SHUBH MANGAL ZYAADA SAAVDHAN : A Film We Need Even If We Don’t Love It Fully

In one of the more memorable scenes of Shubh Mangal Zyaada Saavdhan, writer-director Hitesh Kewalya poses a question back to an ordinary Indian couple on screen (read. us the audience) through one of his lead protagonists – Why does no one ever ask Jack whether he wants to go up the hill with Jill or Johnny? May be Jack and Johnny have a plan to live in love and laughter up there. He challenges the couple not to pre-set the mind of their young child that only Jack and Jill going up together will remain happy or should be accepted as the norm. He knows that the change for the child’s broadened perspective has to start happening right from there. He possibly wishes that at least that young boy doesn’t face the daily and most painful struggle of his family not accepting the way he is, and instead feel the imposed weight of their standards of normal to define his agency.

It is in moments of dignity like these where Shubh Mangal Zyaada Saavdhan becomes much more effective, rather than when it tries to wins the crowd over with its lightweight massy treatment. It is understood though why Kewalya would have felt the need to adapt that tonality to tell his story. One – he wants to establish very early on through his templatized filmy treatment that it is just another love story done multiple times over in Bollywood, albeit between two men sincerely and deeply in love this time, and hence there is no reason for it to be stigmatized. Two – with Ayushmann Khurrana playing the lead (who has by now created his own Khurrana universe and genre of challenging every possible societal taboo and be commercially successful at it), this is possibly the best opportunity of normalizing a homosexual love story on screen in the most mainstream way in years. The intent and the thought process definitely deserves an applause, although the execution doesn’t exactly match up to make it an out and out winner. But here’s still wishing that the end result somewhere measures up to the intent and in days and months to come, we see many more stories of Kartik and Aman being accepted as wholeheartedly as Raj and Simran by the average audience, both on and more importantly off screen on a regular basis.

Where Kewalya wins his battle big time is lining up a very competent ensemble and aptly fitting them to the roles he conceptualizes, especially his central leads. So at the center of his universe, he creates two very different men – a flamboyant, over the top, filmy ‘gabru‘ who wears his rebellion up on his sleeve (or cape); and the other a more composed, grounded, somewhat jittery and awkward man burdened by an overprotective family, but equally resolute as his partner about the feelings they have for each other. And both Ayushmann Khurrana and Jitendra Kumar are very well cast in these roles. The over pitched flamboyance of Khurrana can be a tad irritating and loud at times, but never becomes caricaturish or offensive. The film also very smartly establishes that Kartik wears that extroverted loud self more like a iron facade to hide his real pain (possibly coming from years of self conditioning to cling on to sanity post a harsh upbringing around his angry and poor ironsmith father), because there are some genuine moments of tenderness and vulnerability that Kartik very seamlessly slips into, and they never appear put on or forced. In fact Khurrana shines far more in those scenes than where he plays to the gallery or to the Tripathi family. Kumar‘s Aman (smartly named there in sync with the character’s inherent DNA) perfectly grounds and complements Kartik’s flowery expressions on the other hand, and his excellent relatable performance makes us root for Aman right from the very beginning adding a delicate everyday breeziness to Kewalya’s world. Together both these men commit themselves fully to their love story, create a very charming on screen chemistry and provide a very dignified authenticity to their emotions. In fact, some of the best moments of the film are those of their vulnerability and tenderness. A thumbs up to Kewalya as well as he doesn’t attempt to extract his humour at the expense of their emotions, or loading them up with the most overused homosexual character tropes. His focus of the film is rather making fun of the homophobic ecosystem of the Tripathi’s stifling them, and while it works in parts, his writing of the comedy isn’t strong or layered enough to make it a consistently enjoyable experience. His bigger problem – the humor begins to dry out and feel repetitive very very fast even when the combined impact of the performing craft of the Tripathi’s never goes out of form.

