Anil Kapoor gave the strongest performance in this film
Anil Kapoor gave the strongest performance in this film

I wanted to like Ek Ladki Ko Dekha To Aisa Laga, I really did. But if, like me, you’re looking for a powerful same-sex love story, this is not that film as thoughtful as it is.

Sonam Kapoor Ahuja plays Sweety, a mild-mannered queer girl from a small town in Punjab, who is loved immensely by her well-to-do father Balbir Chaudhry (Anil Kapoor) who aspires to be a chef but ends up running a successful garment business, an over-protective older brother and a highly-conservative grandmother.

While attempting to sneak away from home to meet her lover in Delhi, Sweety hides in a theatre where struggling playwright Sahil Mirza’s (Rajkummar Rao) new play is being rehearsed. Mirza finds himself deeply attracted to Sweety and decides to move to her town in order to woo her. When he finds out that Sweety is queer, he decides to help her come out to her family.

Rajkumar Rao as Sahil Mirza and Sonam Kapoor as Sweety
Rajkumar Rao as Sahil Mirza and Sonam Kapoor as Sweety

It is clear, then, that the film is made from the perspective of straight people and seeks to create empathy in them to respect and tolerate people who love differently. On that count, it does quite well. As a straight person myself who used to struggle with the idea that same-sex attraction is natural, the film spoke to a previous version of myself and reminded me of so many conversations I’d been a part of when I was still a mild homophobe.

This is both a strength and a weakness of the film. It is a strength because Indian (and South Asian) society is not yet at a point where a relationship like this – or even a film like this – can be treated as a given. So, it makes sense to make a movie that is digestible because it comes with plenty of teachable moments and healthy doses of melodrama. It does a good job on those moments too, without becoming overly preachy.

It is a weakness because, alas, it does end up being preachy to the point that sadly the straight characters end up taking the spotlight as saviours of the gay characters. The film also has a curious focus on small towns, as if homophobia isn’t an urban phenomenon and those living in cities do not need to be taught tolerance.

Sadly, the straight characters of Ek Ladki Ko Dekha end up taking the spotlight as saviours of the gay characters. The film also has a curious focus on small towns, as if homophobia isn’t an urban phenomenon and those living in cities do not need to be taught tolerance.

That the film is sanctimonious in places is hardly a surprise, given that the movie is produced by Vidhu Vinod Chopra and Raju Hirani – who have collaborated on many so-called message-oriented films like the Munnabhai MBBS series, 3 Idiots, and PK. (Hirani has been accused of sexual harassment and his name was removed as a producer from the movie. It is unclear if any of the earnings from the film will go to him).

Ahuja’s performance left a lot to be desired and Regina Cassandra who plays Sweety’s partner Kuhu had very little space to create an impact. The two women couldn’t create any real chemistry, resulting in an almost infantile relationship with the couple appearing more like friends than lovers. To be fair, the film was working within understandable constraints so the characters could only show attraction through holding hands but that doesn’t explain why the couple never has a real conversation that provides the audience a glimpse into why they fell in love with each other in the first place.

In fact, the scene where they first meet and are drawn to each other is very superficial, with one conversation where Kuhu tells Sweety that she used to have crushes on girls as a child. It is truly unfortunate that a film trying to shatter norms falls into the ultimate Bollywood stereotype: A meets B, they talk about love for 30 seconds, and voila intense love has happened.

Those who truly shine are Kapoor as a doting father and an obedient son, and Juhi Chawla as a divorced woman with progressive ideas and a refreshingly relentless drive to become an actor now that her kids have grown up and she’s free from a marriage she hadn’t wanted. It is a pity that the script does not give Rao, a brilliant actor, much of an opportunity to display his talent.

An unexpected thing that I loved about the film was its portrayal of Muslims, an area where Bollywood continues to struggle. Mirza does not behave or speak like he is stuck in the 1940s – there are no adabs, his Urdu isn’t impeccable, and the word janab is never used – and there’s no tokenism, in that his religion is only important insofar as his religion needs to be.

So is the film worth watching? Absolutely! If for no other reason than to support the first mainstream Bollywood movie ever to show a same-sex romance as a fact of life. Take a friend, better yet take your parents or aunts and uncles. They are more the target audience than younger folks.

Here’s hoping that stepping on to the stone laid down by Ek Ladki Ko Dekha To Aisa Laga, more filmmakers will make movies with same-sex characters and that one of them will become a romance for the ages.

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