In one of the pre-release interviews of Shubh Mangal Zyada Saavdhan, Ayushmann Khurrana committed an innocuous gaffe. In the interview, the National Award-winning actor said that he felt proud that India had legalised same-sex marriages. When, in fact, India does not legally recognise same-sex marriages yet. Khurrana was quick to issue an apology, and India’s queer community chose not to be anal about it either. All’s fine.
But wait. What’s this?
In a crucial scene of the film, police officers raid a house where two gay men are about to take pheras. This is before the historic SC judgment of 2018, which decriminalised gay sex. Apparently, the police officer say the men need to be arrested because being gay is illegal in India. Gay marriages, the officer claims, is illegal in India.
True, but a few corrections.
Being homosexual was never illegal in India, as any person who identifies himself or herself as queer Indian will attest. This means, even if you wore (or wear) a t-shirt screaming ‘I AM GAY’, no one could arrest you. Gay sex was illegal in India. It no longer is, after the historic Supreme Court ruling of 2018. Gay marriages are still not legally recognised in our country, as stated above. But you can take pheras with whoever you want. Exchange garlands too. Apply sindoor on maang of anyone (consensually), if you want. No one has the legal right to stop you. But your marriage won’t be legally recognised. Which means the law won’t see you as the husband (or wife) of your same sex partner.
Before this turns into a rant about queer rights in India, let me clarify a few things. It’s a given that no one will refer to Shubh Mangal Zyada Saavdhan, which is being billed as India’s first mainstream gay love story, as a historical documentation of the queer rights movement in India. The director, Hitesh Kewalya and the lead actor themselves have claimed this is just a comedy about homophobia. Which, to be very fair, it is. But can a comedy, which is hinged on the legality of sexual orientation in a country, afford to not do its homework properly? Though it’s never stated explicitly, there are plenty scenes that suggest that the filmmakers actually believe that the historic 2018 ruling had some bearings on the legality of queer marriages in India. Which it DID NOT!
Phew. Now that this is off my chest, let’s talk about the film. The nicest thing about Shubh Mangal Zyada Saavdhan is that it’s a Bollywood film which is not, consciously, homophobic. It has two (presumably) straight men playing straight-acting gay men. Something that many queer people will point out as internalised homophobia, but we will not split hairs now. This is India, here, Karan Johar has to camp it up and has to steal pants of Vicky Kaushal and Varun Dhawan to tickle laughter out of a bored Filmfare crowd.
Both Kartik (Ayushmann Khurrana) and Aman (Jitendra Kumar) are given the dignity of being the lead players of their own love story, which is no mean achievement I must add.
By the time we meet them, they are already in love. They are already leading a middle-class existence in some Delhi neighbourhood, selling toothpaste in a mall for a living. They help a friend elope and then hop into a train to attend the wedding of Aman’s cousin at Allahabad.
It’s not an Ayushmann Khurrana film if at least 20 per cent of it is not set in a city with a population of less than five million. Laddoo boxes exchange hands, genda phool is strewn around and surreptitious sips of alcohol are taken. Thus, a small-town, middle-class wedding is established. Within minutes, the snogging gay couple is discovered and mild drama ensues. The father, Gajraj Rao, is angry, but he is also a repressed middle-class Indian man, so he can’t vent properly. The mother, Neena Gupta, is happy delivering one-liners which we now expect mothers from Ayushmann Khurrana films to deliver. There are clever analogies about husbands running on “half battery” and sisters-in-law being as useless as buckets in this day and age of pumps.
But unlike in Badhaai Ho, where both Gajraj Rao and Neena Gupta actually seem to mean what they so charmingly said, the parents in Shubh Mangal Zyada Saavdhan seem to be just, bored. There is no other way to describe it. They argue with each other and make ill-timed jokes, all this is within the parameters of their familiar comic personas. You can almost believe that their characters could actually be married. But watching them coming to terms with their son’s sexual orientation is such a boring exercise.
The lead pair, the very heart of a love story, seemed to be equally bored of each other.
Ayushmann is needy, likable and slightly hysterical. Jitendra is impatient and anxious. Together they are painfully awkward. We don’t know why they like each other. We don’t know who they are. And we just don’t care.
Moreover, most of the other female characters of the film, apart from Neena Gupta, end up getting the short shrift. So much so that one is almost tempted to call their respective arcs sexist. There is a cousin, Maanvi Gagroo, whose only objective in life is to get married. Most of the laughs she draws is because of the desperation she shows towards that aim in her life. Yes, Mr Kewalya, there is nothing more funny than a woman who desperately believes that marriage is the only way out from a bad situation.
The other prominent female character is Aman’s fiance, played by Pankhuri Awasthy, a scheming woman who wants to marry a gay man so that she can run away with his mother’s jewelry. Yes, we are still doing that.
Like too many Ayushmann Khurrana comedies these days, Shubh Mangal Zyada Saavdhan seems too smug to consider a proper scripting tutorial. As a result, it ends up being a one-line idea stretched into a two-hour film. It doesn’t help that it is also saddled with the must-haves of the genre — bickering parents, assortment of mad relatives, kitschy small-town settings and a Tanishk Bagchi soundtrack. The film isn’t even sure about its queer antecedent. As a result, it ends up being that well-meaning but lazy friend every gay man has, who believes that it is their duty is to set you up with their other gay friend.
Art by Sephin Alexander