'How I Felt When I Saw That Girl' ('Ek Ladki Ko Dekha Toh Aisa Laga'): Film Review

How I Felt When I Saw That Girl 1 - Publicity - H 2019
Courtesy of HKLGFF
Old-fashioned and simplistic, but also groundbreaking and entertaining.

Indian superstars Anil Kapoor, Sonam Ahuja and Juhi Chawla headline Shelly Chopra Dhar’s first Bollywood LGBTQ dramedy.

There’s no better place to find love than at a wedding (or so goes the myth) and a conflicted Punjabi clothing manufacturer’s daughter does just that — only it’s with a girl in writer-director Shelly Chopra Dhar’s How I Felt When I Saw That Girl.

That’s the daring kernel of mainstream Bollywood’s first LGBTQ romance, a pleasantly frothy coming-out, coming-of-age and coming-to-grips romantic drama. Released in the wake of the Indian Supreme Court's 2018 decision decriminalizing homosexuality in the largely conservative country, the film also has the considerable star power of Anil Kapoor, Juhi Chawla and Rajkummar Rao to help deliver the message.

Aside from a sure spot on Netflix, How I Felt should continue to gain traction and linger in LGBTQ festival lineups (it opened the Hong Kong Lesbian & Gay Film Festival this month) and perhaps even find space with overseas Bollywood distributors for whom the pic has flown under the radar.

The film begins with Sweety Chaudhary (Kapoor’s daughter, Sonam Ahuja, of Neerja) attending a boisterous and musical wedding in the small northern town of Moga and dodging her family’s pestering questions about when she’s going to get married (behold, a universal constant). She meets Kuhu (Tamil star Regina Cassandra in her Hindi debut), who initially tries to introduce Sweety to her brother, but something obviously clicks between the two (ridiculously luminous) women.

The story then jumps a year or so, and we meet struggling playwright Sahil Mirza (Omerta’s Rao), in Delhi, finishing up his latest stage drama, even as his famous film producer father repeatedly tells him he’s bad at it and should just write his next movie. During a rehearsal, Sweety slips into the theater, and it’s love at first sight for Sahil. His affection is cemented when he helps her slip away from a seemingly dangerous suitor. Bollywood contrivance sees Sahil arrested with the other man — who turns out to be Sweety’s brother Babloo (Abhishek Duhan) — which provides the opportunity for him to find out how to reconnect with the mysterious woman in Moga.

From here it’s romantic comedy as usual, with Dhar and co-writer Gazal Dhaliwal peppering the story with the requisite assortment of misunderstandings and "zany" supporting characters: Babloo lets the family believe Sweety’s secret is that she's dating a Muslim; Sweety’s adoring father, Balbir (Kapoor, Slumdog Millionaire, Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol), harbors dreams of being a chef; Sahil’s assistant, aspiring actress Chatro (industry vet Juhi Chawla, Darr) also happens to be a stellar cook; and Chaudhary domestic staff Billauri and Chaubey (Seema Pahwa and Brijendra Kala) are regular punters on Sweety’s marriage prospects.

Dhar, making her directorial debut, reels in the sensational in favor of mass appeal, and on the curve of the fight for equal rights it’s the wise choice; How I Felt is unapologetic in its messaging. Sweety and Kuhu — when we finally see them together — keep things chaste and largely nonconfrontational, all the better for screenings in the Indian equivalent of Peoria. The sunny, colorful images and frequent musical passages make the mainstream vibe clear, and the pic is practically defiant in its happy ending. That’s right. No LGBTQ people die.

The attention How I Felt When I Saw That Girl’s star power draws is a positive; it also loads the movie with charming, engaging performances by fan favorites that make it hard not to root for these characters — even Sahil at his most selfish. Sweety and Kuhu are never treated any less than seriously, and in drawing parallels with other characters' struggles for recognition, or inability to realize ambitions or live authentically, Dhar normalizes Sweety and Kuhu's relationship.

Which is not to say the film is perfect. Sweety and Kuhu get their happy ending, and everyone emerges as better, more tolerant people, but the women’s fate is fundamentally the result of a straight-guy savior; it’s Sahil who hatches a plan to “free” the couple. It’s a minor quibble in the grand scheme, and a generous reading could be that their personal triumph comes as a joyful side effect of Sahil’s artistic success. Sweety could have done with a bit more agency, but fortunately Kuhu is there to supply a progressive counterpoint (few roll their eyes with disdain like Cassandra).

Technical specs are unsurprisingly strong, if not particularly innovative (they don’t have to be), and, of course, Rochak Kohli’s music, especially the vaguely countrified "Good Morning," adds suitably toe-tapping and/or ear-wormy accompaniment.

Production companies: Vinod Chopra Films, Fox Star
Cast: Anil Kapoor, Sonam Ahuja, Rajkummar Rao, Juhi Chawla, Abhishek Duhan, Regina Cassandra, Madhumalti Kapoor, Seema, Pahwa, Brijendra Kala, Alka Kaushal
Director: Shelly Chopra Dhar
Screenwriters: Gazal Dhaliwal, Shelly Chopra Dhar
Producer: Vidhu Vinod Chopra
Executive producer: Lawrence D’Souza
Director of photography: Himman Dhamjia
Production designer: Rajat Poddar
Costume designer:
Sheetal Sharma
Editor: Ashish Suryavanshi
Music: Rochak Kohli
Casting: Jogi
World sales:
Vinod Chopra Films

In Hindi and English