Last month, a new buzzword entered the Bollywood dictionary. “Homophobia!” — blared Ayushmann Khurrana in the trailer for Shubh Mangal Zyada Saavdhan, a bright rainbow-coloured flag wrapped around his neck. It felt like a big moment — mainstream Hindi cinema finally blowing the lid off a persistent social flaw, powered by a big star. Hitesh Kewalya’s film makes good on its nonconformist promise but rushes through it all in a blur of loosely-strung gags. The brave commentary dwindles with the silliness of the plot. Tackling complex problems with humour is a skill. Trivialising them is a flaw.
Some explanation lies in Ayushmann’s recent hit streak with Dream Girl and Bala, both released last year and showered with lavish box-office props. Returning to the pitch for a hattrick, he steps up with the smugness of a heavy-hitter, the eye more on pavilion than the ball. Admittedly, not many male actors would be game for a film like this (the makers supposedly struggled to find a second lead). Yet star power can only lure a few extra heads into the theatre, not convert them. Too often, Shubh Mangal Zyada Saavdhan leans on the persuasive powers of its leading man. The audience is meant to be moved, perhaps even illuminated, not by the cleverness of the screenplay but because it’s Ayushmann Khurrana telling them things. The film needs his endorsement more than it needs him.
The trailer had sparked another query. What’s up with the weird costumes? Turns out, Kartik (Ayushmann) and Aman (Jitendra Kumar) are salesmen for a toothpaste company. Lovers working the same job, they wear stretchy spandex that makes them look like superheroes. When Kartik dozes off on a train, a janitor mistakes him for Shaktimaan. The character is indeed fashioned like a superhero: scrappy, rebellious, equipped with a hazy back-story. He finds an equally cartoonish villain in Shankar Tripathi, Aman’s dad. Played by Gajraj Rao with pointy hair, the patriarch is opposed to his son’s union with another man. When Kartik turns up at a family wedding, he’s promptly booted out. When he returns again, Shankar beats him blue. Yet the young couple somehow sticks it out, fighting their corner in bustling Allahabad and waiting for times to change (the story takes place in 2018, in the run-up to the landmark Supreme Court judgment decriminalising gay sex).
In the rough and tumble of Aman’s family, Hitesh anticipates his own audience. To put them at ease, he ratchets up the comedy. There are some funny sight gags: black cauliflowers flying through the air and dislodging a plate of haldi. Shankar Tripathi is a scientist growing GM crops — a literal metaphor for the nature-vs-nurture debate. It’s also a smart idea to have Gajraj Rao and Neena Gupta play the opposing number. Besides encashing the Badhaai Ho fanfare, it represents an interesting reversal. Amit Sharma’s film had Ayushmann struggling to reconcile with his onscreen parents.
Here, the same actors must now accept him. It’s a fine turning around of the generational lens, revealing the vast mental gaps that separate the two age-groups — and what a difficult hop it can be from either end. Yet, with battle lines sharply drawn, the film does not expand upon them. Instead, it lapses into a broad farce. An early dance-off between Kartik and Shankar Tripathi tells you what tone this film is about to take. It gets progressively wonky as more plot threads catch on. Confronted with Aman’s sexuality, his parents fix his marriage with a girl. On a separate track, his cousin (Maanvi Gagroo) runs off from her wedding. The film attempts to weave these arcs together and fails. Not only are the parallels sketchy and unfair, but they also eat up too much screentime. The story stumbles from one botched wedding to another, with little downtime.
Audiences going for Hindi cinema’s first queer romance will be disappointed. Yes, you get a kiss between the male leads (two, in fact), but no real insight into their relationship. In a mildly amusing scene, Aman recalls how he first met Kartik, and the hormonal deluge it set off in his brain. But how about showing the real thing? Ayushmann drifts along as the flamboyant, sexually-liberated partner. It’s Jitendra, though, with his bleary eyes and pained, husky voice, who keeps us hooked. Both actors embrace their roles (and each other) with glee, making you wish the film made better use of their chemistry. There’s a callback to DDLJ near the end, not unexpected. Aman, standing outside a railway station, is finally told to go live his life. But he does not immediately sprint away, like Kajol in the 1995 film. Rather, he waits, hugs his father, and studies his face. From the man who raised him up, he needs more than just a filmy confirmation.
|Film: Shubh Mangal Zyada Saavdhan
Director: Hitesh Kewalya
Cast: Ayushmann Khurrana, Jitendra Kumar
Producer: T-Series, Colour Yellow Productions