Cast: Sonam Kapoor, Anil Kapoor, Juhi Chawla, Rajkummar Rao, Akshay Oberoi, Regina Cassandra
Director: Shelly Chopra Dhar
Rating: 4 Stars (out of 5)
The first mainstream Hindi film that, somewhat tremulously, broaches the theme of same-sex love, Ek Ladki Ko Dekha Toh Aisa Laga is easy to relate to and grasp despite, or may be owing to, its essentially sanitised veneer. It sails to uncharted parts and travels miles, but it does so without rocking the boat too violently. In the end, it is a sensitive, tender and humour-laced melodrama that hinges as much on the relationship between a lonely, misunderstood small-town Punjab girl and her doting father as on the heroine's sexual orientation, which drives her into a difficult-to-break shell.
Screenwriter Gazal Dhaliwal (who has also penned the eminently relatable dialogue) and director and co-writer Shelly Chopra Dhar impart a genteel amiability to the tale, which springs its surprises without seeming to be overly radical in its portrayal of gender identity and homosexuality. Notions like bimari (disease), normality and family honour are invoked repeatedly and in no uncertain terms, and a woman's inner turmoil as she fights for the right to lead her life on her own terms is treated with restraint and empathy. The film's even tone is enhanced by the restrained performances from the key members of the fantastic ensemble cast.
The quality of the writing is best exemplified not only by the manner in which Ek Ladki Ko Dekha... pricks the ingrained biases of the female protagonist's family, articulated primarily by the fulminations of an overly aggressive elder brother (played with remarkable elan by Abhishek Duhan), but also by the incrementally positive effect that the unfolding story has on the audience.
When the heroine comes out - first with a question (Zaroori hai kya mujhe ek munde se hi pyar ho?) and then with a firm statement (Main ek ladki se pyaar karti hoon. Period.) - the unsuspecting man who is besotted with her breaks into drunken laughter. One presumes even the audience does just that, if not audibly. The lover is quick to regret his unthinking reaction. The audience takes a little longer to warm up to the girl's struggles but does begin to see (well before the climax) the point that the film is making.
Struggling playwright Saahil Mirza (Rajkummar Rao), the prodigal son of a film producer who mocks him for straying into the unstable world of theatre, follows his muse, Sweety Chaudhary (Sonam K Ahuja), from Delhi to Punjab's Moga town and runs into her orthodox businessman-dad (Anil Kapoor) and his family and a 'secret' that upsets all his plans. A play-within-a film device brings to the fore long-suppressed realities and forces the family, nay the entire town, to confront its prejudices.
Anil Kapoor, as always, gets completely into the swing of things and livens up the film with his presence. Sonam, well served by the angularities of a screen persona that keeps cockiness at bay, projects a convincing combination of vulnerability and assertion in a way that only she can. Rajkummar Rao is as impressively pitch-perfect as ever. It takes a truly confident actor to resist the urge to chew up the scenes he is in and instead subsume himself completely in the essence of the film. Juhi Chawla is an absolute delight, a radiantly charming scene-stealer.
In fact, each of the major characters in the film benefits from perfect casting. Seema Pahwa, as the woman in charge of the Chaudhary family kitchen, and Brijendra Kala, playing the nosey household factotum, offer wonderful comic relief, as does Madhumalti Kapoor in the role of the matriarch who has a hard time keeping her widower-son, a garments factory owner who still rues not having realised his dream of making it big as a chef, away from the kitchen and cookery shows.
Thwarted aspirations are at the heart of this story and it isn't only Sweety whose life is soured. The character essayed by Juhi Chawla, a small-time Delhi caterer who supplies food to a theatre troupe, nurtures the hope of one day becoming what she has always wanted to be - an actress. In these little tales woven around the larger pivotal one of a girl desperate to be understood and accepted for what she is, the screenplay pulls into its fold an overarching truth that stares us in the face: we are all 'different' and need the space to become who we desire to be.
In the context of a commercial filmmaking tradition that has usually been appallingly uncaring of LGBTQ sensibilities, Ek Ladki Ko Dekha... is a whiff of fresh air, a huge leap forward from 2008's Dostana. It does not seek to derive mirth and frivolity from the theme, offering instead an earnest, unapologetic depiction of the act of coming out in a conservative society.
The story is simple enough and is told in a manner that could be faulted for being overly chaste - the same-sex lovers embrace a few times but they do not as much as plant a kiss on each other's cheeks, let alone lips - but the film achieves something far bigger than a Bollywood crowd-pleaser can. Ek Ladki Ko Dekha Toh Aisa Laga is a significant film because of its provenance (it comes from Vidhu Vinod Chopra's production stable) and also because of the support of Bollywood actors who've dared. The warmth and wry wit that the film is couched in makes it that much better.
Ek Ladki Ko Dekha... goads the audience to think differently without trying to deviate from its primary purpose, which is to deliver entertainment. It does the latter well enough and yet does not overly dilute its off-kilter vision. No mean feat that.