So like most of India that we see around us, the Tripathi’s of Allahabad are one big conservative family whose reactions to their son coming out to them include every strange thing in the world – right from puking, to washing up the sins, to faking suicide, to beating up the bad guy, to perform the last rites of their spoilt son and have him reborn through rituals, to ultimately blackmail him to marry the girl of their choice. Doesn’t matter that the patriarch of the house is a much educated scientist or his brother a lawyer, or that the family is highborn with implied cultural superiority. In fact, this household enjoys bickering about each other (with their pent up complexities on property or superiority coming across as very typical of a small town joint family), as much as they enjoy an active sex life even now (a subtle Badhaai Ho tribute?). The patriarch of the family is hell bent on fighting the forces of nature with his adament invention of a kaali gobhi, but has no respect for the world of knowledge accessible through google; neither does he want to accept the fact that the science behind his son’s hormonal reactions for his partner remains the same irrespective of the gender of the partner. Of course the metaphor of kaali gobhi will eventually have to go up in flames when his realisation comes the full circle that he is no one to impose his whims and fancies on the natural ways of life.

But the journey to reach that point by the Tripathi family appears tad too long drawn, repetitive and much less appealing than the strength of the central romance. One, while the film tries to naturally encash the chemistry between winner senior couple of Gajraj Rao and Neena Gupta yet again here, their conflict this time of their reminiscences of the past appears forced and uninteresting. Also, possibly somewhere the bout of homophobia forced upon their characters didn’t fit in too well to their inherent sweetness. Neena Gupta still makes the most of what is available to her, and shows yet again how good and actor she is who can shine even when she doesn’t have enough meat to work with. Two, there is also significant digression in terms of lot of time and screen space spent on internal Tripathi household dynamics, the repetitive and trivial arguments between the brothers and their wives, and a completely unnecessary subplot around a backstory of their chosen bride. Possibly it was an unfair expectation from Gajraj Rao to do so much of heavy lifting as the entertaining antagonist after not equipping him well enough with a material that can match his craft. He is still at his bright self in some places, but does slip in a few others and possibly delivers the same experience as the overall film – inconsistent. On the other hand, Maanvi Gagroo is rather the surprise package of the film who has possibly a rather one note and silly character arc, but she pulls it off like a hoot contributing the most to the best lighter moments of the film (along with Neena Gupta). Her on screen parents played by Manu Rishi and Sunita Rajwar add to the overall lightheartedness of the film in their limited capacity (Rishi excelling in a couple of shots), but fall into the trap of repetitive and tiresome exchanges and ill fleshed out humor between the Tripathi brothers.

What also doesn’t help the film much is that while it definitely wants to set itself up the alley of the comedy genre, the best jokes of the film were already neatly curated out and compiled in the trailer itself. Most of the humor hence feels stale, and further strengthens the argument that the film would have possibly done itself much better (on its artistic impact) had it focused more on the charming chemistry of the lead pair, their tender romance, and the dignity that they provide to the overall intent of the film. That is where it somewhat feels that Kewalya doesn’t fully believe in the immense potential of his film (had he completely leveraged the strength of his writing or the craft level of his cast), or trusts the maturity level of an audience that has already for long stepped up to appreciate the niche space created by an I Am or a Margarita with a Straw or even a Kapoor and Sons. Or may be it is that he fully recognises the potential of his film and its need to reach the much wider mass audience, who do need a silly pun on sexuality of Race 3 levels to at least laugh out loud on their own homophobia. They need dollops of relevance to be delivered in the most easy to absorb entertainment package where each emotion is underlined loud by the background score, and each feeling repackaged as yet another remix song.

An end goal like a brokeback mountain still seems some light years away for our commercial cinema and the wider society at large, and here we were possibly expecting the complete transformation of cinema addressing and normalizing homosexuality, from niche and art house to full fledged commercial and mainstream, without compromising at all on the overall artistic quality or emotional impact of the story, just riding on the competence of its cast and their craft. But what the hell, why isn’t the pace of change in life or in art like the Manmohan Desai universe where toddlers grow up to become heroes within a song? Here’s at least hoping that by the time the end credits of this film roll, there are at least five more people at each screening at each theatre every day who have grown out of their homophobic inhibitions and are wholeheartedly crooning to Pyaar bina chain kahaan re, without trying to fit in the pyaar in any ‘standard’ box. That is when it will become truly Shubh Mangal, the Zyaada the better!

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