The makers of the Bollywood film “Ek Ladki Ko Dekha Toh Aisa Laga” have a touching, if slightly crazy, belief in the transformative power of art. How do you fight stereotypes and deeply ingrained beliefs? With a show.
To make a long story short (spoilers ahead), “Ek Ladki Ko Dekha Toh Aisa Laga” (“How I Felt When I Saw That Girl”) is a romantic comedy about a woman named Sweety (Sonam Kapoor) whose suitor Sahil (Rajkummar Rao) is a failed playwright. Sweety is not interested in Sahil. She barely knows him to begin with. One day she comes to his theater to hide from a pursuer, and pauses long enough to say that the play being rehearsed – by Sahil, of course – is a shallow play about love. Everyone loves a critic, and Sahil falls so much in love that he follows her from Delhi to her home in Punjab.
Most of the film’s convoluted plot revolves around Sahil’s machinations to woo Sweety, which include opening an acting school so he can spend a little time with her. That’s because she’s under a kind of soft house arrest: her brother has taken away her cell phone and ripped out the Internet because he fears she’ll embarrass the family. Why? Because she loves another Muslim, as her brother tells her father Balbir (Anil Kapoor, Sonam’s father in real life), and Balbir assumes it must be Sahil? No. It’s a ploy to hide an even more terrible secret.
What troubles Sweety, who mourns and sighs and tearfully reads old diaries, she finally confesses to Sahil: she is in love with another woman.
Sahil wastes no time and is disappointed. Instead, he comes up with his big idea: he turns a fashion show (Sweety’s father owns a textile factory) into a musical comedy that preaches tolerance towards same-sex love. The protagonists are none other than Sweety and his girlfriend Kuhu (Regina Cassandra), who up to this point in the film is only seen briefly in flashbacks.
So when Sweety’s love dares to speak her name – mostly out of concern for her acceptance – their love story must whisper on the fringes of this film. “Ek Ladki Ko Dekha Toh Aisa Laga,” directed by Shelly Chopra Dhar, is not really a romantic comedy in the Bollywood sense: engagement, feud, wedding (though there is a montage of a very trademark song in which Sweety and Kuhu embrace amid ruins). Instead, “Ek Ladki,” like Sahil’s musical, has lessons to teach by addressing issues such as shame, acceptance in the community and fears about homosexuality as a disease.
Indian films, especially indie films, have dealt with gay issues before (not always happily: fundamentalists burned down theaters showing Deepa Mehta’s lesbian film “Fire” in 1996). Bollywood’s first mainstream film with gay protagonists, “Dostana” (2008), was a sham: the two men, played by big stars, only pretended to be gay.
In this respect, “Ek Ladki,” the first film to focus on lesbians, is an improvement. There’s no pretending here, although kuhu hardly plays a role and the romance is only a small part of the film. (The title of the film may prepare the viewer for the romance, however. It is also the title of a dreamy song from “1942: A Love Story,” a film starring…. Mr. Kapoor).
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Sahil’s big show ends with much of the audience walking out in outrage. It works for one important person, though: Sweety’s father, who had turned her down during rehearsals when he found out she and Kuhu wouldn’t be performing. But he comes around in time to interrupt the performance and deliver the message of love and tolerance that is the raison d’être of this film.