Ek Ladki Ko Dekha Toh Aisa Laga movie review: A warm ode to loving and living as we choose
Ek Ladki Ko Dekha Toh Aisa Laga has a story to tell and a point - many points - to make, and it does both without seeming crowded or preachy.
castSonam Kapoor Ahuja, Anil Kapoor, Rajkummar Rao, Juhi Chawla, Abhishek Duhan, Sara Arjun, Brijendra Kala, Seema Pahwa, Madhumalti Kapoor, Alka Kaushik, Kanwaljit Singh, Regina Cassandra, Akshay Oberoi
directorShelly Chopra Dhar
Rating: 3 (out of 5 stars)
(If you have seen the trailer and followed the promotions of this film, this review contains no spoilers for you)
What might a conservative Hindu consider even more objectionable than the daughter of the family marrying a Muslim man? Answer: how about the girl being in love with another girl?
The spotlight on this ridiculous, tragi-comic hierarchy of biases is one of the many winning aspects of writer-director Shelly Chopra Dhar's Ek Ladki Ko Dekha Toh Aisa Laga. To bracket it as simply an LGBT-themed film or an inter-community romance would be what the protagonist herself might call an "upar upar waali" (superficial) reading of it though. Sure it is centred around young Sweety Chaudhary from Moga in Punjab who has spent her life hiding her truth from those dearest to her, but the film is not about same-gender love alone. It is about living and loving as we choose, not allowing societal norms around age, gender, religion or anything else to suffocate us and hamper our personal or professional choices.
Written by Gazal Dhaliwal and Chopra Dhar, Ek Ladki stars Sonam Kapoor Ahuja as Sweety, Anil Kapoor as Sweety's Dad Balbir Chaudhary, Rajkummar Rao as the struggling playwright Sahil Mirza and Juhi Chawla as his friend Chattro. In some ways, half the writers' battle is won even before their narrative kicks off. A sweetness pervades the screen as soon as Anil enters the picture in the opening moments. After all, nostalgia is one of the most powerful weapons in the hands of any filmmaker, and we have been primed for this sentiment from the moment we heard of the cast and the title. How can emotions not surge at the memory of the blockbuster song of the same name from the legendary R.D. Burman's very last film soundtrack, or the memory of that film starring Anil as a young man, that same Anil who stands before us now with a gray beard and lined face, a living breathing testament to how gracefully we could hope to age if we treat our bodies well? And we see him now sharing space with his real-life daughter who was a child when 1942: A Love Story was released. Bring out those handkerchiefs already, I say.
Thankfully, Ek Ladki does not rest on these laurels. It has a story to tell and a point - many points - to make, and it does both without seeming crowded or preachy. This is not to say that it is without imperfections. Far from it. The soundtrack, for one, is decidedly average, even when it reprises Burman's melody for its title track. And I felt exceedingly uncomfortable with a conversation between Sweety and Sahil in which she asks him to find other Sweetys in other towns and "usey bhi bachana" (save her/them too). This is a condescending line for the film to take, irrespective of who is uttering the dialogue. The marginalised do not need saviours from dominant communities, what is needed are allies.
Besides, I could not figure out why the trailer tried to build great mystery around the object of Sweety's affection, but the producers let the secret out to the press during the promotional period, while the film itself again tries to needlessly build up suspense just as the trailer did, although anyone watching both closely could have seen what was coming from a mile.
Still, there is much else to recommend Ek Ladki in an industry where sensitivity around LGBT+ persons remains rare, a focus on lesbian women in particular is virtually non-existent (no please, Fire is hardly a Bollywood film), and Onir's fabulous My Brother Nikhil and I Am remain isolated instances of depth on this front from Bollywood. Leading the positives in Ek Ladki is the use of the comedy genre for such grave social commentary, and the skill the writers and director display while pulling it off without mocking the LGBT+ community.
This becomes possible because the strong screenplay is backed by an endearing cast. Sonam is suitably fragile, and Kollywood/Tollywood star Regina Cassandra has an arresting screen presence. Their equation though is overshadowed by the warm chemistry between Sonam and Anil on the one hand, Sonam and Rao on the other. Some of this has to do with the fact that Cassandra gets little screen time and the screenplay is more focused on those around the central couple than the couple themselves. You may see this as a play-it-safe approach or interpret this, as I do, as Dhaliwal and Chopra Dhar's way of gently breaking it to the audience that same-gender love does not necessarily involve two cis men, contrary to what the current dominant public discourse tells us.
At different points in the narrative, different actors in this cracking ensemble invite the label "scene stealers". Rao, for one, is in top form, and the ever-loveable, ever-hilarious Chawla's performance begs the question why more and larger roles are not written for her. Brijendra Kala as Chaubey Uncle and Seema Pahwa as Billo Aunty are a hoot. Young Sweety is played with confidence and empathy by the award-winning child star Sara Arjun, whose pan-India filmography includes her role as Vikram's daughter in Deiva Thirumagal (Tamil) and the titular heroine in Ann Maria Kalippilaanu (Malayalam).
The underrated Abhishek Duhan is impeccable as Sweety's brother. But the lasting memory from Ek Ladki Ko Dekha Toh Aisa Laga is of Anil taking a scene that could have been maudlin, insufferable and loud, and turning it into a heart-wrenching passage of acceptance, self-realisation and personal growth. Ek Veteran Ko Dekha Toh Aisa Laga...
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