At one point in Ek Ladki Ko Dekha Toh Aisa Laga, Sahil Mirza (Rajkummar Rao), a playwright, comes on stage and says, “Humara jo yeh naatak hai na, yeh aap dimaag se nahi, dil se dekhiyega [Don’t watch our play with your head, watch it with your heart].” Bollywood filmmakers have parroted this line for aeons. The implication is obvious: Our film’s emotional truth transcends logic, elevating it above scrutiny or intellectual engagement.
The line’s a cliché – a sophisticated version of “leave your brains at home” – but it perfectly encapsulates this movie, whose restless heart outpaces its foggy head.
The film is initially set in Delhi where Sahil, the son of a famous Hindi film producer, is struggling to write a good play. He accidentally meets Sweety (Sonam Kapoor), a runaway escaping her family, and falls in love. She returns home, to Moga, a town in Punjab, compelling Sahil to follow her. A girl on the run, love at first sight, love defying parental expectations – we have seen these stories ad infinitum.
But this is not the story this film wants to tell. Its first half is an extended ruse, intentionally delaying the twist. In Moga, we meet Balbir Chaudhury (Anil Kapoor), Sweety’s father and the owner of a big textile company; her controlling brother, Babloo (Abhishek Duhan) and their grandmother, Biji (Madhumalti Kapoor). Then there’s Chatro (Juhi Chawla), a caterer in Sahil’s troupe who accompanies him to Moga.
When the film first cuts to Punjab, a portion where the stakes are low, it resorts to humour to drive the plot. But this feels like an engineered, rather than an organic, choice. The comedic language is a big giveaway. Chatro, a graduate from “Amrinder School of Acting and Emotions”, wants to become an actor. She’s sweet and bumbling, an easy target for laughs. The father, even in his old age, is scared of his mother, fighting with her over trivial things. The humour here, generic and ‘Punjabified’, comes through characters who aren’t people but types. Many scenes seem like contrived beats, prodding you to laugh.
Then there are other minor annoyances, hinting towards a larger screenwriting laxity: Sweety sees a play for a few seconds and declares it mediocre; a crucial plot point at the start, devoid of a convincing reason, feels planted to kickstart the story; a weighty romantic proposal feels haphazard. But this film – directed by Shelly Chopra, co-written by Gazal Dhaliwal – excels at hiding stories within a story, a flourish befitting this smoke screen.
There’s more to Sahil than his love interest and writing ambition: irritated by his family’s insistence on finding a stable job, he ignores his mother’s calls. As a young man, Balbir wanted to be a chef but, due to family pressure, could not. Even years later, he watches a cooking show with the excitement of a smitten teenager. And Sweety harbours the biggest secret of them all: an admission that holds the key to love, acceptance and identity, collapsing the past and the present, making her complete.
Sweety has fallen for a woman – the only way love makes sense to her. This is a weighty revelation, both in the context of this film and hidebound Bollywood embracing progressive politics. What follows is a brief but poignant exploration of childhood sorrows and stifled desires – a quest to find a way that will dissolve the difference between self and love.
Bollywood has been self-serving for so long that this rare lunge feels affecting and, presumably for many, liberating. It’s all in there – the mustard fields, the Punjabi family, the headiness of first love – but the conventions have been upturned: a film about lesbian romance, written by a trans woman (Dhaliwal), produced by a major production house. This is the kind of film that makes you want to cheer.
There are other artistic pleasures, too. Rao, who can sell you a sweater in Delhi summer, is convincing, as usual, beautifully switching from comedy to pathos, giving this film an anchor it so badly needs. Anil Kapoor, playing the pliant father often castigated by his mother for “not being man enough”, turns in a delightful performance as well, one devoid of toxic masculinity and patriarchal resentment.
But Sonam Kapoor looks woefully superficial and clueless – her limited acting abilities diluting a complex character. Even the film’s climax – the titular play – is more concerned with talking to the audience, dispensing moral truisms in the process, rather than telling a credible story. A film like Ek Ladki Ko Dekha Toh Aisa Laga often escapes scrutiny for being an “earnest attempt”, but we need more than that: We need good art, for true compassion, promising unknown freedoms, demands more than lip service.