There are two kissing scenes in Shubh Mangal Zyada Saavdhan (SMZS). The first unfolds on a train, the second at a wedding between Kartik (Ayushmann Khurrana) and Aman (Jitendra Kumar). If Hitesh Kewalya’s film has made a mark, as many agree it has, it is because of these two scenes. Taken together, they constitute a turning point in the mainstreaming of LGBTQ romance.
Indian cinema has always grappled awkwardly with the cultural positioning of a kiss. To family audiences, it has always indicated something radical, a gesture assertively sexual and immediate. For the censor board, the kiss has perennially spelled trouble: 82 years after Devika Rani lip-locked Himanshu Rai in Karma, the CBFC ran its scissors across Sam Mendes’ Spectre. By extending the urgency of the onscreen kiss to same-sex narratives, Kewalya has broken new ground. But his film—like many recent LGBTQ-themed efforts in Hindi cinema—represents a battle half-own. Individual freedom is linked to heteronormative family structures in India. As a cultural product, Hindi romances are incomplete if limited to a couple. They must include, clash with, convince and ultimately win over the family.
Predictably, SMZS does not dismiss its family audience. Rather, it uses humour and reliability to gently negotiate with them. When Kartik is beaten up by Aman’s father (Gajraj Rao), it’s a scene of criminal violence, but staged like a comedy. The upbeat music is an incentive to the audience to suspend their close-mindedness and reflect along. A similar approach was taken by Shelly Chopra Dhar’s Ek Ladki Ko Dekha Toh Aisa Laga (2019). The film centred on a lesbian girl coming out to her conservative family. The casting of Anil Kapoor as Sonam Kapoor’s father was a winning gambit. And ended on a similar note: with the family patriarch accepting, if not entirely embracing, the fact of sexual orientation. “We are our families,” Kewalya says, “As genetic beings, there’s no way we can avoid the traits of our family. It’s the determining unit of any social evolution, going back hundreds of years. When you make a film with that awareness, it automatically becomes a story everyone can understand.”
This endless tug-of-war marks our entire LGBTQ canon. Deepa Mehta’s Fire (1998) traces the lesbian companionship that blooms inside a Delhi home. The film’s dismantling of androcentric marital norms was met with violent protests. In Mahesh Dattani’s Mango Soufflé (2002), a gay fashion designer invites his friends for a private coming-out ceremony. A complicated sibling relationship also anchors Onir’s My Brother Nikhil (2005), the first Indian film to deal with homosexuality and HIV/AIDS. In Shakun Batra’s Kapoor & Sons, a mother comes to terms with her son’s sexuality. Mothers are at the centre of Sanjoy Nag’s Memories in March (2010) and the 2018 Tamil film My Son Is Gay. In Dostana (2008), Kirron Kher responds with caricaturish disbelief at her son’s homosexuality. The sentiment is echoed by Neena Gupta in SMZS, though dimmed down and treated with self-reflection. A reversal of this dynamic is found in Dear Dad, where Arvind Swamy plays a gay father coming out to his son.
The year 2020 is looking up for LGBTQ stories. After SMZS, Faraz Arif Ansari’s Sheer Qorma is up for release. In the trailer, one of the characters identifies herself as ‘non-binary’—perhaps the first openly genderqueer character in Hindi cinema. Later in the year comes Dostana 2. The 2008 original has a tainted legacy for playing up gay stereotypes. Will the sequel be any better? Navjot Gulati, one of the co-writers on the film, says, “We are aware of the sensitivity of the subject and are approaching it with care,” Navjot says, “I can assure you no one will feel disappointed with our treatment.”
The bigger question, however, remains this: will mainstream Hindi cinema finally venture beyond the family template? Or will Kartik and Aman—just like Raj and Simran (DDLJ)—always depend on parental approval for love?