Hitesh Kewalya On Making Amitabh Bachchan A Queer Icon And Why No One In Shubh Mangal Zyada Saavdhan Has A Happy Love Life

Hitesh Kewalya On Making Amitabh Bachchan A Queer Icon And Why No One In Shubh Mangal Zyada Saavdhan Has A Happy Love Life

Films can’t change people, all they can do is become conversation starters, says the writer-director

Writer-director Hitesh Kewalya knows his new film isn't for everyone. Shubh Mangal Zyada Saavdhan, which released this Friday, sees Jitendra Kumar play Aman, a man who must come out to his family after he is caught kissing his partner Karthik (Ayushmann Khurrana). Mayhem ensues. Kewalya, who made his directorial debut with the film, says he spent more than a year writing it because he wanted to get it right. "We chose a treatment that was more satirical, self-reflective and farcical. Some people have not liked the tone of the film and I don't want to justify it to them because that defeats the point of making a film. I'd rather make a dissertation then," he says. He, however, spoke about whether the film was easier to write than its predecessor about erectile dysfunction, reimagining DDLJ for a gay love story and what the kaali gobhi symbolism really meant:

You've spoken about the farcical approach – what made you decide that was the best one? Did you ever think about going the more serious route?

Everyone has a certain voice and a certain way. We can't change that. Other people might not like it. Some might find it too shrill. But that voice is mine and I need to own it. The biggest point that the film makes is that comedy is a serious business. Why should we consider anything that is emotional to be serious and anything that is comedy to not be serious? That's the biggest disservice we do to the genre of comedy. Charlie Chaplin was not just making comedy films, he was making a point. When he was dressed as a tramp, fighting for a piece of bread, it was made so people could laugh at it but also see someone making a fool of himself for a mere piece of bread. I think we need to take comedy seriously. There's a thin line between comedy and tragedy and when you stretch comedy to its peak, it disappears. I could've made the same point with tragedy, but I chose comedy. I don't think my film is insensitive or that if I had used tragedy, it would've made a better point. I've used sarcasm to make a point. Like when the parents say: Supreme Court humko bataega kya karna hai? That's a self-reflective question. Do we need a Supreme Court to tell us how to think? Have we stopped thinking for ourselves? Satire is the best way to question ourselves. The idea of this comedy is to laugh at ourselves and then realize we're doing that.

I didn't want a tragic ending, I wanted a happy ending because characters from the LGBTQ universe have always been portrayed in tragic circumstances and I didn't want to do that. I wanted people to feel happy about it. Only when you feel happy about the characters that you see onscreen do you create heroes and moments worth remembering and you take them back with you. 

It might be class differences, caste differences, economic differences: love has always had to fight a battle to exist. In this age, sexuality just becomes another battleground

True, but let's talk about the scene in which Karthik is being hit by Aman's father. People being attacked for their sexuality is a serious matter but the scene plays out for laughs. 

We are not normalizing violence. It's already happened in our society. I get enough WhatsApp videos where women are being dragged by their hair for doing something. The media we consume has normalized violence. By shooting it in a certain way, in slow-motion, what I'm doing is stretching time and making you think about it. A person is being hit for his sexuality and you're laughing at that? But somewhere in that laughter – because time is stretched – you're thinking about it. You'll ask yourself: Am I supposed to laugh? I wanted to give the audience that confused space so that they could think about it. If I wanted to glorify violence, I wouldn't have. Life Is Beautiful doesn't glorify war. It keeps you smiling and happy, that doesn't mean it's not sensitive enough. It's giving you different perspectives so you think about the other ones. Jojo Rabbit doesn't normalize war or what Hitler did. These films are prime examples of making you think about what ideology does to you. 

The idea of this film was not to change anyone. Films can't change people. All they can do is become conversation starters and we've done that. 

Was it easier or more freeing to write this film, in which you have a character straight up telling his uncle he's gay, compared to Shubh Mangal Saavdhan, in which you have to come up with metaphors like the limp biscuit to talk about erectile dysfunction?

Society might not talk about erectile dysfunction, but they accept it. Here, we don't look at homosexuality. We ignore it, put on our blinkers. We're not ready to believe it exists and that it's not our problem. It was a different problem and so required a different approach. We wanted the audience to not just look at it, but cheer for it. We wanted them to feel for the characters as people, not as part of a marginalized group. This film is a celebration of the human spirit. We're all different and sexuality is just one of the ways in which we are. So let's not put sexuality on a pedestal. 

Is that why nobody in this universe has a happy love life? Aman's parents are haunted by their past loves, Bhumi Pednekar's character has to run away to be with the guy she loves but she says even her first love didn't work out. Goggle (Maanvi Gagroo) has trouble finding guys who accept her as she is.

