, honestly. Sriram Raghavan would be wonderful to work with as would Neeraj Ghaywan. If a male director has a female writer, then that helps a lot because some parts of being a woman that they wouldn’t be able to tap into, a female writer would contribute. Which is why Shoojit’s (Shoojit Sircar) – he’s any way a great, sensitive man – Juhi’s (Juhi Chaturvedi) presence and writing adds even more to that and probably brings that perspective of what it means to be a woman.”
On the discrimination women scriptwriters face in the industry:
“However, having said that, this is a different kind of discrimination now that female writers go through ki if it’s a female character or a woman-oriented subject or if you want to add some sensitivity in the film, then get a female writer. As if implying that women cannot write other sorts of stories or they don’t have enough life experience to write a thriller or an action movie. There was this one time – seven or eight years back – where I didn’t have much work and had a spec script that I would leave with people or narrate for them and I had met this director who’d had one successful film recently and he was looking for a dialogue writer for his next film. So, to pitch my work, I read out my script to him and he said he really liked it and all but he added that he couldn’t hire me because I’m a woman and I wouldn’t be able to get this character or write what this character needs. I just shut up, I was like iss argument ke against, mai kya bol sakti hoon.”
On being considered a trailblazer by the media:
“If I’m trailblazing, then before me, my parents are trailblazing. My father and my mother are the true trailblazers because they’ve been my champions in every step of the way. They supported me emotionally and financially and respected my career decisions. They stood behind me as pillars and they have empowered me to be a ‘trailblazer’ if that’s how I’m being defined. Having said that, I think I would kind of accept this compliment as far as my personal life and journey are concerned simply because it was extremely hard to be out as a trans person. Ek toh anyway, the whole mockery one goes through – that aside from the knowledge that I am always looked at from that angle which initially was bothersome. Then having been told by a couple of potential dates or partners that only if I was not out there and publicly as a transwoman, they’d be okay with my identity . . . having had gone through that and still choosing to be who I am publicly because I know it matters. Possibly only in that context, I will accept this compliment of being trailblazing. As far as my professional life is concerned, I have a long way to go. I have a lot of work to do and a lot to learn.”
On her plans for 2019:
“I hope the film (Ek Ladki) is talked about and finds success. I don’t care about numbers but I just hope that it’s a profit-making enterprise so that stories like this can be told more. I have been working on a couple of things and have offers from a couple of places that I’m still considering. I definitely want to write a long format series for a streaming platform. So yeah, I’m excited about the year and want to try new things! Till now, I’ve written a thriller which was Wazir, I have written a female-oriented quirky film (Lipstick). Again, I’ve done a quirky rom-com and then now, this one which is unique in its own way. So I want to keep trying genres and not just be stuck to comedy or drama. I love thrillers and want to write more suspense dramas. Eventually, I want to direct – that won’t happen this year, so maybe next year. Whenever I meet people and whoever I meet, I keep dropping that hint ki I want to be a director. So, people are aware and that’s also the reason I like to go on the sets and shoots of my film so that’s also a learning for me.”
(Photographer: Rohit Gupta,
Hair and makeup: Jean Claude Biguine/Mud)