Director: Shelly Chopra Dhar
Cast: Sonam Kapoor, Anil Kapoor, Rajkummar Rao, Juhi Chawla, Seema Pahwa, Brijendra Kala
Debut director Shelly Chopra Dhar’s Ek Ladki Ko Dekha Toh Aisa Laga is a brave film. Just the idea it exists and was made by the mainstream machinery with top producers and a star cast (and what a cast it is) is both heartening and hopeful. For the unaware, Ek Ladki is mainstream Hindi cinema’s first film based on a same-sex romance, here between two women.
At the outset, a film like this raises two key questions before even the first frame is seen. First, will they land it? A topic as important as this one demands a film that will do it justice and not make a mockery of the sensitive subject matter. Second, will she break it? She, of course, referring to Sonam Kapoor, known for often derailing films due to her lack of acting chops. But more on that later.
On the first count, I’m glad to say, Ek Ladki does achieve what it sets out to and works more often than not. Writer/director Chopra and fellow writer Gazal Dhaliwal capably use the quintessential Bollywood grammar to broach a sensitive issue. Make no mistake, this is unabashed mainstream Bollywood storytelling. Glossy, pretty, watered down, idealistic, animated and wonderful in its simplicity. Despite the many heated think pieces is will no doubt inspire, the aim here isn’t nuance or unpacking the emotional complexities of self-acceptance, sexuality and the family upheaval that often comes with that. Rather the aim is to package a divisive issue in an easy to digest, palatable way and open the mind of an audience whilst trying to entertain.
The film’s first half is simply delightful and so bursting with heart and infectious energy, it makes you want to dive into this world and live among its people. A rare combination of small-town charm and shiny blockbuster packaging, you’re left with a smile firmly planted on your face which just refuses to budge. Here we are introduced to the Chaudhary household headed by mild-mannered Balbir Chaudhary (Anil Kapoor) and family who go about their lives always on the lookout for a groom for daughter Sweety who’s lost in her own struggles of not knowing how to come out to her family. Enter Rajkummar Rao’s Sahil Mirza, initially a suitor for Sweety who quickly becomes her only source of support who makes it his mission to help her come clean to her family.
Post the film’s interval when things take a predictably serious turn and the cat’s out of the bag and the familial dramatics are set to ensue, there are chinks in the charm and issues with the approach. The essence and test of a film like this was always going to be how it dealt with the big family showdown of finding out their daughter is different and the initial rejection, the trials that follow and how that can be used to educate and open the eyes of an audience. However, in Dhar’s movie, all of this is whittled down to what feels like mere minutes. Rather than dive into the conflict of opposing mentalities, writers Dhaliwal and Dhar briefly skirt over it in keeping with the crowd-pleasing, light-hearted approach. I was somewhere reminded of films like Secret Superstar which similarly use unashamed mainstream storytelling to explore a difficult issue, but in a way that never shies away from the thing itself. The distance in the narrative from ‘this is who I am’ to ‘I don’t care, I still love you’ feel too weak to really change hearts and minds that weren’t already on board with the idea anyway.
And yet, perhaps the greatest shortcoming of Ek Ladki is the central love story itself between Sonam and her love interest played by a charming Regina Cassandra. You never really feel their chemistry nor the heft of their love and what they mean to each other. It’s difficult to do battle with the fabric of society come what may if you’re not entirely bought into what you’re rooting for. We are never invested in their equation nor feel like theirs is true love that transcends all restrictions society would choose to impose. Which isn’t a dealbreaker as such as the idea of their relationship is equally as important but again I wonder what this would do for those who can’t fathom a relationship like this one.
Still, while these aspects make the film fall short of what it might have been, it is nonetheless a satisfying watch, consistently propped up by Dhaliwal’s crackling dialogue that keeps the laughs coming, an electric cast and an exceedingly lovable crop of characters. Not to mention the best soundtrack we’ve had so far this year. Damn that title track. Every time it plays, you feel overcome with something.
On the Sonam front, in short, she is tolerable at best. While it is now abundantly clear that Neerja wasn’t, in fact, her turning point but rather an exception to the rule, she doesn’t derail the film because director Dhar is smart in knowing how best to use her – minimally. It’s surprising just how little the focus is actually on her given the story is about her. Instead, our focus is far more on the men. It is Rajkummar Rao and Anil Kapoor who are the real soul of the film and uplift the material.
Whether the film’s message hits home remains to be seen. While parts of Ek Ladki left me with pure joy it equally left me with questions. How long will we justify watered-down diluted storytelling with excuses like ‘its for the masses’. Have we not proven time and again that they can be appealed to without the need to skirt over things and offer more depth? Questions for another movie I guess, I’m going with 3 stars.