Vidhu Vinod Chopra’s 1942 A Love Story is exactly what the title implies. Set against the backdrop of the Quit India movement, the movie toys with the idea of being an epic historical drama, but instead settles squarely on the boy-meets-girl plotline. The establishing scenes introduce a troupe of determined freedom fighters and a red-faced pantomime villain of a British general, but the moment the hero and heroine appear on screen, it’s clear which way the story is headed.
In the book-length interview Talking Songs, lyricist Javed Akhtar tells author Nasreen Munni Kabir, “There wasn’t a situation for the song ... when I heard the screenplay I suggested to Vidhu Vinod Chopra and R.D. Burman that they should place a song at [that] point of the story.” Days later, having failed to write anything but still convinced that the scene required a song, Akhtar presented Burman with the idea of a song “made up simply of similes”, and the pair composed the melody and first stanza on the spot.
Rajjo is the daughter of a freedom fighter. Naren is the son of a politician who panders to the British. Their paths cross in the midst of a riot: the window of her bus is shattered, and Rajjo (Manisha Koirala) tremulously peers out through the broken glass. Naren (Anil Kapoor), in the course of rescuing a child from the violence, has been knocked to the ground. He looks up, their eyes meet, and the leitmotif swells.
Later, unable to forget the woman he only glimpsed, he tries to explain how she struck him: “Jaise kya?” He wonders aloud, then answers the question with a crescendo of increasingly fanciful comparisons.
Rajjo – or perhaps Naren’s fantasy of her – is a model of performative femininity. As the lyrics unfold, we see her splash water over her face, offer prayers at the temple, and perform a variety of domestic chores, all while beaming radiantly. He, meanwhile, seems callow and silly as he bounces on his bed tearing a pillow to shreds, then careers aimlessly around town, first in an open car and then on a bicycle. Shot in Dalhousie, all green mountains and Victorian hill station architecture, and bathed in bright, golden sunlight, the song is suffused it with both freshness and nostalgia.
It’s mostly downhill from there as the plot thickens and gets mired in well-intentioned but muddled patriotic sentiment. But Ek Ladki Ko Dekha beautifully captures the dreamy, ebullient idealism of first love.