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Hitesh Kewalya's Shubh Mangal Zyada uses the rom-com genre to tell a story about a gay couple wanting their love to be recognized and accepted.

  • Shubh Mangal Zyada Saavdhan
  • Directed by Hitesh Kewalya
  • Written by Hitesh Kewalya
  • Starring Ayushmann Khurrana, Jitendra Kumar, Gajraj Rao, Neena Gupta, Manu Rishi Chadha, Sunita Rajwar, Maanvi Gagroo, Pankhuri Awasthy
  • Classification PG (G in Quebec); 117 mins

rating

Just to get it out of the way – the phrase shubh mangal saavdhan is a mantra of sorts, uttered to announce a marriage. It’s also the title of an earlier movie written by Hitesh Kewalya, in which Ayushmann Khurrana played the lead role of a man dealing with erectile dysfunction, much to the chagrin of his fiancèe, played by Bhumi Pednekar, with a squabbling family providing the backdrop of comic relief.

Now Kewalya’s revisiting the title, in a way. But this time he’s not just the writer. Shubh Mangal Zyada Saavdhan, a Hindi film with English subtitles, is also his directorial debut. The plot is entirely different, while the title is slightly tweaked. The word zyada means extra. And – the way kids use the word these days – is one way to describe the film. It’s just so extra in depicting a story about two gay men in love, and seeking validation from their family. It’s both its drawback and delight.

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Khurrana returns in this gay rom-com, playing Kartik Singh, a Delhi boy who is unabashedly in love with Aman Tripathi (Jitendra Kumar). Aman’s conservative family comes from the smaller town of Allahabad. His father Shankar (Gajraj Rao) is some sort of agriculture scientist, who grows genetically modified black cauliflowers that are supposed to be worm resistant. His mother Sunaina (Neena Gupta) is a homemaker. The Tripathis live in a joint family system, with Aman’s uncle Chaman (Manu Rishi Chadha), aunt Champa (Sunita Rajwar) and cousin Rajni (Maanvi Gagroo), who goes by the nickname Goggle for a reason.

We never see Kartik’s family in the film, but we get to hear how he was thrashed by his father when he came out. When Aman is asked to join Goggle’s wedding party, Kartik tags along on the train journey. We’ll pretend to be friends, Kartik tells Aman, in part to assuage Aman’s misgivings about his conservative family. However, Aman’s father chances upon Kartik and Aman making out in the train, and drama ensues.

Homosexuality has long been the butt of jokes in Bollywood. For years, men have played effeminate characters or eunuchs, dressing up in women’s clothes to hoodwink school marms, or pretending to be gay to rent an apartment because that way they aren’t perceived as a threat. While art house cinema and smaller budget films have addressed challenges faced by India’s queer community, the inclusion of queer characters in movies such as Kapoor & Sons (2016) or Veere Di Wedding (2018) is a recent phenomenon.

Then came Ek Ladki Ko Dekha Toh Aisa Laga (2019), featuring A-list Bollywood starlet Sonam Kapoor playing lesbian character Sweety, who comes out to her conservative family in a small town in Punjab. It was written by trans activist Gazal Dhaliwal, whose lived experience informed the movie. Some critics called Ek Ladki Ko Dekha Toh Aisa Laga safe, where the two women’s desire for each other isn’t depicted beyond some covert flirting. But for many in the queer community, it was a validating experience to see their truth represented in a commercial Bollywood movie.

To see two male Hindi film actors passionately kissing on the big screen in Shubh Mangal Zayada Saavdhan – even if it’s for a handful of seconds – is a big leap for Bollywood. Especially when you consider that most leading Bollywood stars refused to act the role of the gay brother in Kapoor & Sons. Pakistani actor Fawad Khan ended up playing it with heartbreaking sensitivity and realness.

Khurrana has now become the go-to Bollywood actor to play offbeat roles with relish and panache. While he dons a nose ring to play Kartik, and proudly sports a Pride flag on his bare-chest in one scene, there’s nothing campy about his portrayal. Kumar turns in a thoughtful performance as a man conflicted between love and familial expectations. Although the family squabbling in the background is farcical most times, the supporting cast does highlight the ways many Indian families handle their children’s coming out. From complete denial, bizarre rituals, forced marriages to a begrudging acceptance – it’s all there, even if the story unfolds in a series of one-line zingers, many of which don’t carry enough bite.

Besides Kartik and Aman, also watch out for the subplots of Goggle and Kusum (Pankhuri Awasthy). Their love stories are incidental but both actresses manage to hold their own in an ensemble cast filled with veterans.

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Shubh Mangal Zyada Saavdhan is not without faults. There are several eye-roll moments played up for laughs. Nevertheless, you understand how Kewalya is using the rom-com genre to tell a story about a gay couple wanting their love to be recognized and accepted.

Though not perfect, Shubh Mangal Zyada Saavdhan gives viewers one more queer Bollywood narrative to choose from.

Shubh Mangal Zyada Saavdhan opened across theatres in Canada on Feb 20.

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