By Sonali Kokra Feb. 01, 2019
A small-town lesbian love story might make Ek Ladki Ko Dekha Toh Aisa Laga the most unexpected romance of the year, but equally riveting is its secondary plot. The Sonam Kapoor-starrer needs to be lauded for its honest portrayal of parent-child relationships, and exactly how far Indian children go to not disappoint their parents.
In a country that has an embarrassing history, spanning decades of giggling and guffawing over crass, uni-dimensional portrayals of the LGBTQ community, Shelly Dhar Chopra’s Ek Ladki Ko Dekha Toh Aisa Laga —with a lesbian love story at the heart of the tension around which the narrative is woven — is a very important and remarkable story. It may be 22 years since Fire, Deepa Mehta’s path-breaking film featuring a lesbian relationship, led to theatres being vandalised and posters being burned, but it’s impossible to forget that it’s only a year since the reprehensible Section 377 was declared unconstitutional by the Supreme Court of India.
The fact that Ek Ladki Ko Dekha Toh Aisa Laga is a mainstream Bollywood film, backed by industry bigwigs both behind the camera as well as on screen, makes it a watershed moment for Bollywood, given its equally embarrassing history of shameless caricaturing of gay and trans people. So far the little that we’ve seen by way of LGBTQ characters in mainstream, masala Bollywood has been restricted to the dual stereotypes of loud, garish, uncontrollably horny men (the various roles of Bobby Darling through the noughties, and Suresh Menon, currently) or the absurdity of actors like Riteish Deshmukh cross-dressing and cracking asinine jokes while playing lead roles; Kapoor & Sons being an exception. Which is why Sweety (Sonam Kapoor Ahuja) and Kuhu’s (Regina Cassandra) shy, hesitant romance is like a breath of fresh air.
Ek Ladki Ko Dekha Toh Aisa Laga starts with a big fat Punjabi wedding. Balbir Chaudhary (Anil Kapoor), nicknamed the Mukesh Ambani of Moga (a small town in Punjab) is in Delhi with his mother Gifty, aka Biji (Madhumalti Kapoor), and children Sweety and Babloo (Abhishek Duhan) for a relative’s wedding. Naturally, there are attempts to find a suitable match for Sweety. Sweety soon catches the eye of a young man who tries to woo her, but unbeknownst to anyone but the watchful Babloo, it is actually her admirer’s sister that makes Sweety’s heart flutter — which is only revealed to us just before the intermission. The first half of the film takes us through Babloo’s increasing frustration with his little sister’s “illness”. His affection for her wars with his anger over becoming the town’s laughing stock, if her “dirty secret” is revealed.
Sonam Kapoor Ahuja plays Sweety with restraint and anguish; her sense of isolation palpable every time she scribbles her sadness into her diary.
At the same time Sahil (Rajkummar Rao), an unsuccessful playwright, falls in love with Sweety after a chance meeting, and follows her back to Moga from Delhi. Admittedly, Ek Ladki Ko Dekha Toh Aisa Laga is not without its faults. It goes to exhausting lengths to emphasise how beyond the scope of comprehension it is for Sweety’s family to even consider the possibility that their reticent, mousy daughter might be a lesbian. Everyone is convinced that the utterly unacceptable romance she is embroiled in involves a Muslim boy. Time that could have been spent in developing the severely under-utilised Kuhu’s character, is spent in belabouring the Chaudhary family’s many quirks.
But the second half of the film is well worth the stabs of impatience. Sonam Kapoor Ahuja plays Sweety with restraint and anguish; her sense of isolation palpable every time she scribbles her sadness into her diary. Duhan’s Babloo is believable — he is boorish and hot-headed, but not evil, while trying desperately to handle a situation he doesn’t understand. Anil Kapoor, as always, shines in the role of a large-hearted, happy, and doting father, while Rajkummar Rao charms as the startled wannabe lover who finds himself permanently friendzoned.
Vinod Chopra Films
The central premise of Ek Ladki Ko Dekha Toh Aisa Laga is enough to make you sit up and take notice, but it’s real victory is in the quietly heartwarming moments it slips between the big ones. Sahil might have accepted his new role in Sweety’s life with decency and dignity, but he fumbles while trying to put a name to her relationship with Kuhu — simply because he has never encountered one like it before. Babloo is furious with the secret he is forced to keep, but he also cares deeply for his sister, and you can almost empathise with his confusion. Balbir, despite his misgivings, gives his blessings to Sweety to marry Sahil, a Muslim man, believing that that is where her happiness lay. As a clever dig at Bollywood’s own portrayal of homosexuality, Biji is delighted with the lesbian love story in Sahil’s new production because she thinks it makes the play a comedy. The characters in the movie are neither saintly, nor evil — they are mostly decent human beings who are also flawed, simply playing the roles they’ve been conditioned into. Long before the final climax with a dramatic monologue, the film does its job of making its audience engage with their assumptions about gay people.
His affection for her wars with his anger over becoming the town’s laughing stock, if her “dirty secret” is revealed.
And finally there is the more subtly executed, but equally riveting and universally applicable secondary plot of Ek Ladki Ko Dekha Toh Aisa Laga — the weight of parental expectations. Homosexuality might make the movie the “most unexpected romance of the year”, but it needs to be lauded for its achingly honest and cross-generational portrayal of parent-child relationships, and exactly how far Indian children are prepared to go to not disappoint their parents. Sweety has resigned herself to a loveless, lonely existence just so her father doesn’t have to face ridicule and shame; Balbir himself has given up his lifelong dream to become a chef because his mother believed the kitchen is not a place for men. Juhi Chawla’s delightfully colourful Chatro, in a poignant moment, talks about how she spent 22 years living for her children and parents, before finally deciding to get divorced and living life for herself. Sahil, as independent as he is, turns to his mother in his darkest moment.
The parent-child dynamic is the invisible character in Ek Ladki Ko Dekha Toh Aisa Laga, underpinning every character’s motivation, and it can both imprison and set people free. In one scene, Sweety tells Sahil in a matter-of-fact manner that the only way out of her loneliness is to either run away to London with her girlfriend, or kill herself. Replace homosexuality with any of the million things unacceptable to Indian parents because “log kya kahenge” — inter-faith or inter-caste marriages, or even unconventional career choices, and the movie’s message will still strike home.
All in all, Ek Ladki Ko Dekha Toh Aisa Laga might just be the imperfect but transformative work of commercial cinema we’ve all been waiting for — one that forces society to engage with homosexuality (or any other frowned-upon life choice/inclination) by appealing to people’s humanity, not intellect. And not a moment too soon.
Sonali Kokra is a journalist, writer, editor and media consultant from Mumbai. She writes on feminism, gender rights, sexuality, relationships, and lifestyle. In her 12-year-long career, she has written for national and international magazines, newspapers and websites. She was last seen as the lifestyle editor of NDTV, and HuffPost.com, and has published a coffee table book on Shah Rukh Khan.