Same-sex love, the subject of below-the-radar productions and the object of derision in mainstream cinema, gets the full-canvas treatment in Shubh Mangal Zyada Saavdhan. Written and directed by Hitesh Kewalya, this rumbustious comedy pushes for accepting the idea that a man can love another and live happily ever after.
Filled with subversions both major and minor, the Aanand L Rai production is packed with superbly sketched characters and spot-on performances. It uses a light touch to launch a heavy attack on homophobia, general intolerance and repressive tendencies, and the very foundation of the conventional Indian family.
Shubh Mangal Zyada Saavdhan plays out exactly like the average romcom. Weddings allow for the criss-crossing of characters, there are dance numbers and sad songs about separation, elders line up to spit out their outrage, and moist-eyed speeches underline the triumph of true love over everything else. The 120-minute movie is set in a middle-class, upper-caste clan in Allahabad, led by the scientist Shankar Tripathi (Gajraj Rao), who has grown the world’s first (and probably last) black cauliflower. The genial, mild-mannered Shankar has challenged the rules of horticulture, but he fails to understand his son’s true nature.
When Shankar sees Kartik and Aman snogging ahead of his niece’s wedding, he is shocked, repulsed and angered, in that order. Aman’s mother, the sharp-tongued Sunanina (Neena Gupta), is horrified too, especially since Aman is scheduled to marry Kusum (Pankhuri Awasthy).
“I am worth it and you know it,” Kartik reminds Aman, but Aman lacks the courage to be an outright rebel and dithers between fight and flight. Meanwhile, the revelation causes ripples within Aman’s extended family, which includes Shankar’s brother Chaman (Manu Rishi Chadha) and Chaman’s daughter Goggle (Maanvi Gagroo).
It’s not exactly subtle, and it isn’t meant to be. Kewalya sets his story days before the decriminalisation of Section 377 by the Supreme Court in 2018, and the movie has been made with the retrospective knowledge that you cannot throw the law book at members of the LGBT community anymore. Prosecution is no longer possible, but persecution definitely is. However, the violence and ruptures that often accompany the revelation of homosexuality are largely absent. The family is shocked but reasonable in its own crackpot way, so Kartik largely escapes the horrors of homophobia.
One of Kewalya’s targets is the very set-up of the Hindi film romance, which has nearly always been about men and women. For every situation, Kartik presents a queer alternative. That scene in the romantic gold-standard movie, the one in which the woman runs towards her man as a train slowly takes him away? That song, in which lovers jive in the middle of a deserted Mumbai street? The nursery rhyme Jack and Jill? The movie even claims Amitabh Bachchan as a queer icon.
There are less visible faultlines too – between vegetarianism and meat-eating, love and arranged marriage, hollow ritualism and a pragmatic interpretation of the scriptures, and familial duty and individual choice. Kartik’s insurrection reminds some characters of the lives they were too cowardly to lead. Even before Aman is outed, a general air of restiveness and latent rebellion hangs over the family, and Kartik is merely the spark.
The screwball premise is smoothly orchestrated by Kewalya and delivered absolutely straight, without campiness or inhibition. Ayushmann Khurrana and Jitendra Kumar have easy chemistry and believable frisson, and they are completely in sync as lovers who want nothing more than to be left alone to kiss, squabble and make up. Neena Gupta is excellent as Aman’s mother, who always has a thing or two to say about the world, and Manu Rishi Chadha shines as Shankar’s put-upon brother, who is only beginning to realise that patriarchy works out badly for men too. Gajraj Rao is immensely skilled at comedy, but Shankar is too genial and reasonable to be elevated to villain status.
That job is left to Kusum, who is to marry Aman, and who turns out to be a self-serving flake. The movie scores many points in favour of broad-mindedness, and Kusum’s shallow characterisation is another battle, for another day and another movie.
Among the sources of inspiration that led to Shubh Mangal Zyada Saavdhan are Deepa Mehta’s Fire (1996) and Tarun Mansukhani’s Dostana (2008), produced by Karan Johar. Dostana, in which two straight men pretend to be lovers in order to share an apartment with the woman both of them are pursuing, was credited with bringing homosexuality into the mainstream. But it got some flak for relying on gay stereotyping to make its point. In a surely unintended irony, Shubh Mangal Zyada Saavdhan has been released on the same day as Johar’s horror production Bhoot: The Haunted Ship.
One filmmaker lit the fuse, another stoked the embers in his own clumsy way, and a third has created a bonfire out of the lack of entertaining queer romances in the mainstream. Despite its drawbacks, which include a tendency to let scenes run on for too long and a belief that a good joke will fix the world, Kewalya’s message of love without caution lands as firmly as a kiss on the lips.