Director: Shelly Chopra Dhar
Ek Ladki Ko Dekha Toh Aisa Laga opens on such a homogenous, generic note – amidst celebrations during a big, fat Punjabi wedding – that you’d never guess the unlikely direction it’s headed in. Unless that was exactly the point.
Because, frankly, the film, directed by Shelly Chopra Dhar who has co-written the screenplay with Gazal Dhaliwal, is both admirable and mildly frustrating. It prides itself on being the first mainstream Hindi film to put same-sex love at the centre of the story. And yet the treatment of the story itself is too safe, too sanitised…as if the makers didn’t want to stick their necks out too far. It’s progressive, yes, but far from daring.
Balbir (Anil Kapoor) is an affluent manufacturer of garments, frequently referred to as “the Mukesh Ambani of Moga”, a small town in Punjab. He’s looking for a suitable groom for his introverted daughter Sweety (Sonam Kapoor), except that she’s already romantically involved. When struggling Delhi playwright Sahil Mirza (Rajkummar Rao), who’s been smitten from the moment he first laid eyes on her, follows after her to Punjab, he learns her closely guarded secret. What follows is the staging of a shrewdly scripted play to ease Balbir and his family into accepting Sweety’s truth.
Despite its mostly blunt edges, the film scores on account of its performances. Anil Kapoor is in fine form as Balbir, who’s also had to stifle what he loves – in his case cooking – for the sake of convention. He’s especially good in the comic moments, which this film packs aplenty. Also in exceptionally solid form is Juhi Chawla as Chhatro, a caterer in Sahil’s troupe, who’s convinced she’s a “mind-shattering” actress. Her scenes with Anil Kapoor are some of the best in the film.
Rajkummar Rao leaves the biggest impression. His Sahil comes off as an inherently decent soul, a man of great sensitivity and goodness; a character that could’ve so easily been reduced to a loser. Rajkummar turns even stray lines of dialogue into unforgettable moments.
A word of praise also for Abhishek Duhan as Sweety’s cruel brother Babloo; he’s not a likeable figure in the least, yet he’s every bit convincing. In smaller roles, Brijendra Kala and Seema Pahwa as the family’s domestic help, Madhumalti Kapoor as Balbir’s bossy mother, and Regina Cassandra as the luminous love interest Kuhu are all very good.
Then there’s Sonam Kapoor in the central role. In flashes she effectively conveys the anguish of a young woman forced to hide what’s in her heart, but it’s never a performance that rips your heart out like it should. The problem is Sonam doesn’t dig deep enough to find out who Sweety really is.
Even by the standards of a masala movie Ek Ladki Ko Dekha Toh Aisa Laga is hit and miss. There are some terrific scenes like one in which Sahil sneaks a note to Sweety through the wrong courier. But other bits rankle. There is just no logic to the family’s tolerance of Babloo’s behaviour towards his sister. What’s especially disappointing is the film’s unwillingness to give us any real romance between the lovers at the centre of this film. For a film that’s propagating the acceptance of ‘all love’, it’s ironic that the filmmakers don’t want to risk making heterosexual audiences uncomfortable.
It hasn’t been six months since homosexuality was decriminalised in India by the Supreme Court so perhaps it’s understandable (although not ideal) that terms like ‘normal’, ‘beemari’ and ‘bezzati’ are bandied about by characters frequently. There are a clutch of good songs, particularly the updated version of the title track which is lovely, and ample melodrama to fill out the film’s 2 hour running time.
Ek Ladki Ko Dekha Toh Aisa Laga is a respectable directing debut from Dhar, and a film with its heart in the right place. The writing ought to have been braver. That would’ve made this film something worth crowing about; a film as memorable as the one whose iconic romantic song inspired this title.
I’m going with two-and-a-half out of five.
Rating: 2.5 / 5