“Ek Ladki Ko Dekha Toh Aisa Laga”… A pleasant (and yes, safe) romance with an inspired meta angle

Posted on February 4, 2019

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Spoilers ahead…

Shelly Chopra Dhar’s Ek Ladki Ko Dekha Toh Aisa Laga opens with a big, fat Bollywood wedding — but like everything else in the film, it’s also about something else, something sadder, something deeper. Look past the bigness and the fatness and the colour-saturated Bollywood-ness, and you’ll see Balbir Chaudhary (Anil Kapoor) pausing at the jalebi counter and making a heart-shaped “designer jalebi”. He hearts cooking. He wanted to be a chef, but his mother (Madhumalti Kapoor) didn’t think a man belonged in a kitchen — and now, he runs the biggest garments company in Moga, Punjab. “Life’s good,” he later tells his daughter Sweety (Sonam K Ahuja). But you wonder how much better it would have been had he been allowed to be himself, and not the person his parents (or society) expected him to be.

The pressure to conform continues in the next generation. Sahil (Rajkummar Rao, giving a masterclass on how an alert actor can flesh out a stick-figure role) is the son of a film producer, but to his father’s dismay, he’s slumming it out as a playwright. As for Sweety… Stop right now if you don’t know what the film is about and want to be surprised. The rest of you know, by now, that she’s gay. After years of being shunned by her peers, she finds love with Kuhu (Regina Cassandra), though, in a weak moment, she says she wishes she were “normal”. Kuhu snaps, “If you won’t accept yourself, how will others accept you?” But we sense in Sahil and Sweety at least the semblance of rebellion. They haven’t caved in like Balbir. They haven’t made their peace with being “normal”.

For a while, I wrote Ek Ladki Ko Dekha off as a missed opportunity. It’s pleasant. It’s never less than watchable, and the very entertaining supporting characters make a case for deserving movies of their own. Take Balbir’s mother, the location of whose “tijori” (safe) makes you laugh. Or take Billo (Seema Pahwa), the family’s cook who likes to place bets. Or take Chhatro (Juhi Chawla), who thinks she’s a “mind-shattering” actress. Each one of them proves good for a chuckle or two, but their eccentricities don’t turn into great running gags. The bigger problem is that anyone who knows Sweety’s secret will find it difficult to sit through her early scenes with Sahil, who falls for her. It’s not a good decision to wait till the interval point to reveal a “twist” that we’ve been guessing about since the film’s trailer dropped. This makes the early Sahil scenes redundant, predictable.

But the second half turns things around. I realised I had underestimated the film… just like I’d underestimated Chhatro. It turns out she isn’t so empty-headed, after all. Behind the helium giggles, there’s a strong woman who has decided to live life on her own terms. (In other words, she no longer feels the pressure to conform.) Likewise, behind the generic facade of Ek Ladki Ko Dekha lies a very specific design. I mean, the first half could (and should) have been written better, but you see why the familiar, comforting convention of the “twist” was needed. In the mainstream tradition, apparently, the more subversive the story (Lamhe, Kabhi Alvida Naa Kehna), the more sweetener it needs in terms of stars, colour, glamour. But here, the “Bollywoodisation” serves another purpose. Instead of getting all radical and artsy (and possibly “truer”) about it,  Ek Ladki Ko Dekha takes a number of Hindi cinema clichés and bends them, showing us that, on the surface, a “gay story” is as “normal” as a Bollywood story in which a girl is in love with a boy and her conservative family decides to arrange her marriage with someone else. The film simply replaces the obstacle. Instead of rich-poor or Hindu-Muslim, we have girl-girl — and when someone storms out during the rehearsals of a staged play, we even get the equivalent of a “yeh shaadi nahin ho sakti” moment.

In terms of look and feel, what we’re seeing here is not the sophistication (and the inevitable niche-ness) of a Kapoor & Sons, but something planted right in the middle of conventional Hindi cinema. And what could be more conventional than Yash Chopra’s cinema. The screenplay (by the director and Gazal Dhaliwal) is inspired by PG Wodehouse’s A Damsel in Distress, but there’s an equal-sized debt to our biggest hetero-romance, Dilwale Dulhaniya Le Jayenge. We get the mustard fields. We get the big wedding celebration, a closing scene set in a railway station, a shy romance (like the Anupam Kher track) between Balbir and Chhatro, and a “jee le apni zindagi” surrender from a hitherto stubborn father.

But the patriarch, here, is much nicer — and a lot of it is surely due to Anil Kapoor, who invests so much conviction into every scene. The very funny bit where he takes to speaking Urdu made me half-wish the film had been a full-out comedy instead. And he kills it in the emotional scenes. But I suspect Ek Ladki Ko Dekha needed him for another reason, the meta angle. The title uses one of the actor’s most famous love songs and makes us wonder: Why can’t Sonam (and women from her generation) fall for a girl the way her father (and the men from his generation) fell for Manisha Koirala? The songs composed for this film (by Rochak Kohli) are weak, but another number that makes itself felt is from Kareeb (directed, like 1942: A Love Story, by this film’s producer, Vidhu Vinod Chopra). Sweety’s ring tone is Chori chori jab nazrein mili. That old Hindi-cinema tradition of shy looks between boy and girl has now been appropriated for girl and girl.

And then, the film gets fully meta, with a Hamlet-like play-within-a-(screen)play. This homestretch is brilliant. The play acting that Sweety does at home (hiding her truth) is channeled into her acting in a play, which is about her and which makes the audience complicit: the audience of this play becomes the audience of this movie. Some of the audience on screen cannot stomach this “perversion”. They walk away. (They’re like the audience around me who laughed when a tearful Sweety came out.) Others stick around. Some are moved. Ek Ladki Ko Dekha isn’t stentorian about its message. It says some people are going to be able to handle gayness, while others are going to be harder to convince. (And maybe some won’t be convinced at all.) The important thing is that no one (on screen) stops the play, just like no ultra-conservative outfit (off screen) has demanded a ban on this movie.

I wish Sonam were a better actress. She’s good in the lighter scenes. She’s charming when she’s not trying too hard. But she comes unstuck in the emotional scenes, and you have to wonder how much more convincing Ek Ladki Ko Dekha would have been with an actress more capable of taking us into Sweety’s soul. Still, Sweety is a moving creation. When someone knocks on the door, she backs away from a hug (with Kuhu) as though by reflex. She’s so afraid that it doesn’t occur to her that no one is going to think much about two girls embracing. (They’d think the girls are friends.) Say what you will about Sonam’s performing skills, there’s no denying her conviction to change what we know as “mainstream fare”. You may not especially care for Veere Di Wedding or Ek Ladki Ko Dekha as movies. But years from now, they’re going to be talked about not necessarily as Great Films ™, but as films that (hopefully) opened doors and made a difference. I’m sure some people will complain that there are hardly any scenes between Sweety and Kuhu, that the gayness has been sanitised, made chaste. But given that it took some seventy years to bring hetero-romances out of the flowers-kissing stage, I didn’t mind, terribly, that all that transpires between Sweety and Kuhu is some hand-holding, an embrace or two, and a kiss on the forehead. This very “safeness” is this film’s secret strength. This isn’t Blue is the Warmest Colour. It’s a YashRaj-style romance with two girls. Without discomfiting the mainstream audience, it makes it possible to talk about a “bedroom subject” in the living room.

Copyright ©2019 Baradwaj Rangan. This article may not be reproduced in its entirety without permission. A link to this URL, instead, would be appreciated.

Posted in: Cinema: Hindi