Shubh Mangal Zyada Saavdhan

Hitesh Kewalya’s romantic comedy uses the familiar Bollywood trope of parental disapproval, but this time the couple battling their relatives for acceptance are involved in a same-sex relationship. It’s unusual enough for Hindi cinema to have any gay characters, let alone treat them sympathetically, but in Shubh Mangal Zyada Saavdhan the love story is treated exactly the same as a more traditional romance, it just so happens that the couple are both male. While the film isn’t completely successful, it’s a good attempt at a different kind of love story and is hopefully a step towards more realistic portrayals of LGBTI characters in Bollywood. 

The story starts in quintessential DDLJ mode with Aman (Jitendra Kumar) and Kartik (Ayushmann Khurrana) running to catch a train. Right away the stage is set for a classic romance, and even if the two protagonists are wearing identical red bodysuits and black capes, there is an expectation that ‘Raj’ will somehow have to win his ‘Simran’. There’s a flashback that shows Aman and Kartik live happily together in Delhi but while Kartik’s family are aware of his homosexuality, Aman’s parents have no idea and are happily considering his future life partner even as they get ready to marry off his cousin Goggle (Maanvi Gagroo). Kartik is estranged from his parents who cannot accept the fact that their son is gay, but he convinces Aman that because his father is an educated man, all will be well. Even so, they plan to keep their relationship secret while attending Goggle’s wedding. However, on the train to the wedding, Aman’s father Shankar Tripathi (Gajraj Rao) sees Aman and Kartik locked together in a kiss and the cat is well and truly out of the bag. Shankar is appalled and literally sickened by his son’s behaviour, and is determined to ‘cure’ Aman by any means possible. The film follows the family’s attempts to deal with what they see is a life-style choice despite Aman’s attempts to convince them otherwise. 

Ayushmann’s Kartik is the more flamboyant partner, but he never veers into stereotypical territory and his portrayal of a gay man who is happy in his relationship seems pretty spot on. Jitendra’s Aman is quieter and seems naturally the product of his small-town upbringing in a large and mostly dysfunctional family. Jitendra Kumar is very impressive here and his performance rings very true as someone who is naturally more introverted and trying to balance his own wishes with the realistic desire to try and conform to his family’s expectations. The scenario rings true, and even though the conflict is billed as a comedy, there is genuine heartache here on all sides as Aman battles through the difficulties of coming out as gay to his prejudiced and self-centred father. The mix of personalities, Aman’s quieter and more introspective and Kartik’s exuberance and energy also works well and despite a very flimsy backstory, the romance feels genuine simply because the two interact believably together as a couple. 

Aman veers between vulnerability and despair while trying to explain to his parents why there is no difference between their love and his. Which might have worked, except Shankar and Sunauna (Neena Gupta) had an arranged marriage and there appears to be little love on either side. Aman’s explanations involving dopamine and oxytocin are designed to appear to his scientist father, but Shankar is relentless in his homophobia and Aman seems helpless to resist his family’s attempts to solve the ‘problem’ of his sexuality. Since these include a symbolic death and rebirth ceremony, followed by a determined attempt to make him marry Kusum (Pankhuri Awasthy), it’s understandable why he feels as if he cannot destroy his family just for his own selfish satisfaction. Interestingly, Kusum has her own issues too as she is in love with someone deemed totally unsuitable by her family. A marriage of convenience seems an excellent way out, even though Aman is noticeably not thrilled by the prospect. So, it’s left up to Kartik to fight for his lover, win the family’s acceptance and generally try to save the day. 

There is plenty of excellent laugh-out-loud comedy as Kartik attempts to overcome the Tripathi family’s prejudices. The support cast here are all superb and ensure that most of the scenes are genuinely funny despite the underlying seriousness of the issues being addressed. Maanvi Gagroo is excellent as Goggle, a woman who is desperate to get married despite her blind eye which puts off potential suitors and her family’s general disinterest. Manu Rishi Chadha is also excellent as her father Chaman, Shankar’s younger brother who lives in the family home with his wife Champa (Sunita Rajwar). The family dynamic is well played for laughs, particularly in the relationship between Shankar and his younger brother, although both Gajraj Rao and Neena Gupta are fantastic as a double act with all the expected familiarity of a long-married couple.

