It’s been a glorious week for the gays. 21 years after Queer As Folk, a cornerstone in the Queer cultural imagination, first aired, Shubh Mangal Zyada Saavdhan (SMZS) air-dropped into Indian theaters.
The iconography is here to stay. There’s a man (a delicious Ayushmann Khurrana) with a metal nose ring. A triangle tattooed under his ear calls to mind the Pink triangle used in Nazi concentration camps to identify and persecute homosexuals. (It was later revived as a symbol of Pride; BomGay, India’s first gay film used it as iconography in its title credits). He wears the LGBTQ flag as a cape, a symbol of hero-hood and excessive pride, while proclaiming that parental opposition to consensual same-sex love is a disease.
And then, to have homophobe-enthusiast Trump tweet in favour of the film prior to his visit to India made the film that much more visible in the cultural discourse.
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) February 21, 2020
SMZS is the story of Khurrana and Jeetu, but it isn’t about their love as much as it is about getting Jeetu’s parents, upper middle class small-town age-olds, to accept his sexuality, his love, and lover.
What the film does, to its immense credit, is to take mainstream iconic heterosexual imagery and queer it. The 70s dosti-yaari films are given a new twist. When Khurrana and Jitu do the saat-phere, they sing Yeh Dosti Hum Nahin Todenge initially pictured around Amitabh and Dharmendra’s bro-hood in Sholay (1975). (Madhavi Menon, a queer theorist who was recently on Amit Varma’s podcast talking about the History of Desire in India, spoke about films like Anand (1971) depicting gay desire despite the hero ending up with a woman in the end: “For 2 hours and 58 minutes two men are staring deep into each other’s eyes, and for two minutes at the end you have the man the woman together, how does one outweigh the other?”)
Even the obvious nods to Dilwale Dulhaniya Le Jaayenge (1995), with the trains and the initially indignant father finally telling his child to “Jee le apni zindagi” and the remixing of ‘Yaar Bina Chain Kahaa Re’ to unisex visuals is sheer joy. But what beyond that?
This film, much like Ek Ladki Ko Dekha Toh Aisa Laga, is satisfied with merely subverting heterosexual tropes of the previous millenium, preferring to focus on parental acceptance of homosexual love as opposed to the love itself.
It has taken decades for Hindi cinema to finally make peace with (heterosexual) lust. Beginning with the 70s (heterosexual) romantic sub-plots, to the 90s embrace of (heterosexual) love as a genre, and finally our contemporary comfort with ideas of (heterosexual) infidelity and love, it has taken a while for the medium to truly reflect the life of a (heterosexual) lover. There is a worry that with homosexual love stories, we will go through the rigmarole again, waiting for at least a decade to get a nuanced, commercial take on homosexual desire- love and lust, marriage or otherwise. (Homosexuality is perhaps made palatable by having Khurrana and Jeetu love only each other; no waywardness, no promiscuity).
This film, much like Ek Ladki Ko Dekha Toh Aisa Laga, is satisfied with merely subverting heterosexual tropes of the previous millenium, preferring to focus on parental acceptance of homosexual love as opposed to the love itself. While Ek Ladki didn’t do well commercially, we were perhaps waiting for a box-office success of palatable homosexuality to move forward; baby steps towards nuance, and humour that isn’t a crutch but a companion.
In SMZS, background music cues you to laugh. At one point Gajraj Rao, Jeetu’s father, tells him of his sexuality, “Yeh galat baat hai”, and walks off to the background score approximating laughter. People in the theater chuckled, but I wondered if the laughter-score was really necessary here? Is humour the only way to make homosexuality a commercially viable vehicle?
I look to Sridevi, whose second death anniversary we mourn today, and whose spirit we celebrate. She embraced the Queer a long time ago, cross-dressing in the 80s to modern day monologues about acceptance (English Vinglish). The humour ran as an undercurrent, subverting the zeitgeist, always in tandem with the progressive. There was an effortlessness that came with this representation.
It’s not dissimilar to the way masculinity is dealt with in Yeh Ballet which dropped on the small screen, on Netflix, the same day SMZS took to the big screen. It is the true story of two dancers who springboard from poverty to the glories of ballet from a seedy dance studio in Mumbai to across the Atlantic. In the film there was no mention of sexuality or gender vis-a-vis ballet. It was only vis-a-vis dance broadly as an art form. (The parents disapprove not because it is ballet, conventionally considered feminine, but because it is dance, an uneconomical act that goes against religion).
The point is made effectively, one is not less a man or more so for pursuing a dance form known for its quietude and elegance, its swift swan-like gestures at odds with the gruff toxicity of the city and its masculine expectations. You walk away from the film not thinking actively about the sexuality and gender expression of the protagonists, but merely their story- their hopes, ambitions, insecurities.
In SMZS we barely get any information on the leads characters except for their sexuality. The film begins and ends with it; there’s no space to know more in between. Do you not want to know how Jeetu’s character first overcame the cloud of internalized homophobia, coming out to himself? Do you not want to know about how they met? Where they live? How they cook? How they fight? Do you not want to know the circumstances that led to that first kiss they shared in an Ola?
Or are we just happy with that big-kiss in the train, passion and tongues untethered; good looking gay men doing what good looking gay men do in love?