(An edited version of this piece was first published in Mid-Day on 22nd February 2020 under the headline ‘Fails to present queer love with sensitivity)
One does not go to Bollywood looking for nuanced representation of queer characters but, when a film markets itself as a crusader against homophobia, it seems fair to hold it accountable. A bare-chested Ayushmann Khurrana wearing a rainbow flag draped as a cape makes for good publicity stills, and is guaranteed to bring in audiences both queer and straight. However, if that is the only thing memorable about a film, there is something to worry about.
Hitesh Kewalya’s film Shubh Mangal Zyada Saavdhan was an utter disappointment for me because it built up huge expectations. It was touted to be a progressive film about a gay couple leading a life of dignity and acceptance. All it ends up being is yet another film that equates happiness with seeking the blessings of patriarchy.
It was nice of Khurrana to work on a subject that still raises eyebrows in India but this is not something that warrants a standing ovation. Queer people take greater risks each day when they use public transport, confide in their friends and families, and wear clothes that express their gender and sexuality. When straight people identify as allies, they are simply doing what needs to be done and should need no brownie points.
Khurrana is a talented actor, and could have done wonders in this role. However, he fails to be as impressive as usual because he tries too hard to imitate the chirpy and irreverent Shah Rukh Khan from Aditya Chopra’s Dilwale Dulhaniya Le Jaayenge. Poorly scripted dialogue and a directorial vision that treats queerness as comic material makes matters worse.
The actor who does leave an impression is Jitendra Kumar, who plays the romantic lead alongside Khurrana. His eyes do more of the talking, and they make the viewer feel his predicament as a son and a lover. There is a sincerity about the way he portrays his character, and this quality is immediately endearing.
Shubh Mangal Zyada Saavdhan makes a fair point of saying that accepting queer love is a difficult task for parents (Gajraj Rao, Neena Gupta) because they have few models to fall back on. All the love legends they know of, and the Bollywood films they consume, are steeped in heterosexuality. This film had the opportunity and the resources to present queer love in a sensitive manner but it fails to do that.
The feel-good ending is a poor consolation prize because it comes after much cringeworthy material that uses the suffering of women and people with disabilities to evoke laughter. Physical violence in families is given a comical treatment, and shot like a music video. There are also jokes about suicide, rape and conversion therapy.
Shubh Mangal Zyada Saavdhan is also a love story between the son of an ironsmith, and the son of a scientist — the implications of which are not fully engaged with. There are numerous verbal and visual references to Brahminical supremacy, and ideas of purity and pollution. Amidst our jubilation around a queer love story, let us not forget that casteism, misogyny and homophobia are deeply linked to each other.