Ek Paheli Leela aspires to a level of storytelling that simply isn’t possible given the constraints under which the movie was made. This is a film built to sell a soundtrack, not the other way around.
The need to prominently feature nine songs creates problems with the narrative flow right from the start. The story opens with a mean guy named Vikram (Jas Arora) searching for a valuable statue. Then opening credits roll and the first song montage starts, set to footage of a musician named Karan (Jay Bhanushali) and his buddies decorating his new apartment.
Karan has a vivid nightmare of one man whipping another sometime in the distant past. But that thread is dropped in favor of another musical number, a sexy dance scene featuring Meera (Sunny Leone), a model working in London.
There’s little connective tissue holding the plot lines together. Karan continues to have bad dreams, and Meera gets tricked into traveling to India for a photo shoot where she falls in love with a Rajasthani prince (played by Mohit Ahlawat). Vikram is absent for a full seventy-five minutes of the film.
In fact, it’s not until nearly an hour has passed that it becomes clear what the plot actually is. A holy man explains Karan’s dreams: “You are part of a 300-year-old incomplete story. You have been bestowed this life to complete it.” It takes another forty-five minutes for Karan and Meera to meet, leaving less than thirty minutes to wrap up the reincarnation story line.
Leone is the biggest star in the cast playing the title character — Meera’s ancient doppelgänger, Leela — but she’s just window dressing. The narrative positions Karan as the lead character, even though he undergoes no character growth and isn’t in most of the movie.
Ek Paheli Leela is marketed as a Sunny Leone film, so why isn’t Meera the one to uncover her link to the past? Leone is the only actor to appear in both the present and past storylines, yet her character doesn’t actively participate in solving the mystery. She’s there to writhe around in song numbers and love scenes, but she doesn’t get to be the hero.
Despite Leone being relatively new to Bollywood and the Hindi language, her acting isn’t the problem (at least not entirely). Many of the performers are guilty of awkward dialogue cadences and stilted mannerisms. The comic relief characters — gay stereotype Andy (played by Andy) and weird servant Maan Singh (Ehsaan Qureshi) — are unbearable.
Writer-director Bobby Khan also runs into trouble when altering facts about mental illness to suit his narrative. Meera suffers from claustrophobia and panic attacks, both of which are described as potentially fatal, even though they are absolutely not. It spreads an inaccurate message about anxiety disorders, which are already widely misunderstood.
The ending unfolds in an unexpected and mildly interesting way, but it doesn’t feel earned. The plot threads simply take too long to weave together around the plethora of soundtrack singles, and the metaphysical rules at play don’t make a whole lot of sense. Having the characters remark how weird it is that only Meera looks the same as her past avatar is a wink at the audience, not a real explanation.