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Way to go, girl!

Saturday, February 02, 2019
By Deepa Gahlot

Ek Ladki Ko Dekha Toh Aisa Laga
Shelly Chopra Dhar
Cast: Anil Kapoor, Juhi Chawla, Sonam Kapoor, Rajkummar Rao, Regina Cassandra and others
Rating: * * *

The spark was lit by Deepa Mehta’s Fire (1996)—it took almost a quarter of a century for mainstream Bollywood to catch up with the subversive idea of a love story without a man. First-time director Shelley Chopra Dhar’s Ek Ladki Ko Dekha Toh Aisa Laga is not without its share of problems, but at least it’s a start in the journey of queer inclusivity in Hindi cinema.

Sweety (Sonam Kapoor) is the Moga-based daughter of a garment tycoon Balbir Chaudhary (Anil Kapoor). When she is first seen, she is hiding out in a theatre, where she tells playwright Sahil Mirza (Rajkummar Rao), that his love story is not working because there is no “syappa” (conflict) in it. Then she grabs his hand and runs because she is being pursued by a guy, and there is enough syappa for Sahil to be smitten.

In an elaborate comedy of misunderstanding, Sweety’s brother Babloo (Abhishek Duhan) thinks Sahil is the Muslim man his sister is in love with, and tells on her to their father and grandmother (Madumalti Kapoor), who are not too happy about it. Sahil lands up in Moga with the chatty caterer of his drama company, Chatro (Juhi Chawla), in the belief that Sweety has also fallen for him.

Balbir tries to reason first with Sweety then with Sahil as to why an inter-religious marriage would not be a good idea. But what he does not know is that Sweety is in love with another girl—this is no spoiler, by now this plot twist is out.  Sweety confides in Sahil, who first laughs—in his defence he is drunk—then offers to help her.

So far, the film is sweet, funny and sensitive (the screenplay is inspired by PG Wodehouse’s A Damsel In Distress and credit is duly given). How Sahil enables Sweety and Kuhu (Regina Cassandra) to come out and get not just her family, but the town to accept the romance, is implausible and heavy handed.  It seems where there is syappa, melodrama follows.

Balbir Chaudhary is the “Mukesh Ambani of Moga” and probably employs half the town, so that reduces the area of discord considerably. Strangely, there is no mother in sight. Then, in a film that wants to be progressive and pro-women, it has two male knights for this damsel—her father and Sahil.  Sweety is sensible enough to understand that she is different, and pours her heart out to her diary—left outside to be discovered at a convenient point—but does not have the courage to stand up to her brother, or at least attempt to fight her own battles. Why the “Daddy get me out of here” wailing? And why the 3 Idiots-ish parent bashing? Balbir wanted to be a chef but his mother believed men should go into the kitchen just to change the cylinder!  Chatro wanted to be an actress, but her parents got her married. The romance between these two actually lights up the film and saves it from the dark cloud of Sweety’s moping and Babloo’s growling.

When Dhar was brave enough to attempt this film (she had Vidhu Vinod Chopra to back her), then why run off after just dipping a toe in the water?  Ek Ladki Ko Dekha Toh Aisa Laga, could have been a stronger, sharper film, not just a case of PC tokenism.  But the actors throwing themselves into their roles with relish save the film—the young actors are fine, but Anil Kapoor is pitch perfect, radiating warmth and compassion. Juhi Chawla is a wonderful match for him—these two deserve a film to themselves, it has been a while since Bollywood tackled a middle-aged romance.

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