I definitely wanted to draw attention to the fact that love has always had to fight for its existence. In our parents' age, the whole fight was love marriage vs arranged marriage. It might be class differences, caste differences, economic differences: love has always had to fight a battle to exist. In this age, sexuality just becomes another battleground. It would've been something else 10-15 years ago, a 100 years ago, 200 years ago. I wanted to show all kinds of love and the different battles associated with them. For Goggle, it's her physicality. For Devika (Bhumi Pednekar) maybe her father is just not agreeing to her relationship – we don't go into it. For Aman's parents, it's the arranged vs love marriage story. That's the parallel for every character. 

Let's talk about reimagining DDLJ for a gay love story. Even the Amitabh Bachchan references felt inspired – where did they come from?

Homosexuality has existed forever. It's just that we've never looked at it. Now that we're looking at it, let's look back, let's look at all the icons in popular culture and appropriate them for the queer universe. Amitabh Bachchan ascended as the Angry Young Man for the youth and there would have been a queer group who would've looked at him as a queer icon. I wanted to look at these icons in a new light. We all look for heroes to emulate. So there was that aspect too. I wanted to appropriate Bachchan's heroism for the LGBTQ universe. It also makes sense for my parents' generation – they wouldn't understand a new-age hero as well as they understand Bachchan. 

DDLJ is the quintessential love story we all swear by. I wanted to show that the struggle is the same, it's just the characters who have changed. It provided me with the template of a romantic film that I wanted to appropriate. 

There's no villain in the film, there's just an antagonist because we're just people. Shankar Tripathi loves his son and his protectiveness is more out of a fear of society than his own fear

Tell me about the scene in which Aman's father catches them in the train. It comes early in the film, there's a shock element and a great interplay of light and shadow.

It was about a sudden revelation, as far as sexuality is concerned, to one's father. So it needed that treatment. When it goes from light to dark, you're going into the psyche of the characters. You're looking at the father's deepest fears and biases. When it comes back to these two, you're looking at their deepest fears. It comes out of the tunnel, there's light and that signifies a new equilibrium in the story. You're looking at things in a new light now. Setting this inside a train was important because the train is a microcosm of our society. Their whole family is there going for a marriage, which is another important aspect of our lives. Within the chaotic, noisy society that we live in, we go into a tunnel and the father sees his son kissing another boy. So within the chaos, there might be another universe we might not be aware of. The best thing this film could've done is put homosexuality in a romantic space in front of the audience which is largely homophobic.

How did the symbolism of the kaali gobhi come about?

Even before Shubh Mangal Saavdhan, the first one, was shot, I was writing a five-page synopsis of this film. I wanted to create a father who was realistic in terms of his approach to life. What better than science? Science and nature have always coexisted. Some people, in recent times, have come to see science as above nature. They think science can solve nature's mistakes – things only they consider mistakes. That's where the idea of the genetically modified kaali gobhi came from. Shankar Tripathi (Gajraj Rao) proudly proclaims that it has no worms. He's trying to one-up nature through science. His philosophy comes undone in the climax. His creation also has a part of nature – the worms – and so he crumbles. It's like the biscuit scene in the first film, for me the kaali gobhi is the central metaphor of this film. Him setting the gobhis on fire is when his philosophy comes to an end and his acceptance begins. He realizes that while he can't understand nature, he must learn to accept it. There's no villain in the film, there's just an antagonist because we're just people. We have our good points and our negative points. Shankar loves his son and his protectiveness is more out of a fear of society than his own fear. They're not bad people, it's just conditioning that has made them this way. 

This is a farcical take on homophobia. It's a difficult subject and to present it to the audience and to expect them to buy a ticket to this was not an easy ride

I thought the bit where Aman talks about his feelings in scientific terms was a great way to approach older audiences who might dismiss emotions but listen to science. Was that what you were thinking?

Exactly. We always talk about love in a poetic form. But there's a physiological reaction that happens when we  fall in love or are attracted to someone. I wanted to get to the basics. Shankar Tripathi is a scientist so he'd understand that. At the same time, his and his wife's love stories also come out into the open in that scene. That points to the fact that they too were young at some point, they too got love. They weren't bereft of feeling. Hormones are not gender-specific, apart from estrogen and testosterone. And anyone on the spectrum of sexuality has both. Oxytocin is gender-neutral, it's in all of us. I wanted this gender-neutral way to talk about love. 

The scene in which Shankar holds a renaming ceremony for his son – was that something you'd seen or heard about in real life? 

I'd read numerous accounts on the psychology of people who have gay children. There were lots of accounts of parents giving up on their child, to the point of considering them dead. They'd stopped talking to their child. They'd also stopped talking about their child once they'd come out. It's as if they'd wiped the memory of their child from their mind because they didn't want to deal with their orientation. I wanted a physical manifestation of that. This is a farcical take on homophobia and we were trying to get at that in this way. It's a difficult subject and to present it to the audience and to expect them to buy a ticket to this was not an easy ride. I've had to think a lot, read a lot and put examples in a way that people laugh at themselves. It's an uncomfortable mirror to society but it's still a celebration.