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.

Tumbbad

Horror films are not usually my first, or even second choice, but I’m so glad I listened to a friend’s recommendation and watched Tumbbad. The film is exquisitely made and the story is much better than I expected – more Pan’s Labyrinth than The Shining although quite definitely Indian in feel. Here there are myths, metaphors and monsters that are frightening on a number of levels while the underlying story explores the theme of greed and how it warps and twists those it touches. The story is told in three separate chapters that span the years from 1918 to 1947 and adds glimpses of the social issues of the time, ranging from the harsh treatment of widows to Indian Independence and the opium trade. Against this backdrop, Vinayak Rao grows from a young child to become a father himself as he seeks out the treasure that lies within Tumbbad.

The film opens with an animation and voice-over where a father tells his son the legend of the god Hastar and his imprisonment in the womb of the goddess of prosperity. It’s an effective way to quickly explain the background story and introduce the idea of treasure and the consequences of unrestricted greed before moving to 1918 and a rain-soaked village somewhere near Pune. Tumbbad is where young Vinayak (Dhundiraj Prabhakar Jogalekar) and Sadashiv (Rudra Soni) live with their mother (Jyoti Malshe) in a strange stone house on the top of a hill. The boy’s mother is housekeeper and mistress to the ageing Sarkar (Madhav Hari Joshi) who lives in a crumbling palace and who is apparently also the boys’ father. Vinayak’s mother also takes care of the Sarkar’s great grandmother (Piyush Kaushik), who is chained and locked in a room at the end of a long, narrow corridor in their small house. She sleeps as long as she is fed regularly and the family live in dread of her waking with her snores added to the ever-present sound of the rain.

After Sarkar dies, Vinayak wants to look for the treasure, supposedly located somewhere in the palace, but after a tragic accident his mother is intent on leaving Tumbbad. She forces Vinayak to promise not to return, but fifteen years later Vinayak (Sohum Shah) breaks his vow and returns to the palace to claim his birthright. But as his great, great grandmother tells him, not everything you inherit should be claimed. The final chapter in the story relates what happens when Vinayak brings his own son Pandurang (Mohammad Samad) to Tumbbad and initiates him into the mystery of Hastar and the family treasure.

The film was written by Rahil Anil Barve, along with Anand Gandhi, Mitest Shah and Adesh Prasad, and went through a number of producers and re-writes before finally releasing at film festivals last year. Perhaps as a consequence of the long development, Tumbbad is full of sumptuous detail that mostly serves to enhance the story. To start with, the village of Tumbbad seems practically non-existent since the only places seen through the veil of rain are the crumbling palace and the family’s stone house set amongst a bleak and desolate landscape. Adding to the misery of the landscape, inside the house there are dark passageways lit only by lamplight, while the palace is a bewildering warren of rooms and buildings which are gradually overtaken by trees and greenery as time passes. The whole place reeks of decay and corruption and is the perfect setting for a horror film. Pankaj Kumar is in charge of cinematography and his previous experience with films such as Haider and Ship of Theseus seems to have influenced his almost surreal treatment of the landscape here.

The path to the treasure is via a well and as Vinayak descends the passageway becomes red with oozing walls that seem to pulsate, making it seem as if he has indeed crawled into the womb of the goddess in his search for Hastar. The monsters are well thought out too and with clever use of CGI and dim lighting the effects are frightening without being overly gruesome or theatrical. The film relies on suggestion and atmosphere rather than all-out horror or gore, but there are several excellent jump-scares and plenty of creepy moments that are quite scary enough for me.

Throughout the film there are several reoccurring themes that lock the cycle of greed in place. The rain is constant, while a woman wearing red and the image of a boy covered in flour reoccur in different chapters of the story. Best of all are the wonderfully intricate and complex locks that secure the various entrances – to the stone house, the palace, and even to the entrance to the treasure.

Sohum Shah is fantastic here as a man so obsessed by gold that he values it above all other relationships. His face is cold and emotionless until it comes to the matter of money, and then his infatuation with treasure is plain to see. He even trains Pandurang in the skills needed to reach the treasure, but has no real emotional connection with his son at all. The two child actors in the beginning are superb and are instrumental is setting up the initial claustrophobic fear that permeates their home.

It’s the evolution of the main characters here and how they become monstrous in their greed that works best, which Mohammad Samad manages well as Pandurang. His change from initial innocence to scheming for more gold is beautifully handled and perfectly summed up in his attitude to his mother and to Vinayak’s mistress (Ronjini Chakraborty). It’s an impressive performance from the young actor and he handles the various emotions of the role incredibly well. Anita Date is also good in a small but important role as Vinayak’s wife, while Deepak Damle and the rest of the support cast are all effective and add layers to the complexity of the film.

The most impressive thing about Tumbbad is the story, which grabs attention right from the start and just doesn’t let go. The stunning sets and clever use of light and shade are amazingly effective, while the whole world of the film is resonant with detail and rich in imagination. Despite the story being all about the evil of greed, it doesn’t ever feel moralistic, but rather simply describes the consequence of succumbing to the desire for more and more gold. It’s also an interesting take to have the protagonist approach and take advantage of the monster rather than the other way around. All up, Tumbbad is an excellent directorial début from Rahi Anil Barve and creative director Anand Gandhi. It’s simply an awesome film that deserves a wide audience outside of fans of the horror genre, and is well worth catching online if (like me) you missed it at the cinema. 4½ stars.

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)