Shubh Mangal Zyada Saavdhan will go down as a milestone for Indian (read: Hindi) commercial cinema’s struggle of ‘coming out’ to gay existence. With a popular male star in the lead, Ayushmann Khurrana, and neither of two ‘gay’ leads being the butt of jokes or caricatures, the film is surely a step forward.
With a reported collection of over Rs 50 crore so far and critical appreciation and ‘bravery’ being attributed to the cast and crew, the film has gone down relatively well with large sections of the gay community. There is an expectation, if not hope, among young gay men, that such a film may lead their parents to accept the fact that two men can be in love with each other.
But as much as I see the relevance of such a film for the hope and potential it holds given that it could - even if slightly - help build acceptance in society, I just can’t get myself to love the film.
There are characters that I find amusing but neither of the gay protagonists connects with my heart or the lived struggles of many gay people as the struggle itself is missing.
There are no back-stories about either of the ‘leads’ nor is there any ‘pain’ as such when their relationship is rejected. Finding approval also seems very easy for the couple - Kartik (Ayushmann) and Aman (Jitendra Kumar) - which is far from the realities of such people. Positioned as a rom-com, the film is filled with comedy than any romance.
The only moment that touched me was when Ayushmann hugs Gajraj Rao (Jitendra’s father) from the back soon after he blessed his son in a manner that seems to suggest that he had accepted his son and his sexuality. But, this scene is pretty much right at the end of the film. And before one can even sink in and savour the scene, Bappi Lahiri appears for no fathomable reason in a song!
Cinema can always push the envelope and in a way, SMZS tries to do that but I feel, the push is just about a nudge.
At the time when I was growing up in a world where homophobia ruled; where anything that didn’t fit into the world of family and marriage was shut out and what a man or woman should be and how gender was pre-defined and cast in stone, we had few avenues for reassurance, films being one of them.
As I entered my journey of queerness, my mother walked along often watching the same films together or separately. There was a My Brother Nikhil, Fire, gay characters in the film Fashion, a beautiful love story in the Lisa Ray starrer, I Can’t Think Straight and the human rights film, Aligarh with Manoj Bajpayee in the lead. From the West, there was Milk and even a TV series called Queer As Folk. And from other parts of the world, there was Bishonen, Bad Education, Beautiful Boxer and so many other films from Japan, Hong Kong, Italy and France.
One thing in common to all these films was lived realities, and almost no hesitation to paint a picture with the colours of life as they were, catering with dignity to the ‘us’ and ‘them’ of cinema-goers. Then really, how much forward does an SMZS take us?
Some young gay men from small-town India I spoke to, believe their parents only see ‘this’ kind of cinema - a romantic-comedy with popular stars. They like spice, they don’t mind women being the subject of jokes or that it is okay to make fun of someone who is disabled - in this case a lady who has a stone replacing one of her eyes. “Anything too serious, will not be watched and even if they buy the ticket, they’d probably sleep through the film or walk out,” a gay man from Jaipur told me.
This makes sense even if an uncomfortable truth. A national award-winning film critic told me, Indians largely like heroes, humour which can be mindless and insulting and have enough sorrows and stresses in real life that taking in more of it through cinema, is a turn-off. At the same time, ‘serious’ issues and truths that shake the foundation of society - marriage and family - are not easily imbibed and require years of chipping away. “See how long it has taken to have women-centric films,” an anthropologist points out.
Even as this is true, and this is exactly where the problem lies and some form of disruption is required, my gut says there would be more ‘queer’ cinema in the making. Filmmaker, Faraz Ansari (Sisak and Sheer Qorma), speaking at an LGBTI event - RISE - in Delhi recently said the time had already come. “We can’t always use comedy as an option, to tell the truth, the pain and love of queer people,” he contended, adding “it is not honest as people need to know us for who we are.”
Over the past few years, the Indian filmmaking space has seen a number of queer short films. Some of them have had commercial filmmakers such as Tanuja Chandra take the lead with Gazal Dhaliwal scripting Monsoon Date and Konkona Sen starring in it. Sridhar Rangayan, an out gay filmmaker, made a feature film in Evening Shadows which made it to cinemas across the country.
There have also been other films such as U For Usha, Khwaish and Daaravtha, among a pretty long list of films. And each one tugs at your heart as it tells you the truth, expresses what is and doesn’t shy away from the lived circumstances of the LGBTQI+.
The fact is, however, that even if an SMZS doesn’t tick all the boxes of what gay life is, it may have set the ball rolling where other filmmakers ‘come out’ even further, reducing their own fears of ‘what society may say’ and give us a hug to know and show how our heart ticks.
The writer is Festival Director, Rainbow Lit Fest and author, Straight To Normal - My Life As A Gay Man