Director: Hitesh Kewalya
Cast: Ayushmann Khurrana, Jitendra Kumar, Gajraj Rao, Neena Gupta, Manurishi Chadha
Ayushmann Khurrana is what I’d call a “joint-family hero”. He is the pied piper of middle-Indian cacophony, perpetually thriving on chaos and conflict and cross-connections and confrontations with the small crowd that surrounds him in every frame. Even when he isn’t chastising or being chastised in a scene, his body speaks a language, vibrating with suppressed angst and bladder-bursting energy. In short, Khurrana is most comfortable when his characters are uncomfortable. He is at his best when the circumstances are at their worst. As a result, most filmmakers cast him in the kind of roles that require plenty of human interaction and verbal jousting. And nothing spells noise like the story of a cultural misfit. Sometimes it’s his story – sperm donation (Vicky Donor), erectile dysfunction (Shubh Mangal Saavdhan), baldness (Bala). Sometimes he’s in them – middle-aged pregnancy (Badhaai Ho), physical shortcomings (Dum Laga Ke Haisha), caste discrimination (Article 15). With Shubh Mangal Zyada Saavdhan (homosexuality), it’s both: His story of being in a gay relationship, as well as him being in the story of his partner’s family awakening to the concept of same-sex love.
In that sense, this film has no single protagonist – and rightly so, because every member tends to have an equally vocal role when it comes to a “crisis” of family honour. For better or worse, the fate of Kartik (Khurrana) and Aman (Jeetu), not unlike the classic star-crossed heterosexual love stories of Hindi cinema, is everyone’s business. Their film is, for better or worse, destined to be a family film. Kartik at one point wisely opines that the older generation can’t entirely be blamed for their homophobia because Indian cinema and literature have not given them a Laila-Majnu-style reference point. If it were as simple as eloping or staying in the closet, this film might have been a full-bodied gay romance with no social message – and a solid reference point. But by choosing humour as its language and PG-13 education as its tone, Shubh Mangal Zyada Saavdhan becomes a public peck on the cheek so that the intense lip locks can follow. The couple is “exposed” a mere twenty minutes into the film; everything that follows is a head-on collision of messy issues that are usually brushed away under the sanskaari rug. I’m resisting the usage of adjectives like “brave” here, but we live in a time where the progressiveness and intent of mainstream films starring influential actors often trump the technique. So it’s only fair to acknowledge an entertaining, dignified and semi-balanced – if slightly overzealous – rom-com of commercial significance.
To its credit, the film resists the employment of a woke, modern-day gaze for the Allahabad-based tale. There’s no rage about the storytelling, but it then overcompensates with a stubbornly light-hearted treatment that pervades every moment of every scene. At times, we sense some inherently serious feuds (the resentments between father and uncle, the emotional blackmailing) creek under the weight of situational satire. This is, of course, an easier grammar to address the masses – humour is an effective tool to understand fear. But it also comes at the risk of trivializing toxic traditionalism (for instance, even physical assault and suicide threats are treated comically) and deep-rooted bigotry. This is because first-time director Hitesh Kewalya attempts to humanize the ignorance of older generations instead of demonizing and alienating them. It’s a worthy angle. The results are mixed, but the film – full of dual discussion and dialogue – still manages to do a decent job within its ambitions of accessibility.
The makers are aware that it will take nothing less than spelling out their righteousness. There is no room for subtlety. Simultaneously, there is no room for stereotypes. And so they go about treading uncharted territory, but resourcefully, under the garb of spoofy melodrama and smart characterizations. Khurrana doesn’t overdo the slight femininity, and Jeetu, the streaming-platform superstar who had also excelled in Gone Kesh, plays the more agitated Ayushmann sort of character – the gaze is on him, the family is his, and the transformations hinge on his courage. Kartik’s family is only mentioned in passing and never involved, which is just as well, because the narrative can barely handle the one family.
Note the other little touches that enable the film to be approachable: For the first ten minutes, right from their introduction to the moment they get caught kissing in a train, Kartik and Aman are in superhero costumes (for a toothpaste brand but never mind) with capes et al – a creative decision that encourages the uninitiated to view their sexuality as a superpower. The cape is a recurring symbol; Kartik dons it again, topless, during another moment of rebellion. The film begins and ends with the gay-washing of the famous DDLJ-train sequence, while the (homoerotic?) Sholay friendship anthem Yeh Dosti is sung as a defiant symbol of same-sex love…at a wedding mandap. The father, Mr. Tripathi (the excellent Gajraj Rao), is an agro scientist – a man of knowledge and wisdom – so that the film can address the Brahmanical hypocrisies of Indian (indoor) society: Not even education can prevent his prejudice. His latest invention is the black worm-free cauliflower that causes an uproar in the farming community – this gag is pushed too far, but it nevertheless contributes to our reading of his personality. The charming Neena Gupta plays the housewife and unintentionally regressive mother – her general elegance nudges the viewer to empathize with the old-school perspective. Tripathi’s brother, played by the scene-stealing Manurishi Chadha, is a henpecked lawyer – again, a profession that lets the film eventually address the legality (377) of gay coupling. Mahabharata and Ramayana references are scattered across altercations – Arjun, Shiva, Krishna, Laxman and cheer haran are invoked.
Some instances are too on-the-nose: At one point, the youngest character in the household googles the term “sexuality” so that he can read it out to the elders, and literally educate the audience. Similarly, the Jack and Jill nursery rhyme being rebranded as a Jack and Johnson rhyme is, at best, an example of juvenile writing. On the whole, however, I quite enjoyed Shubh Mangal Zyada Saavdhan. Not for its audacity or spirit, but for its simple commitment to the exercise of elevating the lowest common denominator. It panders, but just enough. It prods, but not too much. As Govinda, the inadvertent Bollywood hero of queer fashion, once said: Baby steps. Baby steps.