While mostly the comedy works well, a few of the scenes feel forced, more so in the second half. There feel almost like skits that have been added solely for comedy rather than actually fitting smoothly into the screenplay, and as such they break the momentum of the story. While the first half sets up the premise of the film well, the second half has just too much going on to be totally effective. As well as the storyline about Aman’s family’s inability to accept his relationship with Kartik, there is a sub-plot involving Shankar’s invention of disease-free black cauliflowers, Goggle’s really quite distressing marriage difficulties and Chaman and Champa’s own difficult relationship with Shankar and Sunaina. In the process of dealing with so many characters and sub-plots, the film misses some good opportunities to deal with some of the significant and serious issues facing Kartik and Aman. Both characters have good dialogue that raises important points about same-sex relationships but these never last long enough to make an impact. At times the audience in Melbourne started to applaud some particularly insightful lines, but then suddenly were whisked out of the moment by another quick change of subject and new comedic exchange. Despite poignant and keen observations about how difficult it is to find family acceptance of gay relationships, the lure of the next laugh is too great, and the film rapidly moves on, instead of savouring these brief glimpses into the all too real issues facing many people today. 

The best thing about Shubh Mangal Zyada Saavdhan is that the film treats the relationship between Aman and Kartik in just the same way as a conventional romance. Although many of the more serious aspects are brushed aside to make way for laughs, the film seems to be at least a step in the right direction to hopefully start some conversations and at least show the possibility of acceptance of same-sex relationships. It’s a lot of weight for the film to carry, which is maybe why Hitesh Kewalya sidesteps most of the serious points and focuses more on the comedy. It may also explain why there are so many sub-plots to act as a smoke-screen for the more controversial romance. Despite its faults, this is an easy film to watch; it’s funny, the songs from Tanishk Bagchi, Vayu and Tony Kakkar fit well into the narrative and the performances are all exemplary. Ayushmann Khurrana and Jitendra Kumar are simply fantastic and even when the story doesn’t quite work, their relationship does. Well worth watching for some light-hearted entertainment that doesn’t push its social message too hard.

The Gentleman (1994)

Bhatt’s remake of the Tamil film Gentleman had the opportunity to be excellent. Unfortunately despite having all the necessary ingredients – a solid central idea, an AR Rahman soundtrack ready for Anu Malik to put his name to, and of course Chiru! – it never quite hits the mark.

A note on the print quality. And by “note” I mean rant. It doesn’t seem to matter which VCD or DVD I tried, the quality is so awful so you may as well watch a dodgy YouTube copy. I never found subtitles for this so that wasn’t a factor. Nobody who owns the movie seems to care if it’s watchable. I ended up taking screencaps from Youtube because my disc had a strange pixellation along the edges of the picture.

Chiranjeevi is Vijay, a small business owner and gentleman thief. He steals from the rich to build a school for the poor, all explained in a tragic backstory flashback. Chiru is excellent and quite restrained, unless he is in a comedy disguise when all bets are off. How much do I love the bit where he rips off a grey moustache only to reveal his own moustache underneath? Gold.

I really liked his characterisation and his dramatic range got a workout as Vijay experiences both the highs and the lowest of lows. The action scenes are on a grand scale and Chiru gets to throw himself around. He even has to do a bit of home surgery on himself. The dubbing artist for Chiru (I think it was Shakti Singh) is pretty good but I always seem to struggle with hearing another voice come out of a familiar face. Since there were no subtitles, and I understand more Hindi than Telugu (still not much) it should have been easier but it just sounds Wrong. Chiranjeevi did his own dubbing for fights and crying scenes so it was both familiar and a bit jarring to hear. And there was a very good opportunity for a rousing “Bastards!” that never happened, and you know how much I look forward to that. Especially when Paresh Rawal is playing one of the bastards in question. The cat and mouse with the police never quite hits high suspense. Vijay’s elaborate schemes and disguises always fail but for some reason the police always fail to capitalise on his mistakes. Even when they know about the Significant Ring.

