Bollywood, with its penchant for cheap thrills, has always projected gay men as comic, sadly fringe people whose sole function in a movie is to induce laughter at their expense. And so, as recently as the turn of the century, we got movies like Kal Ho Na Ho, where Saif Ali Khan pretends to be in love with Shahrukh to torment his homophobic maid, Kantaben (seeing the two in bed together, throws her into a traumatized state of comic shock).
Fast forward 15 years to 2018 and India seems to have made spectacular progress towards a humane and liberal view of same-sex relationships. In September of that year, the Indian Supreme Court ruled that same-sex couples deserved the same legitimacy and respect that heterosexuals are afforded under the law.
The Supreme Court ruling can’t apply to hearts and minds, however, and the roots of homophobia still run very deep in India. Ancient prejudice can’t be obliterated as easily by a legal dictum.
Shubh Mangal Zyada Savdhaan is a movie that takes on this final frontier of Indian bigotry – homophobia. casteism, classism, sexism, racism, ageism, bureaucratism, and nepotism have all been tackled in the past few years by Bollywood’s profitable ‘conscience cottage industry’ of showcasing ‘human rights.’ Homosexuality is the one topic mainstream cinema tiptoed around before director Hitesh Kewalya wrote the script for Shubh Mangal Zyada Savdhaan, and Ayushman Khurana and Jitender Kumar had the guts to play the roles of the first ‘we’re just the regular guys next door’ gay couple in Indian cinema.
This movie’s significance lies in the fact that it emphasizes the sheer ordinariness of being gay. It’s a depiction of what it means to be a homosexual, not in any chic, metropolitan, big city sense – where there is a worshipful cult around prominent gay men (think Rohit Bal, Karan Johar, Manish Malhotra) – but specifically, in a small town like Allahabad, in India’s heartland.
It’s about two regular guys who also just happen to be gay, and who go public with their sexuality in a home-spun community that vilifies such relationships. All this is woven around some gut splitting comedy, which moves from the hilarity of dysfunctional small- town family bickering (another recently popular Bollywood money spinner), to satirical spoofs on those who are homophobic, like venerable parents.
I loved some of the initial scenes in the movie, especially the ‘Shaadi Express’ where members of a clan of Tripathis from Allahbad are running to catch a train all decked out in marigold garlands. They are heading to a cousin’s (Goggle’s) wedding to an elderly divorcee, the best she can get with one eye blinded and deformed by an accident.
The doted-on son of this cozy, joint-family clan is Aman (Jitendra Kumar), a closet homosexual. Karthik (Ayushmaan Khurana), Aman’s love interest, is an irrepressible, fearless proponent of gay rights. He’s deeply in love with Aman and convinces him to let him (Karthik) join the Shaadi Express as Aman’s guest. Disaster strikes when Aman’s father Shankar Tripathi (Gajraj Rao), catches the two kissing passionately on the train.
Shankar Tripathi’s visceral reaction is to throw up. There is some great symbolism in this movie––throw up is like the imagined collective Indian reaction to a sex scene involving two men. But the admirable screenplay and direction of this movie make us feel immediately that the throw up is the father’s problem, not his son’s.
Once he is ‘outed’ to his father, the rest of the story involves a war between the protective parent (Shankar Tripathi), and the ‘corrupt’ influence (Karthik), on a much loved son. There are various side plots involving Goggle’s attempts to ‘normalize’ her unmarried state and Shankar Tripathi’s attempt to grow a ‘flawless’ cauliflower which worms would never attack. They seem to be designed to hammer home the same message—love can come in many forms and should never be criminalized. It’s all quite comic, but at times overwhelming, like an out-of-whack pinball machine.
This movie packs in so much energy, and so much funny, corny humor, that I wonder if the director was trying to make sure the movie would be a success despite its central theme—love between two men. A romance between a man and a woman would have spun out the romantic aspect, but here we get the struggle for acceptance decked out in hilarity. A somewhat gratuitous, but very funny scene, involves Karthik and Aman helping Bhumi Pedneker in a cameo role, elope with her boyfriend.
What Shubh Mangal Zyada Savdhaan does is normalize the individuals attached to the label—Karthik and Aman are just regular ‘nice’ guys looking for the same things heterosexuals look for—love, acceptance and happiness in a future together. We see them as very likeable and we empathize with their need to not feel like they are weird social outcasts. The jokes are never at the expense of gay men and are sharp jabs at the stereotypes and prejudices against homosexuals ingrained in middle class Indian society.
This movie is a riot, sometimes an overwhelming, overdramatized one, that tries too hard to amuse while educating. But it’s definitely a riot worth watching. And much of the dialogue is priceless – the Tripathi family’s desperation to get Goggle married, Karthik quips, “Shaadi na hogayi, antibiotic ka course ho gaya jo pura karna zaroori hai.”
Ayushmaan Khurana brings his usual irrepressible energy and dynamism to the role and Jitendra Kumar does a good job as a cautious, worry-laden counterfoil. Gajraj Rao as the father and Neena Gupta as Aman’s mother have the same comic energy we saw in Badhai Ho, with Neena firing rounds of snappy zingers at her harassed husband and the world in general.
One has to appreciate how Hitesh Kewalya plays with Bollywood’s memorable romantic moments and recasts them as satire, in the context of gay love. The ‘Jaa Simran Jaa, Apni Zindagi Jee Lay’ dialogue from Dilwale Dulhania Layjayengay was laugh-out loud!
It’s clear the Shubh Mangal Zyada Savdhaan team had as much fun making the movie as you will watching it.
Jyoti Minocha is an DC-based educator and writer who holds a Masters in Creative Writing from Johns Hopkins, and is working on a novel about the Partition.
Edited by Meera Kymal, contributing Editor at India Currents