“Art should comfort the disturbed and disturb the comfortable,” wrote Bansky. Ek Ladki Ko Dekha Toh Aisa Laga manages to do both. The film aspires to be a transformative experience and it delivers on many levels. Shelly Chopra Dhar, the film’s director states “I did not want to give this film a label. [It is] about family, about love, about breaking paradigms. I wanted to concentrate more on the family. Of course, it is a journey for the person who goes through it – there is a journey for a family and that’s the essence of it.”
Ek Ladki Ko Dekha Toh Aisa Laga… (loosely translated, “I saw a girl and it felt like this…”) is the story of Sweety Chaudhary (Sonam Kapoor Ahuja). The film starts, as do many Bollywood films, with a marriage and the notion that Sweety’s family is looking for the perfect groom for her. As a theme, this is as Bollywood as it gets. But the film transcends as it uses good satirical humor (not trite, not forced, but honest and fresh humor) to illustrate how desperate the search is for the perfect groom.
Meanwhile, Sahil Mirza (Rajkummar Rao) is a struggling playwright who can’t write a play to save his life. After a chance meeting with Sweety, Sahil falls madly in love with her. Due to circumstance and many misunderstandings, Sweety’s family assumes Sahil is the boy whom Sweety desires but, since he is Muslim and the family Hindu, they initially disapprove of the relationship.
Again, we see a common Bollywood theme of Muslim versus Hindu and yet again we are wrong as the film artfully rises above convention. After many misunderstandings and crossed signals, Sweety, finally fed up with the search for a groom and those around her, screams at a confused Sahil, “Mein ek ladki se pyar karti hoon!” (“I am in love with a girl!”) Here, Sahil laughs uncontrollably and we expect nothing more as he is representative of the majority of India, a nation so repressed that until September 2018, homosexual relationships were criminalized and punishable by law.
Vinod Chopra Films
The first half of Ek Ladki Ko Dekha Toh Aisa Laga focuses its lens on the typical Indian family it portrays and their search for the perfect groom for Sweety. It is a comforting half, a half where we sit back in our seats and recognize Bollywood as a culture that revolves around themes of love and arranged marriages but, nonetheless, heteronormative love stories. This is Bollywood and we are used to this.
It is only when Sweety proclaims that she loves a girl that we sit up in our seats, uncomfortable, not because it is unbelievable or poorly articulated but because it is so well done that we feel someone has told our truth for the world to see.
Sweety’s proclamation (and I commend Sonam for her delivery on this) is heartfelt and never over the top. It is earnest and desperate and filled with the anguish of a closeted Indian girl who, above all, wishes to be free of the burden of expectation laid upon her.
So what’s next? Next, in a flashback, we catch a glimpse of Sweety’s relationship with Kuhu (Regina Cassandra) and it is such an innocent and heartfelt rendition of love that we fall in love with a love story.
After this, Sahil agrees to help Sweety but how? He finally decides to write a play to depict Sweety’s relationship with Kuhu so that people can become aware of the simple fact of love.
In having Sahil write this play, the film depicts its belief in the transformative power of art. And we, in turn, if we don’t already desire, are transformed into wanting Sweety and Kuhu to succeed in love.
So we have this: a Bollywood film that surprises us pleasantly. A film that fulfills its promise of delivering a love story yet a novel love story, the story of Sweety and Kuhu, a story never told on mainstream Indian cinema.
Shelly Chopra Dhar’s directorial debut is immaculate and the scenes are true to life. The dialogue is fresh, Sweety’s questions are real. As a character, Sweety is credible and complex. The love story between Sweety and Kuhu, shines and resonates. The reaction and confusion of those around them is depicted honestly and is raw.
My only apprehension with the film is when Sweety’s father (Anil Kapoor) who is opposed to the relationship between Sweety and Kuhu, turns in what seems like an instant to accept his daughter and her lover. This part of the film seems too easy and too neatly wrapped. But then I wonder, is it really? For if this were a typical heteronormative Bollywood film dealing with families opposing love, the same dialogue would exist. The dialogue then, fits as a Bollywood convention and gives dignity to the film as a mainstream Bollywood film rather than setting it apart as “different.” Most importantly, this dialogue is the coming of age of a man as much as it is of a closeted Sweety.
Vinod Chopra Films
I saw this film twice, once with a predominantly heterosexual audience unaware of the film’s turn and then a second time with the South Asian Gay and Lesbian Association. The reactions were immense and intense and sadly diverse. I definitely felt its importance of this film the first time around when, upon exiting the film, a heterosexual couple holding hands proclaimed it “stupid.” Stupid because, despite the film’s thematic elements and beautifully illustrated love story, they could not see the importance nor the beauty of such a film. These are precisely the people this film tries to reach, to transform, to make understand that, as Dhar says, “Love does not need to be qualified. Love is love. A love story is a love story. It should not be defined as anything else.”
The second time around, I was surrounded with tears and applause. Why? Because this film is a beautiful depiction of the love no one talks about in India. Because despite what India tries to erase, we have our Sweetys and Kuhus too and they need a voice, a voice that is skillfully and beautifully articulated in Ek Ladki Ko Dekha Toh Aisa Laga.