Hitesh Kewalya’s directorial debut, starring Ayushmann Khurrana and Jeetendra Kumar, is new wine in a new bottle. That is so because of a magical construct: perspective

Shubh Mangal Zyada Saavdhan (SMZS) is a love story — a love story of two men. In most Bollywood films, this would have required an explanation or qualification, either about the characters or the story. Or anything else that signals ‘important’, that justifies: “We made a movie about homosexual(s) because…”

But heteronormative people don’t need a reason; they simply exist. Why can’t that be true for others? If there were no ‘normal’, then there wouldn’t be any aberrant, either. Love is love after all, and SMZS gets this.

Its main characters, Kartik (Ayushmann Khurrana) and Aman (Jeetendra Kumar), are ordinary twenty-somethings: goofy men high on love. Kartik does wear a nose-ring, but he isn’t seen through the lens of ‘quirky’ or ‘different’. Their love story, too, has no backstory. There are no whys, whats and whens. The film presents us with a presupposition, and we accept it, as we’d have in any other credible story.

Further, the film doesn’t make a big deal about it. The rebellion here is so quiet, so understated — and yet, so alive — that it feels historic, a moment that will glow in retrospect.

Shubh Mangal Zyada Saavdhan wholeheartedly accepts that love is love

Written and directed by Hitesh Kewalya, SMZS tells a simple story. A story that indeed many Bollywood films have told before. A couple in love, the desire to get married, and parental opposition — usually by the patriarch. Kewalya’s directorial debut, though, is new wine in a new bottle. That is so because of a magical construct: perspective.

By flipping the characters’ sexual orientations, and thus the story’s point-of-view, nearly everything in the movie speaks a new language. In a typical Bollywood romance, we get a clear sense of conflict. It is something to be resolved; it’s mostly personal, hardly political. But in SMZS, the conflict is understood; in the finest of moments, even empathised with. In the status quo-reverential world of Bollywood, the problem is either a person or a System. Here, the problem is the mindset. Most of the times, we watch the movie; in the case of SMZS, the movie watches us.

A brisk piece, clocking just under 120 minutes, the film quickly gets to the main point. Aman’s father, Shankar Tripathi (Gajendra Rao), accidentally sees his son lock lips with Kartik. It’s one of the rare moments in the film that doesn’t seem earned, rather a product of screenwriting contrivance. (Aman’s extended family is in the train, travelling for his cousin’s wedding. Why would he risk kissing in such a situation — that too, not even in the toilet, but near it?)

But if you’re willing to ignore this shaky attention to detail, the film will reward you. Shankar is shocked by this transgressive behaviour, but that’s not the clincher. It is that he’s a scientist, an employed man of reason, the best of the Indian middle-class crop. Shankar’s reaction then is a stand-in not for an individual, but a world, our world.

These are weighty ideas, but SMZS isn’t burdened by them. The film instead unfolds as a comedy. The gags, true to the movie’s world, feel natural; in the best of cases, they’re even revealing. The film also allows itself — and revels in — enough silliness.

Take the song Ooh La La for example. Shot inside a moving train, with the camera often watching the performers from the top-most berth, it’s a wonderful example of life colliding with Bollywood joyousness. Or another scene, where a serious moment — Shankar thrashing Kartik — is made goofy via freeze frames and slo-mo shots. Or the scene right after the kiss revelation, where a doctor treating an unconscious Shankar is interrupted by quarrelling, conflicting stories of the Tripathis. A moment of wonderful comical absurdity seen through the lens of an Indian family — like a Quentin Tarantino set-piece in a Sooraj Barjatya drama.

Even though SMZS is centered on two heroes, the film is alive to other characters, too — their stories, quirks, quandaries. There’s Aman’s cousin Goggle (Maanvi Gagroo), a 27-year-old girl perpetually unlucky with marriage proposals; her brother whose intellectual curiosity becomes his undoing; their father, Chaman (Manurishi Chaddha) who, wanting to become a lawyer for the last few decades, is stuck in a coming-of-age story of his own. Several crucial scenes are crosscut; many have multiple narrative strands in one frame, revealing an assortment of confusion, the foundational conversational style of many middle-class families.

Then there are the heroes, Khurranna and Kumar, who should be applauded for choosing a film like this in a historically hidebound industry. Kumar channelises his gentle cynicism and pragmatism to full effect here, a territory that comes easily to him as evidenced in several TVF web series. Khurranna, the poster-boy of middle-class ordinariness, steps out of his mould here, playing a more towering, scene-chewing role.

These performances, complemented by an excellent ensemble, are so arresting that they (almost) manage to mask the film’s sporadic flaws. A few scenes look set-up for the sole reason of giving Khurranna a sanctimonious monologue. Sometimes the gags sway uncomfortably between lewd and rooted. One particular scene — Kartik repeatedly singing “Jack and Johnny went up the hill…” on a railway platform — is painful to watch.

But the achievements here easily outsize the sloppiness. Further, the film’s several odes to Bollywood are heartfelt, befitting this story. Bollywood, forever in deference to the middle-class values, has mostly showed a slice of Indian reality, filtering it through gloss and song and melodrama, many times at the cost of other stories. Homosexuals have often been a target of derision — they are hardly people, always punchlines, a comic relief in second acts and award shows. Kewalya is aware of that, but instead of being bitter, he chooses to be gentle.

SMZS doffs its hat to Jai and Veeru (Sholay), old Hindi film songs, and that eternal Bollywood couple, Raj and Simran (Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayenge), a movie that is referenced multiple times. When Kartik extends his arm towards Aman — the former on a speeding train, the latter on a platform — a thrill ran down my spine. For someone who spent more time growing up in cinema halls than in his own house — and years later, wanted Bollywood to grow up — watching this scene felt like coming home.

Even though Shankar tells Aman, “Jaa beta, jee le apni zindagi [Go son, live your life]”, it doesn’t have the finality of an authority pronouncing a judgement. Instead, it feels like a face-saving act: a judgement that dignifies the judge. Which makes sense, for in modern India, the young will free the old. — By arrangement with The Wire, India

Published in Dawn, ICON, April 5th, 2020

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