Synopsis – Some love stories are not simple, Sweety’s is one such story. She has to contend with her over-enthusiastic family that wants to get her married, a young writer who is completely smitten by her, a secret that she harbors close to her heart and ultimately the truth that her true love might not find acceptance in her family and society. Resolving these issues proves hilarious, touching and life changing.
My Take – Since the trailer of this film dropped online, way back in December, I along with many others, waited for its release with bated breath. It looked like a light comedy of errors filled with all the right elements to pass of a quintessential Bollywood love story i.e. a wedding romance, a love triangle, family opposition, a runaway heroine, gleeful music and, of course, the reassuring star presence of breakaway actor Rajkummar Rao, the ever refreshing Juhi Chawla, and the father-daughter pairing of Anil Kapoor and Sonam Kapoor Ahuja.
But underneath that veil, the film spoke up about a community that the South Asian society only talks about in whispers. Possibly a major reason the film didn’t see a release in theaters across the Middle East, a massive reason for my delay in viewing it.
Marking as the directorial debut of Shelly Chopra Dhar, who co-wrote the film with Gazal Dhaliwal, a transwoman who wrote the story using moments from her own life is a rare same sex love story from Bollywood. Sure, there have been films made on the LGBQT community before, but never in the same vein as this film, in the sense, with more commercial strains and widely recognizable cast.
While the film has too much fluff and unnecessary plot points that end up diluting its rather radical subject it still does feels like a step in the right direction, by creating more awareness in our Desi society. Keeping religious beliefs aside, I would say watch this film with both your heart and mind and you’ll be left with a broader mindset as that is something which we all truly require.
Based on P. G. Wodehouse‘s A Damsel in Distress, the story follows Sahil Mirza (Rajkummar Rao), a struggling playwright looking for inspiration to break out of his very successful producer father’s shadow. And one day an inspiration does come in the form of Sweety Chaudhary (Sonam Kapoor Ahuja), a smart beautiful girl, who enters into Sahil’s theater rehearsals as a means to escape from her Babloo (Abhishek Duhan), her older brother.
Instantly charmed by her, Sahil decides to use his stature and enlists the help of Chatro (Juhi Chawla), a middle aged caterer and wannabe actress, to find his way to Moga, the small town in Punjab where Sweety hails from, a family headed by her widowed father Balbir Chaudhary (Anil Kapoor), who owns a garment manufacturing business and lives a lavish life with his mother and a few servants, albeit still dreaming of becoming a chef one day. While Balbir and his family are convinced that Sweety and Sahil are in love with each other, with Sahil thinking the same, but the truth is otherwise.
This film produced by Vidhu Vinod Chopra and Rajkumar Hirani of the Munnabhai series, 3 Idiots, PK and Sanju fame (Hirani has been accused of sexual harassment and his name was removed as a producer from the film), isn’t your typical Bollywood melodrama, however, as anyone who’s heard the buzz around this film knows. Here, director Shelly Chopra Dhar tries to bring light to a subject that hasn’t been tackled with honesty in Bollywood. We come to know towards the interval that Sweety is in love with a woman.
What works for the film is the subtlety with which director Chopra has brought forward a thought-provoking story. The fact that it’s set in a small-town town Moga, in Punjab, the reactions, the emotions are realistic. Sweety’s life story is a touching story of unrequited love, persecution, self-denial, and spiritual crisis and the film is very clear about the issue it is tackling, and is extremely self-aware about the way it handles it. This isn’t a film about Sweety and Kuhu exploring their sexuality, as both characters never express any doubt about their identity. A perfect example of this is an extremely gut-wrenching sequence in the film where a younger version of Sweety is seen trapped inside a glass box screaming at her father to set her free.
The story is about how their homosexuality is perceived by society, and the damaging ways it frames a person into bleak resignation. More importantly, it puts the onus on the community to reflect on how their prejudices affect the LGBTQ+ members of society. As a related sidetrack, the narrative also explores how much of our own happiness we give up because of societal pressure, though. While the dialogue of the film feels a little heavy at times, and the plot’s pieces take a little bit of time to come together, but it seems intentional.
Here, director Chopra and writer Dhaliwal set up the first half to subvert it later. The recurring prop of Sweety’s diary and the climax sequence run the risk of becoming too Meta, but the first half saves it from being so. What’s lovely about the film is the respect with which it treats its characters.
Bollywood has had a tendency to oversexualize lesbian relationships in the past to please the male gaze. But both writer Gazal Dhaliwal and director Chopra seem to have approached Sweety and Kuhu with a tenderness that hasn’t been seen before.
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 homophobe.
Here, the makers acknowledge that in film, along with other eggshells they are walking on, hoping to justify the deliberately safe approach. While understandable, this choice makes the romance underwhelming for those who are a part of, or allies to the LGBTQ+ community. Instead, all we get is a montage of Sweety and Kuhu falling in love, a few looks, and an occasional hug. We never get to savor their love or root for it.
The film is so focused on getting the audience to advocate for their right to love each other that it just skims over their romance. Sweety could have fallen in love with any other woman at the wedding and it would make no difference to the film emotionally. The audience is not given enough time to invest in Sweety’s love for Kuhu.
Another major problem of the film is the performance of Sonam Kapoor Ahuja. While she has been universally criticized for her lack of acting skills that in until the 2016 film, Neerja hit the block. However here she just seems to be lacking the energy and interest in portraying her character as the trapped and disturbed than she is perceived to be and instead puts in a rather insipid performance as a young woman trapped in her identity and desperate for a way out.
Not that the script affords her much, but even with what she has, she squanders the chance to depict the real struggle of women in small-town India and the prejudices they must deal with daily. While her outbursts start out authentic enough, but she just can’t seem to slide inside Sweety’s skin, leaving Sweety’s tears to fall flat on more than one occasion. She is the film’s weakest link, and the reason why this story falls short.
Thankfully the other performances work wonders. Anil Kapoor is the true heart of the film and he steals the show with his effervescent performance. His scenes with Sonam are heartwarming and his chemistry with Chawla will bring a huge smile to your face.
Juhi Chawla is hilarious, loud and a constant comic element in the film. Rajkummar Rao has a little less to work with, despite being handed a rather large portion of screen time. Still, he remains as skilled and believable as ever. Regina Cassandra quietly commands each scene she’s in, leaving you unsatisfied with her lack of screen time.
Abhishek Duhan manages to project a certain humanity in a character that could’ve easily been perceived as the villain. You may not agree with Babloo, but thanks to Duhan’s portrayal, you can understand where he’s coming from. Madhumalti Kapoor, Brijendra Kala, and Seema Pahwa bring the required supporting energy to the film. On the whole, ‘Ek Ladki Ko Dekha Toh Aisa Laga’ is a likable comedy drama which despite its unhardened approach and clichés earns brownies for its fresh and necessary message.
Directed – Shelly Chopra Dhar
Rated – PG13
Run Time – 120 minutes