The styling for the songs is largely standard filmi 90s hideousness but I did like seeing Chiru work his way through all the dressy-uppy options. From European prince to ye olden warrior to biker aerobics gear to a cross between a pharaonic headdress and a doo-rag, he made it his own.

Of course all the ladies love Vijay and while none of the female characters contribute much, the threat of romance does make it easier to fit the songs into the movie. And allows for an extra number featuring Roja. Most of the songs were lifted from the original soundtrack so while they look terribly dated they still sound quite good. The one song Anu Malik actually contributed (by nicking it from Haddaway), “What is Love?” is terrible and yet it is hard to stop watching no matter what your ears are telling you.

The female characters get the rough end of the pineapple. From honka-honka comedy horns when Roshni (Juhi Chawla) and Babli (Heera Rajagopal) hugged (because boobs), to writing that aspires to be tissue thin, and a costume department out for some kind of vengeance on Heera, it is a mess. Juhi spends approximately 83% of the film grimacing in the background as Roshni makes eyes at Vijay and hates anyone who appears to get in her way. There is no chemistry between her and Chiranjeevi, so the few scenes of Roshni’s jealous rage seemed silly rather than anything else.

I am pretty sure Juhi only signed on to be in Roop Suhana Lagta Hain because that is her moment to shine.

Heera Rajagopal plays a character who is dangerously stupid, a bit of a kleptomaniac, and extremely shrill. Only Babli could find herself in an attempted rape scenario by being lured into a ball pit. Yes. I know. And she was wearing heels when she went in. It is really hard not to victim blame when a character has absolutely no ability to learn from experience and apply those learnings to future situations. She still didn’t deserve the whole “be a decent girl like Roshni who is always covered up and in the kitchen” speech. But she moved on straight into a song fantasy so I assume no lasting harm was done to her self-esteem.

Paresh Rawal and Deepak Tijori play the two police most likely to catch the elusive Vijay. There are no surprises in either performance, but they largely avoided going over the top on the comedy. I like Paresh Rawal more as a villain than as an angry but honest cop, I have to say. It felt like a waste of his abilities but I appreciated the intensity he brought to the confrontation.

The tone wanders from slapstick to deep tragedy and grief, and while the actors seem to have a handle on what they are doing I can’t say the same for the direction. Rather than give Vijay’s backstory as things unfolded, the film ground to a halt while we found out what had happened to his mother and brother and why he became a thief. Then back to a long and talky court scene as Vijay attempted to show that society and greedy rich people were to blame for his crimes before a jump to 6 years later.

Of course this is one for the Chiranjeevi fans, but it is not a bad film. Just an uneven one. 3 ½ stars! (Points off for badly written female characters, points on for the songs, points off again for trying to pass the songs off as Anu Malik’s)

Stree (2018)

Stree

Amar Kaushik’s Stree starts with the intriguing message that the story is based on a ‘ridiculous true phenomenon’, apparently referencing a folk-tale from Karnataka, but which really could be any one of a number of similar stories world-wide. The film is billed as a horror comedy, and manages to be both funny and scary, which is an excellent achievement in a genre that generally manages one or the other, but rarely both. The story takes place in the wonderfully atmospheric town of Chanderi, making Stree worth watching just for the architecture alone, but in addition, Rajkummar Rao is excellent, Pankaj Tripathi and the rest of the support cast are brilliant, and the blend of social commentary, dark humour and ghostly appearances makes for an unusual but entertaining film.

The basic premise of the story is the annual haunting of Chanderi by a female ghost that preys on the men of the town. For the first four nights of Navratri, Stree calls to any men she sees alone at night stealing them away and leaving behind nothing but their clothes. The best part about this is that she calls their name three times, and if they turn around, she takes that as consent. Naturally then, all the men have to do to be safe is not turn around – but somehow they seem unable to manage this. I love the idea of a female ghost that looks for consent, particularly in Hindi cinema where the men don’t usually give women the same consideration, which is of course the whole point.  But also, and more subtly, there is the message that the men are so desperate for love that they can be easily seduced by the ghost despite knowing the consequences.

