Bollywood enters unchartered waters with a rom-com about erectile dysfunction

The film Shubh Mangal Saavdhan unpacks toxic masculinity by taking on a taboo typically referred to as "gent's problem"

I settle into my seat at Cineplex Yonge-Dundas to watch a matinee show of Shubh Mangal Saavdhan, a Bollywood rom-com about erectile dysfunction, and I scan the audience.

In front of me are four aunties sharing a bag of Surati namkeen, a savoury Indian snack (think of it as a super-high-calorie popcorn alternative), and a sandwich bag full of salted peanuts. There’s also a married couple, a younger couple on a date and an elderly woman.

This small audience had gathered to witness not just the union of central characters Mudit (Ayushmann Khurrana) and Sugandha (Bhumi Pednekar), but an extreme rarity in Indian cinema: a prospective groom with a “gent’s problem.”

While Mudit struggles with the physical and emotional expectations of being a man, Sugandha struggles to help him. Meanwhile, this private drama unfolds amidst the revelry and mayhem of a big fat Indian wedding attended by parents, extended family and friends played by a stellar cast of Bollywood character actors.

What follows includes antics from eccentric family members, an online proposal and awkward sex-ed conversations that had me grinning, if not laughing out loud.

Jokes aside, Shubh Mangal Saavdhan is interesting in the way it challenges toxic masculinity in Indian film culture, which is being challenged to fix stereotypical portrayals of women and relationships.

The idea was to make an entertaining movie about erectile dysfunction without making a PSA, says screenwriter Hitesh Kewalya.

After signing on, Kewalya was immediately interested in exploring the way boys are raised in contemporary society, especially now when there’s a deep divide between those who want to keep patriarchy propped up amidst increasingly loud calls for gender equity.

“What it is to be a man today? What is being macho?” he explains over the phone from Mumbai. “The biggest responsibility [we had] was that we had to make this film family-friendly, so it could not be crass at any point in time.”

To do so, he drew upon his experiences growing up in a middle-class family in New Delhi.

Patriarchy is rampant across India. However, there’s a particular type of toxic masculinity peculiar to the Indian capital, which is also the country’s media hub.

“As a young boy, I was in the habit of observing people around me, and I was struck by all the discussions about how much money you make as a man, who do you know, how are you politically connected,” says Kewalya. “The way boys are told not to cry, it leaves something within you.”

Although the film does a great job of exploring the pressures on Mudit to act like a man, Shubh Mangal Saavdhan does not forget about its leading lady.

A scene in which Sugandha decides to take some tips from a porn DVD is initially played up for laughs but turns out to be quite moving.

Writing her character honestly was the most challenging but important part of the film, says Kewalya. Since erectile dysfunction is an inherently male issue – whether biological or psychological in nature – people don’t usually think about its impact on women.

“It’s not just about him, but also the pressures on her,” says Kewalya.

The DVD scene also touches upon the ways in which Indians continue to avoid talking about sex. Women are not meant to watch porn at all, and young men watching it immediately get into trouble.

“We don’t talk about [sex] while kids are growing up, so naturally they will turn to dubious sources to satiate their curiosity,” he says. “Then one day, you grow up, become of marriageable age and are supposed to deal with everything.”

Kewalya designed every line and scene in Shubh Mangal Saavdhan to disrupt those taboos.

“We wanted to take the conventions of a love story or a marriage and really turn them on their head,” he says. “That not everything is hunky-dory in a wedding, that behind the smiling faces there are some quirks… that a discussion of onion and garlic can happen in a romantic way.”

Whether or not those discussions will happen post-screening is another story.

As I was leaving the theatre, I happened to be standing behind the four aunties on the escalator going down.

“Nice movie,” one of them commented. The other three nodded silently. | @aparita

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