Shubh Mangal Zyaada Saavdhan takes on homophobia bravely but ineffectually

Shubh Mangal Zyaada Saavdhan is about two gay men but it’s not a love story. Writer and debutant director, Hitesh Kewalya, hurriedly establishes the chemistry between its two leading men by recreating the nauseously romantic “take my hand and catch the train to happily ever after” scene from Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayenge. He then moves on to call out those who are physically repulsed at the sight of two male bodies colliding with their lips. What follows is pungent irony. The “Vivaah Special Express” that Kartik Singh (Ayushmann Khurrana) and Aman Tripathi (Jitendra Kumar) have dramatically boarded is not an escape from but an invitation to the prejudiced family courtyard, where people are morally obliged to browbeat the flagbearers of true love.

The film uses the time-tested instrument of comedy to drive an obvious message into thick skulls and meanders away from being a dumb person’s guide to being homosexual in India. But what promises to be a blitzkrieg of light-hearted jibes about rampant homophobia becomes a stereotypical family drama in huge parts.

The film is set in culturally vibrant Allahabad before it became the pious city, Prayagraj. It’s still a few days before the Supreme Court decriminalises homosexuality and the battle cries that issue from queer parades are yet to reach regressive ears. An assertive Kartik had dealt with the derision that followed his coming out as a gay man in his teens. It’s now time for timid Aman to face the music. He’s unsure and feeds off the courage of his partner Kartik, who is willing to lead the charge. Thankfully, the two men are not forced into stereotypically “gendered” roles. Kartik’s nose ring and pink dupatta speak for his confidence more than his identity. The young lovers are tastefully mushy and their chemistry is relatable. But once established it’s not milked any further. The focus soon shifts away from them as soon as their secret is out of the closet.

Aman’s stubborn father, Shankar Tripathi, and his crackpot antics soon take centre stage. Played by the masterful Gajraj Rao, Tripathi’s act of throwing up at the sight of his son lip-locked with another man establishes his egregious hostility. The patriarch tries to school the grown men with sticks but also has subtle meltdowns in front of his wife. His desolate sense of humour, a belligerent dance off with Kartik and visible chagrin throughout do well to keep the laughs occurring naturally. It’s his wife, Sunaina Tripathi, played by Neena Gupta, who holds his complicated intractability in check. She is poignantly funny at being a mother torn between her son and his father. She is the balancing character of the film.

Khurrana is a defiant lover but no cliché of the “gay man”, which is the best part about his character. But he does little to separate Kartik from his own persona. His acting and his cinema is extremely likable, but it is becoming a bit of a formula.

What counters his soft heroics in the film is Kumar’s small-town, coy act as Aman. His character is an acute deviation from his comic sketches in “The Viral Fever” that shot him to fame. Here, he is a fresh face, a refreshing act and thoroughly likable.

At two hours the film feels a bit of a stretch in the second half. Kewalya, though, refrains from overdramatising a sensitive subject but is unable to quite finish the film smoothly. He interjects it with sub plots, which take the attention away from the lead couple and their struggles. He rightly relies on his able side cast but also gives them contrived punchlines in the hope that the comic drama reaches its crescendo.

Bollywood is slowing building on it, but I hope the next film that takes on prejudices against gay people tones down the “Shubh Mangal Zyaada Saavdhan is a crackling comedy in parts and an eager but brave take on choice more than sexual preferences. It’s a placebo that will give awkward, confused parents something to laugh about and ponder over.

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