Shelly Chopra Dhar
As a breakthrough Bollywood masala film centered on a same sex relationship, Shelly Chopra Dhar’s directorial debut Ek Ladki Ko Dekha Toh Aisa Laga, which opened in theaters last week and has been hailed as “the most unexpected romance of the year,” is a landmark romcom of a different sort. But its stellar cast, setting, script and music makes it of far greater cultural significance and audience appeal than its bold subject matter alone.
“People live with these paradigms that anything wrong in India comes from the West,” says Dhar, in New York to promote her film. “They are boxes people live in, like ‘You get raped if you wear a short skirt.’ ‘You will become homosexual if you’re exposed to the West.’ It’s just traditional nonsense—boxes that people live in.”
So it was important, Dhar continues, that Ek Ladki Ko Dekha Toh Aisa Laga—which translates as “How I Felt When I Saw That Girl”—was “not set up in a big city,” with most of the story taking place in a relatively small Punjabi town.
“I did not want to have any crutches to support the characters,” she says, explaining why she sought a locale where people’s traditional lifestyles would not be impacted by a liberal big-city climate more prone to tolerance. She co-wrote the story and script with Gazal Dhaliwal, a trans woman, over a seven-year period.
“I was inspired by the P.G. Wodehouse novel A Damsel in Distress,” notes Dhar. “I loved the twists and turns and the storytelling, and called Gazal and she came to America and we hashed out the details.”
Dhar went to film school in Michigan, where she lives with her husband--who works in cutting-edge battery technology for the auto industry. Her brother is the award-winning director-screenwriter-producer Vidhu Vinod Chopra, who produced Ek Ladki Ko Dekha Toh Aisa Laga and for whom (and others) she worked on numerous films before helming her own.
“There is an opportunity cost for everything,” she says, noting that before turning her focus to cinema she raised four children. When she was satisfied with the treatment for what would become her first film as director, she took it to her brother.
“I went back to India with the completed shooting script and was lucky that Vinod liked it and greenlighted it almost immediately,” says Dhar. “The biggest hurdle was crossed—the rest was hard work. But I ended up with a dream cast: Anil Kapoor, a major star for 40 years, and his daughter Sonam Kapoor, who’s been acting for more than 10—but they never worked together before and play the father and daughter. They both chose to come in as individual actors because they both liked their parts.”
Acclaimed young actor Rajkummar Rao plays the male lead—a young screenwriter/director who falls in love with Sonam Kapoor’s Sweety, who has had to hide her lesbian love from her traditionally conservative family. Veteran Bollywood star Juhi Chawla, whose credits include several films as Anil Kapoor’s love interest, works with Rao’s character while once again attracting Kapoor’s.
The one ominous character is Sweety’s brother (played by Abdul Quadir Amin), who knows her secret and threatens to reveal it in order to sustain the family’s traditional values.
“We auditioned for the brother like crazy!” says Dhar. “That role was very important for me: He’s the so-called antagonist, but not a villain: He’s generally a good guy--a brother who loves his sister and doesn’t know how to deal with the situation. So he’s in a box himself--which is like how it is in India. We grow up believing in the world around us. It’s not his fault he is who he is.”
Anil Kapoor’s father character, who shows a hidden desire for cooking that parallels his daughter’s secret love, actually borrowed from Dhar’s husband’s passion for cooking—especially the funny tomato-slicing scenes.
“He plays a cameo as the television chef!” reveals Dhar. “But the whole cast—to their credit—wanted to be part of it and were equally passionate and said it was pioneering and historical and they all jumped aboard.”
Music is always a major part of mainstream Indian cinema, and the music in Ek Ladki Ko Dekha Toh Aisa Laga is particularly well-integrated into the storytelling, organically setting an emotional tone throughout.
“I did my bachelor's degree in music in India, so I’m very involved in music,” says Dhar, crediting her film’s young music director Rochak Kohli and background music composers Sanjay Wandrekar and Atul Raninga for striking “the right notes,” especially for the flashback scenes of Sweety as a little girl. As for the songs (written by Kohli with lyrics by Gurpreet Saini), she agrees that the spirited “Good Morning” exuberantly concludes the film.
“We spent a lot of time on the music,” she says, noting, too, that a great Punjabi visual artist was on the set full-time to draw the young Sweety’s diary illustrations.
“We wanted everything to look real and organic,” says Dhar, who is not at all surprised by the positive critical and audience reception to Ek Ladki Ko Dekha Toh Aisa Laga.
“I’m not surprised, but if you start worrying about that you’re not doing justice to your project, which you have to do with passion and without worry. That’s the only way you get what you want: The moment you start catering to other people, you lose your own track because you’re always assuming what others want, when in your own mind you know what you want. I always say, ‘If nobody else likes your work, at least you do.’”
Admitting that she’s “not a social media savvy person,” Dhar says that she nevertheless has seen enough posts to know that her movie, whose tagline is “Let love be” and deals with a subject that she feels has been badly handled by Bollywood, has already touched lives.
“People are coming out because of it, mothers are hugging their children, and one girl in the U.K. said she hasn’t talked to her mother in five years,” she says. “Hopefully this will change.”
But Dhar, who now looks forward to “taking time to decompress” from the long Ek Ladki Ko Dekha Toh Aisa Laga creation before undertaking another, understands that “at the end of the day, it has to be an entertaining film.”
“We’re talking about deep subjects,” she says, “but it still has to be a fun film to watch.”