‘Ek Ladki Ko Dekha Toh Aisa Laga’ Review
“Why is loving a guy my only option?” exclaims Sweety at the mid-point of Ek Ladki Ko Dekha Toh Aisa Laga (ELKDTAL). This is a common sentiment in modern Bollywood films centered around strong female leads.
This flick, from writer and director Shelly Chopra Dhar, isn’t your typical Bollywood melodrama, however, as anyone who’s heard the buzz around this film knows. Sonam Kapoor Ahuja portrays Sweety, a young woman who isn’t interested in our story’s dashing male lead, Sahil (Rajkummar Rao). She wants to pursue her passion for drawing at an art school in London so that she will have an alibi to elope with her girlfriend (Regina Cassandra), away from her overbearing father (Sonam’s real-life father, Anil Kapoor) & brother (Abhishek Duhan), and conservative Punjab in general.
Sweety’s father denies her college opportunity (otherwise there would be no movie). So she and the playwright Sahil eventually come up with a hare-brained scheme: an expositional-reveal-disguised-as-a-play, a la “Hamlet.” The meat of the story revolves around this theatre production.
Sweety’s life story (aka the play) is a touching story of unrequited love, persecution, self-denial, and spiritual crisis. Sonam powerfully channels the torment that Sweety suffers at this personal crisis point, as do the child actors who portray younger versions of Sweety. There’s a heartbreaking scene in the play that physically represents how Sweety feels.
The main problem with ELKDTAL is that there isn’t enough of Sweety. The pacing, particularly in the first half, is bogged with too many meaningless subplots. The cooking metaphor gets dragged out too long for laughs and the scenes with the goofy house-servants are completely vacuous.
Sweety’s play could’ve been much better utilized, to illustrate the power of autobiographical writing as a tool for confronting painful experiences and self-healing. Of course, this isn’t helped by the fact that Sahil writes the Sweety-bio, not Sweety herself. I can only assume making Sahil’s character a playwright was done by the producers to give Rajkummar more screen time.
This meta man-splaining ultimately helps to diminish Sweety’s story. It would have been much more interesting to watch Sweety re-hashing her adolescent identity crisis and religious conflict, both in her head and with her fellow theatre troupe cast-mates. It was interesting seeing flashbacks of her schism between her sexual identity and Sikhism. There have been many Hollywood films about the spiritual crises that gay Christians feel. The story could have focused more on the unexplored paradigm of the homosexual-in-Sikhism, though the producers may have deliberately dulled this plot point to avoid censorship and religious hardliners.
Apart from the pacing and inadequate focus on Sweety, the film falls in the predictability trap. There aren’t any big surprises in ELKDTAL. Other than the lesbian angle, it’s your typical Bollywood melodrama…definitely not the psychological roller coaster of Barry Jenkins’ Moonlight. Ultimately though, the film is saved by Sonam Kapoor. She has shut up all the people who said that she couldn’t act after watching Veere de Wedding. Sonam allows us to feel the full humanity of Sweety, who is sure to go down in the Bollywood history books as one of the first lesbian main characters in mainstream Indian cinema (the first being Radha and Sita in 1996’s Fire).
As Sweety says in regards to her play, it’s important for marginalized people to see empathetic representations of themselves in pop culture. To quote Sweety, “You want to fit me into your idea of normal. But this is my normal.”