Biji, aging matriarch of the Chaudhary family of Moga, Punjab, declares, “a man enters the kitchen for one reason, to change the gas cylinder.” Her son, Balbir grew up wanting to become a chef, but was prodded oust of his culinary interests by his dominating mother, who still raises hell if she finds him sneaking around the stove.
It’s a nice (if unsubtle) touch about how gender norms are transferred within family, and how patriarchy operates across age and gender. Director Shelly Chopra Dhar tosses together some decent ingredients and a meaty subject for her debut film; expectedly though for a first-timer, it’s her cooking that needs to be better.
The unwieldy title pays tribute to the hit song in the Anil Kapoor’s 1942: A Love Story, directed by Vidhu Vinod Chopra, the producer of ELKDTAL, and Shelly is his sister. Anil, who played the rebellious lover in the older film, wears white whiskers and becomes the conflicted father in this one, while his own daughter Sonam steps into his place.
So far the ‘meta-ness’ seems warranted: a real-life father-daughter duo advocating for an urgent cause (thus inspiring those in the audience); and a nice reworking of a classic Hindi film lyric.
In fact, for a good moment, it seems like this film — about a closeted lesbian girl coming out to her conservative family — is (in quiet but resolute ways) trying to upend some deep-held conventions about mainstream filmmaking, taking us on a colourful ride but also pulling the rug when the time comes.
Sadly though, ELKDTAL falls back upon some grossly worn-out tricks and stock resolutions. Its unimaginative story-within-a-story structure falls apart really quick, revealing a screenplay that confuses cheekiness with true subversion, and a narrative that simply circles the subject of prejudice instead of straight-out confronting it.
Rajkummar Rao plays Sahil Mirza, a playwright and theatre director looking for inspiration for his insipidly-written plays, who falls in love with the shy but bewitching Sweety Chaudhary (Sonam Kapoor). The film takes an agonising amount of time to get to the point, though the actors are convincing in their parts. Sonam holds her own even in certain scenes that might seem beyond her skill.
The intelligent casting helps here, though there are times she adds a needless and emphatic lilt to her lines. Anil Kapoor’s presence in the film is warm and likable, but he fails to work up any dramatic tension as the disapproving dad — they all melt in the end, don’t they? What is a Hindi film if not suffixed by an elderly man ‘forgiving’ — or better word, ‘understanding’ — his errant kids?
The hush-hush handling doled out to homosexuality in this film is bound to do more damage than good. Here’s a story that is more concerned about the squeamishness of the Indian viewer than the emotional journey of its characters. Too many caveats are offered, needlessly and with the aid of music, like a Sooraj Barjatiya classic painted over with a rainbow. The condescension hurts. We’ve had enough movies aiming for the heart — about time we make them for the mind?
Film: Ek Ladki Ko Dekha Toh Aisa Laga
Director: Shelly Chopra Dhar
Cast: Anil Kapoor, Sonam Kapoor, Rajkummar Rao