Protection from Stree can also be gained by writing a message outside the house asking Stree to come back the following night. Surprisingly the literate Stree obeys, keeping the menfolk safe from her clutches as she continues to follow the directive and return the next night until her time is up. The presence of Stree means that the tables are turned and in this story it’s the men who are terrified and unable to go out alone at night. Some even resort to dressing as women to be able to venture outdoors at night safely, while the rest huddle behind their womenfolk in fear. The film has a lot of these ‘role reversals’ that shine the spotlight on the treatment of women in India. There is even an item song with Nora Fatehi gyrating away in front of a crowd of young men, but at the end she is politely escorted away by bodyguards, totally in control of the situation, while one of the men ends up as Stree’s first victim.

Against the backdrop of the ghost, the film follows Vicky (Rajkummar Rao), a ladies tailor who can gauge his clienteles’ measurements with just a glance, and his romance with an mysterious woman. Despite his obvious talent, Vicky feels that he is destined for bigger and better things, but while he’s waiting for them to happen, he spends his time in Chanderi stitching clothes and hanging out with his friends Bittu (Aparshakti Khurana) and Jana (Abhishek Banerjee). At the start of Navratri, Vicky meets an enigmatic female visitor (Shraddha Kapoor) who has come to the town for the festival, and who commissions Vicky to make an outfit for her. Although his friends are sceptical and even suspect the newcomer may be Stree, Vicky is instantly smitten and ends up on a couple of dubious ‘dates’ with the mysterious stranger. At the same time, Stree has started her annual haunting, although Vicky denies her existence until Jana is one of the men taken by the vengeful spectre. Suddenly Vicky has a reason to find out more about the ghost, and he enlists the aid of local bookstore owner Rudra (Pankaj Tripathi) and even his mysterious girlfriend to track down Stree and rescue the men she has taken.

Part of what makes the film work so well is the humorous dialogue between the three friends and the mix of jokes, physical comedy and deliberate misdirection. When interspersed with some hair-raising moments as Stree creeps up behind yet another victim, the relief gained makes everything seem even funnier and also serves to exaggerate the horror element even more. The first half in particular is well written to blend story development with comedy and horror, and although the repeated attempts to lay the ghost start to drag a little in the second half, there is still enough that is unexpected to give a few shocks right up to the very end. Rajkummar Rao is in his element and he is brilliantly funny as a small-town tailor who is mostly oblivious to the world around him. His reaction to discovering a pretty girl seems interested in him is entertaining and his slave-like devotion to her every wish is cleverly milked for every last drop of humour. Aparshakti Khurana is also excellent as Vicky’s cynical and more sceptical friend, while Abhishek Banerjee is hilarious as the more gullible and susceptible of the trio. I love the contrast between their friendly banter and the more serious discussions going on around them as Stree makes her reappearance into the town while they seem totally oblivious of the danger.

When it comes to the more spooky elements of the story, Shraddha Kapoor does a good job of shrouding her character in mystery without overdoing the ‘silent stranger’ vibe. Although she doesn’t have too much to do other than appear mysterious, her character does keep you guessing, particularly since writers Raj Nidimoru and Krishna D.K. throw in some lovely red herrings (or are they?) along the way. I really enjoyed their previous film Shor in the City, which had a blend of action, violence and comedy, but Stree is a gentler watch that adds more social commentary into the mix. Part of the novelty of the film comes from the tweaking of stereotypical gender roles and the subtle but definite insistence on women’s rights (including the right of a prostitute to insist on the use of a condom) throughout the screenplay.  Although much of the film is very dark, Amalendu Chaudhary makes excellent use of the old buildings as a backdrop, while maintaining a suspenseful atmosphere even during the daylight scenes. Director Amar Kaushil does a good job of keeping everything together with only the odd misstep towards the end of the film.

It’s not a perfect movie, but it’s a good entertainer and the digs at patriarchal society add an extra dimension to the story. Worth watching for clever dialogue, plenty of laughs, a few good scares and excellent performances from the cast. 4 stars.

Stree