Shubh Mangal Zyada Saavdhan: How gender politics helped India’s first ‘mainstream gay film’

Ishita Sengupta
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Ayushmann Khurrana and Jitendra Kumar in a still from the film.

Moments before the stage is (literally) set for the big reveal in Ek Ladki Ko Dekha Toh Aisa Laga, the film offers a narrative ruse. Sahil Mirza (Rajkummar Rao), hopelessly smitten by Sweety (Sonam Kapoor) and freshly recovering from the knowledge that she in fact likes another girl, attempts to help in his new role as a confidante. A (failed) dramatist, he scripts a play — closely mirroring Sweety’s life, her struggles, the isolation she has been forced to inhabit since childhood — and under the garb of requesting members of her family to participate intends to break it down to them. Unaware of its origin or the set-up, they agree but are visibly rattled on hearing the ‘story’. Her father, Balbir Chaudhary (Anil Kapoor) dismisses the premise as improbable but his mother (Madhumalti Kapoor) justifies its existence: “It is a comedy”. The matriarch's reasoning, which unwittingly serves as a commentary, works. Portrayed as a film aficionado, homosexuality for her has existed as an off-shoot of comedy in celluloid, and for good reasons. Same-sex love or even a lone representative from the community has been routinely introduced as a subplot to elicit laughter. They have been treated as the excess the genre of comedy is known for. Hitesh Kewalya employs the same ruse in Shubh Mangal Zyada Saavdhan, except the excess here is not the behavioural attributes of the homosexual protagonists but the reactions to them. The joke is on the expectation that presupposes homosexuality to be funny. It is on Balbir Chaudhary’s mother and the likes of her. It is on us.

Kewalya’s film, touted as the first to bring homosexuality within the purview of the mainstream, does not revolve around a character’s discomfiting — freeing — realisation that they do not fit in nor concludes with them mustering the courage to come out. It is not preoccupied with locating the moment the cat is let out of the bag. In Shubh Mangal Zyada Saavdhan, the cat is already out, prowling stealthily, even meowing occasionally. When we meet Kartik Singh (Ayushmann Khurrana) and Aman Tripathi (Jitendra Kumar), one is helping the other to get up on a train even though both are wearing capes. Being salesmen, the outfits are occupational hazards but they serve a bigger purpose of subverting the hypermasculinity associated with superheroes and underlining the characters’ innate mutual dependence, in spite of and because of the capes. They have discovered themselves and each other from the outset. But are discovered when on their way to Aman’s sister’s wedding, his father sees both men kissing in a moving train. The ensuing comedy constitutes the disarray his immediate and extended family are thrown into as each becomes privy to this ‘information’.

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Over the course of two hours, Shubh Mangal Zyada Saavdhan seeks to make homosexuality receptive by unfolding as a love story in a language we are most acquainted with, embodying tropes we keenly recognise.

In one of the interviews prior to the release of the film, Khurrana had disclosed its intent: to make people receptive to the idea of homosexuality. The usage of the word “receptive” as opposed to “accepting” is both interesting and telling. It not only hinted that the film was intending to fight a smaller battle but also a different one. Over the course of two hours, Shubh Mangal Zyada Saavdhan seeks to make homosexuality receptive by unfolding as a love story in a language we are most acquainted with, embodying tropes we keenly recognise. And it does so by cutting itself in the shape of one of the most successful romantic films of our times: Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayenge. There is a recurring train metaphor, an unrelenting patriarch, two protagonists seeking acceptance of their love through familial approval. Kartik and Raj’s (Shah Rukh Khan) unwavering faith is similar, so is Aman and Simran’s (Kajol) indignation on being asked to marry someone else. By refraining from showcasing any self-conflict and centering the narrative on the classic Us Vs Them, the point of contention in Shubh Mangal Zyada Saavdhan becomes less about choosing who to love and more about the choice to love. We have rooted for that before, we root for the same now.

Kewalya uses this accessible grammar not by downplaying the gender politics of its protagonists but by using the advantages which come with it. He roots his story in a trajectory hitherto occupied by heterosexual narratives because he can. Owing to their gender, these men have been provided with an education, allowed to leave home and go to a big city to earn bread. Although Kartik’s family or background are never revealed, the disparity at Aman’s household contextualises why and how a boy from Allahabad gathers enough courage to hold hands with his partner in Delhi even though he is hesitant to come out to his parents. His economic mobility might not be enough to send money home (Aman’s mother tells him the same in one scene) but it provides him with the freedom to explore and accept his sexual orientation, it enables him to not just fall in love with another man but to be with him without being accountable for it.

Shubh Mangal Zyada Saavdhan, Shubh Mangal Zyada Saavdhan Ayushmann Khurrana, homosexuality, gay love, gay film, indian express news

Hitesh Kewalya’s film, touted as the first to bring homosexuality within the purview of the mainstream, does not revolve around a character’s discomfiting — freeing — realisation that they do not fit in nor concludes with them mustering the courage to come out.

His cousin sister, Goggles (Maanvi Gagroo) provides an excellent alternative narrative to this. With her sole preoccupation in the film being getting married, quickly and desperately — she even agrees to wed a much older man and her family expresses no qualms about it —  she could have been reduced to a one-dimensional character, a disservice to the current roles written for women. But she acts as a foil, showing what growing up as a woman in the same household meant. She highlights the privileges Aman enjoyed by just being a man. Had Goggles been a lesbian, the hilarity of her coming-out would have been replaced by self loathing, her sexuality repressed or reliant on the crutch of a compassionate man to be ‘revealed’ and not expressed. The Us Vs Them conflict would have been preceded by a Me Vs Myself struggle. Shelly Chopra Dhar’s Ek Ladki Ko Dekha Toh Aisa Laga (co-written by Gazal Dhaliwal), traces that story and shows us just how it would unfold. Sweety has a better economic standing than Aman, her father dotes on her and yet her powerlessness is acute, her personal shame severe. If she is accused of bringing doom to her family, the resistance faced by Aman is dressed as requests, emotional manipulation and a staged suicidal attempt by his father. They do not threaten to abandon him because they cannot. Their refusal stems from love but also from a sense of dependence on him, from a realisation that Aman is (also) the male earning member of the family.

Both films, released after Article 377 was scraped (Shubh Mangal Zyada Saavdhan ends with the pronouncement of the historic judgement) choose battles they can afford to fight. It is not the theme but gender of the protagonists which informs their chosen genre.

Shubh Mangal Zyada Saavdhan concludes with Aman’s father relenting. He holds his son’s hands and says, “Jaa beta, jee le apni zindagi”. It is another nod to Aditya Chopra’s film but his declaration lacks conviction. The scientist, with all his objective understanding of things, still fails to wrap his head around his son’s sexuality. Yet, he accedes. It could be read as grudging acceptance. It also could be a case of a father not understanding but identifying his son’s disobedience as rebellion. He still allows it for he knows men are entitled to rebel.