The premise of Shelly Chopra Dhar’s Ek Ladki Ko Dekha Toh Aisa Laga has been an open secret ever since the the first trailer came out in December. Hints abound in the film’s official descriptor as the “unexpected romance of the year” and its hashtag “let love be”. Yet, the cast and crew have refused to confirm the Sonam Kapoor and Anil Kapoor-starrer is about same-sex love.
At a recent interview at Mumbai’s Mehboob Studios, Juhi Chawla, who plays a prominent role in the film, also stopped short of spelling it out. “It’s about all the things that you know and yet there is a twist to the tale,” Chawla told Scroll.in.
The time is right for such a story, she added. “I don’t know if it’s overdue but I just hope this is the time,” she said. “It had to be Shelly [Chopra Dhar], who did it the way she has done it. Hrishikesh Mukherjee used to say that the best way to make a film was to either tell a familiar tale in unfamiliar way or tell an unfamiliar tale in a familiar way. The way Shelly has woven this whole thing into such an everyday space with family and love, is done very well.”
Co-written by Dhar and Gazal Dhaliwal, Ek Ladki Ko Dekha Toh Aisa Laga traces the life of Sweety (Sonam Kapoor), who counters pressure from her family to get married while holding on to a secret. Anil Kapoor plays Balbir, Sweety’s father, Rajkummar Rao is Sahil, the director of a theatre group, and Abhishek Duhan is Babloo, Sweety’s possessive brother. Chawla plays Chatro, a caterer who secretly harbours a passion for acting. The film will be released on February 1.
Juhi Chawla described Chatro as a warm, middle-class Punjabi with a few tricks up her sleeve. “She [Chatro] got married young and now she wants to pursue her dreams,” Chawla said. “She is a good cook so she becomes a caterer. But her secret desire is to become an actor. She caters to this theatre production company and she befriends Sahil, who is the director of the company. The story is about the adventure that come next.”
The film has all the elements she was looking for in a script. “I heard the script and I knew I wanted to be in the film, even if decided they do not want me,” Chawla said. “The script is very beautifully crafted. Each character has a beginning, a middle and an end. Everybody is relevant to the film and nobody is just hanging there for the sake of it. It is full of fun, warmth, love, surprises and emotional highs.”
The film reunites Chawla with Anil Kapoor. Their collaborations include Benaam Badshah (1991), Andaz (1994), Deewana Mastana (1997) and Jhooth Bole Kauwa Kaate (1998).
“He [Kapoor] is very hard-working and committed and he has always been that way,” Chawla said. “For me the bigger joy honestly was working with him, Sonam and Rajkummar Rao together. I have seen Sonam on the sets during the shooting of Deewana Mastana. I have seen her grown into films. It was wonderful to work with the team.”
Chawla made her acting debut with Sultanat (1986) and went on to star in Ravichandran’s Kannada film Premaloka (1987). Her breakthrough was Mansoor Khan’s romantic tragedy Qayamat Se Qayamat Tak (1988), co-starring Aamir Khan. The Romeo Juliet-inspired tale told the story of star-crossed lovers Raj and Rashmi, who put up a fight against their warring families.
More romantic dramas followed, including Hum Hain Rahi Pyaar Ke (1993), Yes Boss (1997) and Ishq (1997). Romances have not changed much in Hindi films over the last three decades, the actress said. “Earlier it was all about the boy and the girl, where the family would object,” Chawla recalled. “It would be about how they get married. Today even if the boy and the girl have met and have a relationship going, how do they get married is still the ending. So much for saying we are so modern and forward, we are doing the same thing. But that is also nice. Some of our values and emotions are still the same.”
After a prolific career, Chawla’s roles have been few and far between in recent years. The actress said her journey has been a fulfilling one. “I am so grateful that I am still here,” she said. “I never imagined in the beginning that I will be sitting and giving interviews, even 30 years down the lane. There were many times in between where I felt, that my career was over after a film bombed. But things do move on. I have had my share of big hits, average hits and many flops. But I tided it through somehow.”
She credited filmmakers such as Abbas–Mustan, Mansoor Khan, Yash Chopra, Aziz Mirza, Mahesh Bhatt for shaping her career. “When I got married, I thought it [films] was going to end,” Chawla said. “But mercifully different kinds of films came my way. Not the same, big-budget glossy ones. Somehow I took it up, because that was what was coming. That took me on a slower but a very fulfilling journey.”
One of Chawla’s notable roles in recent years has been Soumik Sen’s action drama Gulaab Gang (2014), in which she played a conniving politician who locks horns with Madhuri Dixit’s character. “In Gulaab Gang, I could not believe I could be a villain,” she said. “But I started enjoying the idea once the director narrated the film.”
What drives her choices? “I know that when people come to me, somewhere the character they require me to portray is the character they have seen me depict before,” she said. “They come to me for certain personalities. All I am looking as an actor is to see if the script holds my interest. I look at whether the role has something relevant to do in the film. I don’t look for earth-shattering things. It just has to be a good film.”
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