Review: Bollywood’s gay rom-com Shubh Mangal Zyada Saavdhan gets it right

Director Hitesh Kewalya's sharp and charming comedy challenges audiences without sacrificing Bollywood panache


SHUBH MANGAL ZYADA SAAVDHAN (Hitesh Kewalya). 120 minutes. Now playing. Rating: NNNNN


This review contains light plot spoilers.

Bollywood camp collides with gay camp in Shubh Mangal Zyada Saavdhan (SMZV) – and the result couldn’t be more perfect.

Writer/director Hitesh Kewalya’s comedy manages to weave in unexpected elements without sacrificing Bollywood panache: we get two weddings and two runaway brides, a Gujarati family with a familiar older brother-younger brother dynamic exacerbated by the wives, an agricultural experiment and protesting farmers, a daddy joke and a couple of gay men kissing in broad daylight. And it’s all very funny.

I did not expect Bollywood to push boundaries only one year after the release of Ek Ladki Ko Dekha Toh Aisa Laga, a film about people struggling to accept a lesbian couple.

The story follows couple Kartik Singh (Ayushmann Khurrana) and Aman Tripathi (Jitendra Kumar) hesitantly travel from Delhi to their hometown, Ahmedabad, for the wedding of Aman’s cousin, Goggle (Maanvi Gagroo). At first Aman doesn’t want to go – he’s avoiding facing his family and his impending arranged marriage to the girl next door. But motherly guilt persuades him to change his mind and Kartik comes along, too.

Within the first half hour, the couple kiss on a train filled with Aman’s family, and his father Shankar (Gajraj Rao) sees. There would be no story without conflict, so predictably the dad is disgusted but now that the question of “will they or won’t they” kiss or come out is out of the way, the narrative argues that gay love is normal in three ways: romantic biological, with reference to dopamines and oxytocin and legal – this movie is set in the lead-up to India’s Supreme Court overturning a colonial-era law banning gay sex.

But the movie’s message doesn’t come off as preachy because these three elements spring naturally from the characters around Aman rather than feeling like contrived plot machinations. 

Aman and Kartik are not two effeminate, flaming gay men. Both blend into India’s spectrum of masculinity in a way that both normalizes and neutralizes gay aesthetics. Neither is foreign-educated nor at the top of the corporate ladder. They could be any men in urban India. The couple promote toothpaste in malls for a living while wearing superhero outfits. Reliably, there are good germs/bad germs jokes throughout, and there is reference to India’s classic superhero actor Amitabh Bachchan. (Which makes me wonder, does the big B endorse gay love? Was he consulted?) In a scene on the family’s rooftop, Kartik wears a large rainbow flag as a superhero cape while topless and speaks into a megaphone as he appeals for the family’s support. It’s Pride without the parade.

It could have been very easy for the combination of gay and Bollywood to run into clichéd musical theatre territory but the music is restrained and even subverts Bollwyood’s hero-shero dance numbers and love songs. In the first song, Aman and Kartik are on a moto riding through Delhi. As Kartik wraps his arms around Aman, the song’s chorus lyrics translate to “you are all I need.” It’s soft and romantic, but Kartik’s facial expressions convey his playfulness reminiscent of the all-Indian image of a young, heterosexual couple in love. This embrace is perhaps the only acceptable form of PDA (for safety’s sake) in a country that has repressed desire and hidden intimacy since British rule.

There are serious moments, too. Rare even for heterosexual on-screen couples in Bollwyood, the two briefly chat about their physical relationship and what Kartik wants of Aman.

Aman’s extended family comes to be aware that he and Kartik are a couple. The family’s handler Keshav (Neeraj Singh), gives several articles to Aman’s father to read on a tablet in order to persuade him that there is nothing wrong with being gay. After all, what’s more persuasive than technology?

Meanwhile, in a last-ditch effort to rescue her son from being gay, Aman’s mother Sunaina (Neena Gupta) takes him to the family priest to have him reborn. When his father tells Goggle her cousin has been reborn as straight, she laughs in his face – asserting her confidence as a modern, independent, rational and no-nonsense Indian woman. 

The ensemble cast is excellent, especially the standout performances by Khurrana and Gabbi, whose characters are unrelated to the Tripathi family, and must fight to be heard. Their humour is as much about expression and gesture as words. Gupta is known to play traditional wife and mother roles and here her character represents India’s moral compass, which is evolving with the times.

In SMZS, Kewalya seamlessly blends the familiar trappings of a Bollywood family drama with a moral message while finding creative ways to appeal several ways of thinking. And sharp humour brings it all together. It both entertains and challenges the audience – the elements of a true hit.

@checkoutrach

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