Shelly Chopra Dhar’s Ek Ladki Ko Dekha Toh Aisa Laga poses a challenge to both critics and viewers. How much can the reviewer reveal about the plot, which unveils its big twist at the exact point at which you are encouraged to shuffle out of the auditorium to the popcorn counter? And what does the average moviegoer make of the subversion of the soppy romance in which boy falls for girl and gets the prize after leaping over a series of obstacles?
It would have been better for both critic and viewer if Chopra Dhar’s directorial debut had revealed its trump card early on, rather than circling around the truth about its lead character, the gentle-natured Sweety (Sonam K Ahuja). In doing so, Ek Ladki borrows some of Sweety’s timidity, thereby undercutting its radical theme and determination to champion an unorthodox romance.
The screenplay, by Chopra Dhar and Gazal Dhaliwal, has been adapted from PG Wodehouse’s novel A Damsel in Distress. The movie revolves around a similar series of misunderstandings, this time playing out in a Punjabi setting packed with the loud and large-hearted stereotypes that seem to emerge out of the soil as surely as mustard and wheat.
Balbir (Anil Kapoor), a garment manufacturer who is the “Mukesh Ambani of Moga”, is looking for a groom for his introverted daughter Sweety. She is plotting her escape, and finds a willing collaborator in struggling playwright Sahil (Rajkummar Rao). Sahil falls headlong for Sweety, assumes that she returns his affections, and is undeterred even after an encounter with her bully of a brother, Babloo (Abhishek Duhan).
As Balbir’s domestic staff, including characters played by Brijendra Kala and Seema Pahwa, place bets on Sweety’s final choice, Sahil learns the truth about his object of desire. With some inspiration from William Shakespeare’s Hamlet, Sahil decides to use the boons of theatre to create a romcom-friendly ending.
Ek Ladki moves along on the strength of its progressive theme and some fine performances. Typical Bollywood elements – quirky characters, peppy songs, posh settings, syrupy emotions – are cleverly turned around to encourage us to see love through a different lens. However, the 120-minute movie tries too hard to be funny and heartfelt at the same time (and sometimes in the same scene). The comic bits inspired by the source material always work better than the melodramatic portions.
The stifling of the soul in the service of convention extends beyond Sweety. Balbir wanted to be a chef, but is stuck managing the family business, although his ambivalence doesn’t explain his inability to confront his son’s nastiness. Too many characters who make perfect sense in a farce but not so much in a romantic drama run around, and only a few leave their mark. Rajkummar Rao is excellent as Sahil, even though his character is imperfectly realised, and Juhi Chawla is in hilariously hammy mode as Chatro, a member of Sahil’s troupe who dreams of being a “mind-shattering” thespian.
Chatro’s encounters with Balbir are among the movie’s sweetest scenes, and work more effectively than the stilted interactions between Sweety and Sahil. Abhishek Duhan makes the best of the unlikable Babloo. His reactions to his sister’s plight are discomfiting but also the most consistent and believable in a movie that is part rom and part com and never comfortable in either zone.