Spoilers ahead about ‘Shubh Mangal Zyada Saavdhaan’.
Hitesh Kewalya’s Shubh Mangal Zyada Saavdhan unfolds like the typical Indian romantic film, except that the heterosexual couple has been replaced by a pair of gay men. Ayushmann Khurrana plays Kartik, the more flamboyant of the two, while Aman (Jitendra Kumar) is the docile one who has concealed his sexuality from his family all his life.
Aman’s coming out especially bothers his father Shankar (Gajraj Rao), a scientist who has grown a new type of cauliflower. The other colourful characters include Shankar’s suppressed brother Chaman (Manu Rishi Chadha) and Chaman’s daughter Goggle (Maanvi Gagroo), who has a reason for wearing eyeshades at all times.
Shubh Mangal Zyaada Saavdhan is the directorial debut of Kewalya, who wrote Shubh Mangal Saavdhan (2017), a comedy revolving around erectile dysfunction. In an interview, Kewalya broke down character arcs and key scenes from his gay romcom and revealed the secret behind Shankar’s black cauliflower.
How do you write a mainstream entertainer about a homosexual couple?
As a heterosexual man, I will never understand what being a homosexual is like. What I understand is homophobia. As a Delhi boy, I grew up being told not to cry like a girl or show emotion and man up. My sensitive side would have to be boxed in. Such boxes that define gender lead to homophobia. We need to pluck gender out of boxes and discuss sexuality as a spectrum.
My idea was to appropriate as many popular heteronormative cultural icons I could find from our cinema and relocate them to a story about a same-sex couple. So we have Vijay-Ravi, Jai-Veeru, Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayenge, Yaar Bina Chain Kaha Re.
I wanted the film to be about the family coming out of the closet. There’s this typical idea of a Rajshri sugary-sweet family where the mama, chacha, tau, bade bhaiya are revered. Marriages are happy things and a celebration of culture. I wanted to subvert all that and show that not only sexuality, but a lot of other things are locked in our closets. Since Kartik and Aman are already out, they look normal, but the rest of the family doesn’t.
Let’s discuss some of the key scenes, starting with Shankar’s discovery of Aman and Kartik kissing in the train.
Despite the quirky and over-the-top tone of the film, its setting is very real. But I wanted this part to be a bit surreal and visual. The shocking revelation is communicated with the flashes of light on Kartik and Aman in the darkness that Shankar has been in all his life about his son’s reality.
Why is Shankar defined by his obsession with a black cauliflower?
Genetically modified crops are our ways of interfering with nature, just like people try to cure homosexuality with medical intervention, from shock treatment to testosterone injections. But that never works. Nature will always rebel. The worms are as much a part of nature as is the cauliflower.
Also, the black cauliflower was a nice and weird joke. If the audience understood the purpose of it, great, if not, then they go home with a good joke.
Moving to another scene: Shankar and Kartik fighting through a dance performance at Goggle’s wedding.
Within animals, when someone challenges the head of the pack, then the patriarch and the challenger get into a duel, while the pack gathers around in a circle and watch.
That’s how I saw the scene. With the entry of Kartik, the entire worldview of Shankar as well as the balance of patriarchy in his family get shaken. So the dance-off is like a face-off, at the end of which Kartik falls down, and it is then that Aman makes his first rebellious move ever by picking Kartik up and kissing him in front of his family. It’s a kiss of rebellion, not romance.
That said, Shankar isn’t much of a threat.
There’s no benchmark for a film like this – a mass entertainer about homosexuality. We are asking audiences to accept something they have never seen, so the stakes cannot be high beyond a point. I want them to first accept that a boy and a boy can fall in love. If I show anything more, the audience will be alienated.
So I cannot put battles inside scenes and lose the larger battle of the film itself, which is to show same-sex romance in a mainstream romcom. Yes, it is not as big or tough as a heterosexual romance, but first let’s accept this. The next filmmaker can use our film as a stepping stone and raise the stakes. We can’t jump to Brokeback Mountain directly. That’s why we had no overt romantic scenes.
Talk us through the scene in which Aman lashes out at his parents and their own skeletons come tumbling out.
This scene’s purpose was Aman explaining to his parents why and how it is okay to love a man as a man. So I imagined love as a physiological phenomenon wherein certain hormones are released when you are in love. Hormones don’t see gender.
Aman was also appealing to the thought that every senior was once young, in love, and they wanted to rebel. But Shankar and Sunaina [Aman’s mother, played by Neena Gupta] did not out of fear of tradition. They lived an incomplete life without their love. That doesn’t mean they should wish such a life for their son.
Lastly, I tried to show that love has always had to fight, be it on the basis of economic differences or religion or caste. Here, the fight is about sexuality. So all love is the same.
In the scene where Shankar and Chaman quarrel for the first time, a lot seems to tumble out.
That scene is the younger brother coming out of his closet of being suppressed. His elder brother is a scientist, and Chaman has always felt smaller, more so with the fact that he never completed his law degree. His wife thinks he is a loser and not assertive enough.
So when his daughter runs away, he stands up to his elder brother and then both blame each other for Aman turning out to be gay, but in reality, they fight like kids about useless topics while ignoring the main conflict of accepting Aman’s sexuality.
How did you come up with the character arcs for everyone?
I was exploring duality in every way, so you have the elder brother and the younger brother who are both patriarchal but different. Relationships in this movie are defined on the basis of duos. Younger and older sister-in-law. Brother and sister. Husband and wife. Kartik and Aman.
Have you wondered whose son Keshav [played by Neeraj Singh] is? He just pops up to give information like, it’s okay for two men to fall in love, sex is different from gender, and he’s always slapped or asked to shut up. Keshav is our conscience that we keep pushing aside.
Goggle always thought that for someone like her, marriage is the only thing to bring meaning to her life. When that doesn’t work out, she tries to commit suicide, but Kartik reminds her that marriage is not everything. That’s why in the end credits, she takes her pheras alone. She starts believing in self-love and self-acceptance like Aman.
Everyone’s fighting for love in this film, even Kusum, who cannot marry her love who’s from a different caste and is not economically well-placed, which is why she steals the jewellery. Even Devika [cameo by Bhumi Pednekar] is running for her love.
Kartik comes out of nowhere. He seems rootless.
That was deliberate. There are hints about Kartik’s childhood. He had a violent upbringing. He says he’s the son of an ironsmith and he used to be beaten up. But being rootless gives him an edge. Without family ties, Kartik is truly free. This film is actually about Aman and his family. Kartik here is a catalyst.
Everyone in the film is always ready with a wisecrack. Is that possible in real life?
I am making a film for the largest possible audience. We have loved caricatures in our cinema through the ’70s, ’80s, and ’90s. Nobody talks like the characters of Tarak Mehta Ka Ooltah Chashmah or Sarabhai vs Sarabhai, but we have accepted them.
The characters here are extra-sarcastic and caustic because I needed to land a difficult subject like this in the hearts of the audience. Neena ji told me that perhaps we are being very loud. I told her we need to be loud to be heard.
It was thus important to play to the gallery and be farcical. We treated a serious topic like, say, Jaane Bhi Do Yaaro. Here’s a man dressing up as a woman to get married or a horse running across a railway platform. These are farcical and far-fetched but necessary.