From the onset, Shubh Mangal Zyada Saavdhan makes it clear what it’s about. In an early scene, Ayushmann Khurrana’s Kartik and his lover Aman (Jitendra Kumar) plot to help a friend (Bhumi Pednekar) elope with her boyfriend. As she jumps out of her balcony, the motorcycle which is supposed to be her vehicle of liberation doesn’t start smoothly, and her father catches the trio. As Kartik gets beaten up and Aman is caught in the commotion, Bhumi kickstarts the bike and escapes into the night. The message is clear: there are no saviours in this film, only rebellious romantics.
Shubh Mangal Zyada Saavdhan is one of the first few mainstream Hindi films that wears its gay heart proudly on its rainbow cape, treating sexuality as a cause of celebration, directing the shame and humiliation at those trying to inflict it. The ‘those’ here are a predictable lot: Aman’s family, in whose Allahabad household the drama mostly unspools.
There’s the family patriarch, Shankar Tripathi (Gajraj Rao), the mother who’s never shy of dropping dark zingers (Neena Gupta), Manu Rishi as Tripathi’s bumbling brother and a delightfully hysterical Sunita Rajwar, who plays his wife. Maanvi Gagroo is their ‘neglected daughter’, whose wedding gets called off after the groom learns about Aman’s sexuality. The rest of the film is set against this context: societal diktats in the Northern hinterland are so strong, that a straight marriage has to be called off because a family member is gay.
Now, from Bareilly Ki Barfi to Badhaai Ho, it does feel like we’ve suffered an overdose of the comical North Indian family who communicates exclusively through wisecracks. In Shubh Mangal..., too, we occasionally see a quiet moment of reflection before the tension is released with yet another zinger. In that sense, much of this film depicts quarrelling within the family, and despite our familiarity with the ‘flavour’, the dialogue here is objectively hilarious. In a film that’s also about how patriarchy moulds the roles of women, Neena Gupta and Sunita Rajwar get some of the smartest lines, as they deliver sharp comebacks to the casual remarks of their husbands.
And it’s crucial to note that the humour is always at the expense of those grappling with the ‘taboo’ of same-sex romance while the relationship between Kartik and Aman itself remains quietly dignified, never becoming a target of ridicule, something Bollywood has been notorious for. It’s an important distinction: eliciting laughs from a family’s overdramatic meltdown at something that is - and is shown as - pretty normal and straightforward is different from making the protagonists the source of derision.
Another aspect that stands out in the film is its subversion of iconic Bollywood characters and moments which have so far existed in a heteronormative context. From DDLJ and Aashiqui to references to Deewar, Sholay and most importantly, to the vintage symbol of masculinity - Amitabh Bachchan - Shubh Mangal... pulls celebrated Bollywood imagery out of its past and embeds them with a queer narrative. This is a massive leap for Bollywood.
There are moments towards the end where it appears that the film is going progressively out of hand. A couple of sub-plots don’t quite add up while the repeated emphasis on black cauliflower which Gajraj Rao grows, gets a bit annoying. Maybe the metaphor there is about how cultivating something against nature doesn’t quite work, but it feels a bit OTT.
Rao, though, is exceptional in the film as is the entire supporting cast, especially Gagroo as Goggle.
Although, in parts, I found the normally dependable Khurrana to be a bit unsure and jumpy, as if he’s not certain how he should anchor this character, the actor is still quite remarkable, powering through the role with a restless energy and a dogged optimism that has come from having endured a difficult past. Without showing him as overtly effeminate, which falls in the caricature territory, Khurrana is shown rocking a nosepin and an occasionally blingy wardrobe, small touches that never overpower but quietly add to our reading of his character.
It’s Jitendra, though, who’s more endearing here, allowing his vulnerability to take over even in moments of strengths. It’s a difficult role and he makes it look easy.
While it’s admirable that an A-list Bollywood star is challenging archaic notions of masculinity and queering heteronormative stories, Shubh Mangal... leaves us with some difficult questions too.
Should people who’ve been violently oppressed be beholden to their oppressors for simply not oppressing them anymore? And what happens when the violence is being directed by your own parents?
It’s a complex dilemma that warrants a deeper interrogation and perhaps Shubh Mangal Zyada Savdhaan is not that film, for it doesn’t even delve too deeply into the structural oppressions faced by the community. The film exists within the confines of the mainstream template that binds Bollywood, something that also makes it accessible to a huge population.
For now, this is a commendable beginning, just like Article 15 was, but we must work to reach the stage where our movies go beyond simplistic, fairytale renditions to answer more searching questions as well. And, like Sidhant Kumar Behera wrote in HuffPost India after this movie’s trailer was released, that one hopes to see openly gay actors playing important roles as well.