Ek Ladki Ko Dekha Toh Aisa Laga deserves praise for daring to tackle same-sex relationships in a film industry where gay people have mainly seem to appear only as comic relief. Although Shelly Chopra Dhar’s film is a sanitised and strangely unemotional journey, showing even a fraction of the prejudice and discrimination faced by anyone who does not follow cultural norms is surely a step in the right direction. The story is kept safe and family-friendly with the actual romance not getting much attention, while most of the light and shade comes from the excellent support cast. Rajkummar Rao is outstanding, Anil Kapoor and Juhi Chawla bring warmth and real affection to their roles while Abhishek Duhan manages to encapsulate every negative thought or emotion pertaining to homosexuality within his character. This is definitely a film worth watching, although I wish it had shown more of the heartache and allowed the lead character to fight her own battles rather than relying on the various men in her life to shape her destiny.
Sonam Kapoor plays the character of Sweety, the daughter of businessman and garment factory owner Balbir Chaudhary (Anil Kapoor). She lives with her father, brother Babloo (Abhishek Duhan) and grandmother (Madhumalti Kapoor) in the Punjabi town of Moga but her path crosses with Sahil Mirza (Rajkummar Rao) during a visit to Delhi. Sahil is the son of a rich producer, but he’s trying to make his own way in the world as a writer and playwright. Unfortunately, the film he wrote for his father has been wildly panned and his new play doesn’t seem destined to reach any great heights either, given the small theatre where it is being produced and a seemingly limited budget. However, a chance encounter with Sweety intrigues Sahil and as he aids her escape from her brother, he decides he wants to know more about her self-described long and complicated story. A few vague ideas about producing a play in a regional town with local actors is enough for Sahil to travel to Moga with the theatre caterer Chatro (Juhi Chawla). Once in Moga he finds Sweety easily enough but as he learns more about her Sahil becomes drawn into her struggle to be the person she really wants to be.
What works really well in the film is the character of Sahil, and Rajkummar Rao is fantastic, infusing Sahil with understanding, empathy and a good sense of humour right from the start. Although initially he is smitten with Sweety, his transformation to her champion is very believable and done with plenty of humour and warmth. Even his brief interactions with his own parents have some clever by-play that gives further insights into Sahil’s character and provide an interesting contrast with Sweety’s family. Anil Kapoor is another major strength in the film and he strikes exactly the right note as a wealthy businessman who only wants the best for his daughter. In a nice parallel he has had to hide his love of cooking all his life as his mother doesn’t find the kitchen an appropriate place for a Punjabi man. Although I did find that odd given that most top chefs are in fact male. Perhaps it was more of a status thing (which didn’t come across with the subtitles), but it does mean that Balbir has experience of hiding the thing he loves from his mother, something that gives him the ability to develop an understanding of his daughter’s problems later in the film.
I love Juhi Chawla and she is brilliant here in a role that allows her to showcase her excellent comedic talents. Her Chatro is convinced she is a mind-shattering actress, although no-one else believes in her talent. She is a superb cook however, and this is the talent that’s appreciated by Balbir and leads to some hilarious interactions between the two. Chatro is confident in her abilities – whether it’s cooking or acting, and Juhi makes her a wonderfully warm and likeable character to boot. It’s no wonder Balbir is smitten, and the scenes between these two brilliant actors really are the absolute highlight of this film for me.
Sonal Kapoor is a little more disappointing as Sweety, which is a shame as writers Gazal Dhaliwal and Shelly Chopra Dhar have given her some great material to work with. The stories Sweety tells Sahil about her life and the difficulties she has faced should have been some of the most heart-wrenching moments of the entire film, but the emotion never goes quite deep enough. Although this is probably the best performance I have seen from Sonal, there doesn’t seem to be any real pain behind her dialogues. Although she is obviously trying hard, Sweety appears just sad, not anguished or distraught, even when she was discussing such monumental decisions as ending her life or marrying anyone just to get away from the constant pressure from her family. While I can accept that a lifetime of repression would make someone less prone to show their emotions, to make the film more effective, I really needed to feel her pain much more deeply that she ever manages to express here. Where Sonam is better however, is during the climax of the film where she responds to her father disapproval, and here she brings the emotion and drama that’s missing elsewhere in her performance.
What I really like about the film is the depiction of how difficult it is to reveal homosexuality to family, friends and the community in India. With the recent decriminalisation of homosexuality in India, perhaps there will be some changes, but given how much prejudice and shame there is still attached to same-sex relationships in the West, I feel this will be a long and difficult process. The first Hindi film I saw that touched on this subject was Onir’s excellent My Brother… Nikhil, which also starred Juhi Chawla, but this I think is the first main-stream Hindi film that has tackled the subject of lesbianism within India. In Margarita, with a Straw for example, the character was only able to embark on her same-sex relationship when she left the country and was studying overseas. From that perspective I think that this is an important film, as it does bring to light the difficulties experienced by people who identify as LGBTQIA and openly shows the prejudice and discrimination they receive. The need to keep everything secret and repress their sexuality is clearly discussed, even if only briefly. Sweety’s brother Babloo is vehemently opposed to her relationships and this character allows some of the range of hate against homosexuality to be exposed, even when disguised as concern for the person or their family. Babloo is an unpleasant character, but there is a lot of truth in Abhishek Duhan’s portrayal and I felt that he totally nailed the animosity and disgust his character felt while projecting care and consideration for Sweety and the entire family. This bigotry is effectively done and is one of the important points that Shelley Chopra Dhar gets across so well in the film.
I also love the response of the audience to Sahil’s play about Sweety and how Shelley Chopra Dhar captures the conservative ideas and morals of a small town. The contrast between young girls with their faces full of rapt attention as they followed the story, with the adults in the crowd who got up and left with angry gestures, sums up the story beautifully and illustrates just how far communities need to change to overcome these unreasonable and biased attitudes.
In this way it’s the subject matter and the idea of the film that is important, and in this I think Shelly Chopra Dhar has exceeded expectations. The film itself doesn’t fare quite as well, given the rather conservative approach to Sweety’s relationship. Her partner Kuhu (Regina Cassandra) only appears onscreen briefly, which is rather a shame since Regina sparkles when she is on camera and I would have liked to see more of her character and even heard Kuhu’s story too. Instead the film concentrates on the family relationships, which is not necessarily a bad thing, but some of the romance needed to be included to give some balance to the story. I can understand that the director probably didn’t want to alienate main-stream audiences, but it does mean that the film is lacking emotional attachment. It’s still an enjoyable film and one that can be watched without delving too much into the politics and societal issues, which hopefully means it will reach a wide audience. It deserves to.