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.