Director: Hitesh Kewalya
Cast: Ayushmann Khurrana, Jitendra Kumar, Gajraj Rao, Neena Gupta, Maanvi Gagroo, Manu Rishi, Sunita Rajwar
From risking a Bollywood debut by taking on the role of a sperm donor (Vicky Donor, 2012) to playing a scientist (Hawaaizada, 2015) and having it fall flat at the box office to resurrecting a fading career by daring to play second fiddle to Bhumi Pednekar’s overweight-in-love-yet-ambitious-woman show stealing act in her debut (Dum Laga Ke Haisha, 2015), to playing a brooding, sentimental writer going rogue to win the love of his life (Bareilly ki Barfi, 2017) and then shocking us all by playing a freshly engaged man suffering from erectile dysfunction later that year (Shubh Mangal Saavdhan), Ayushmann Khurrana is not merely your boy-next-door or the everyman you inadvertently miss in the elevator on the way to your office. Just when you sit back comfortably slotting the man and the actor in a Bollywoodish tried-and-tested stereotype, Khurrana grabs your attention by the horns by starring in a neo noir cinematic feast titled Andhadhun (2018).
So when Khurrana hit the big screens last week with co-actor Jitendra Kumar (of TVF fame) as his love interest in Shubh Mangal Zyada Saavdhan (the ‘Zyada’ is where the secret lies), the audience, deep down, knew what they were going to be served. It was his home turf – playing the genial, passionate love with aplomb.
Except, it did not seem to hit the right notes this time around. At least for me.
Shubh Mangal Zyada Saavdhan (SMZS, hereafter) in short, is about two gay men, confronted with the excruciatingly laborious task of convincing one of their families in small town Allahabad to accept their ‘unnatural’ relationship.
Aman Tripathi (Jitendra Kumar) and Kartik Singh (Ayushmann Khurrana) are salesmen who meet in Delhi and seem to be quietly enjoying a passionate relationship in their little bubble, away from prying eyes and nosy neighbourhood side-eyes. The smooth trajectory of their bond, however, comes to a screeching halt when they are faced with the tenacious regressiveness of the Indian mentality.
Coming out to a family that had presumptuously chosen a nauseatingly saccharine heterosexual bahu for their only son, Aman is met with only mountains to conquer. No faith to move it by even an inch. Given the dilemma of working out the debt of his father’s sperm over an entire lifetime by doing the latter’s bidding, we see a simmering intensity brewing underneath Aman’s rather uptight, socially conscious persona. He is clearly torn between love and duty.
Kartik, on the other hand, is the unabashed, fervent lover who may well have been called I-put-my-foot-in-mouth-Singh. Be it getting his PDA game on in the most perilous of public spaces or standing head-to-head in combat with his lover’s sanskaari dad – he knows a thing or two about stirring trouble.
Together, Kartik is the fire to Aman’s meek, shifty winds.
And their love story could have been portrayed as a love story like no other, had director Hitesh Kewalya toned down on the theatrics. From the opening scene where the two are found dramatically chasing a moving train, we get a hint of how over-the-top the movie is to be in the next couple of hours. Aman’s conversation with dad Shankar Tripathi (Gajraj Rao) and mom Sunaina Tripathi (Neena Gupta) could well look to you like it’s been stolen from one of their many TVF conversations – so no surprises there. You are bound to enjoy their verbal exchanges, but truth be told, it is cut from the same cloth as have so many similar small town parent-child dynamics in earlier movies.
There are a motley of characters thrown in to highlight dormant undercurrents within the family – uncle Chaman Tripathi (Manu Rishi), aunt Champa Tripathi (Sunita Rajwar) and cousin Rajni Tripathi (fondly called Goggle, played by Maanvi Gagroo) form the other half of the crazies making up the Tripathi clan. They each have their own troubles and injustices brandished like a sword on their chest, each time they butt heads with the seniors in the family. And what better than a dubious wedding to draw out past resentment between the stakeholders, look deep enough to even out power imbalances in the household and redefine the meaning of love and life?
Herein lies the strength of the film. As well as its weakness.
Director Hitesh (who is also the writer of the movie) must duly be credited for according side characters their respective and rightful place in the film – no more is this characterised than by the fact that none of his supporting cast looks like a mere aberration in the plot, they are all integral to the story. That said, often times there is just too much talking happening in the film, too many preachy, bombastic dialogues exchanged, too much of an emphasis on sending out a message to the society. For a film as sensitive as this, SMZS would have done better to instead focus on the characters living their lives and trying to deal with its curveballs the best they could, than acting in a certain way to prove anything to the society.
In that sense, the immersiveness of the story and its characters is what is missing here. They do not just be and allow you to draw from their experiences. And so, even though the film has its heart in the right place, you come away not feeling much at all.
I was also disappointed with how the director chose to only focus on the family and their interpersonal equations without taking into context the beauty and history Allahabad as a city offers. The laser focus centred on the characters and that one house makes the film claustrophic at many points.
Gajraj Rao is sufficiently interesting and will certainly tickle your funny bone. It is, however, Neena Gupta as his wife who matches (and even tops) his frazzled, all-knowing, wacky scientist demeanour with some of the most memorable punchlines uttered in the film. Her scenes with Rao and Rajwar are some of the most entertaining ones in the movie, and fortunately or fortunately, bound to linger on in your mind longer than the leads’ acting might.
Between the leads, it is Jitendra’s nuanced, tempered performance that is likely to win you over rather than Khurrana’s overzealous, lover boy act. In fact, the latter’s costumes and that oh-so-sexy-nose ring stand out more in your mind than does the overall performance. I dare say Khurrana may just have played the tritest role in his career.
Then there are irrelevant plot lines involving kaali gobhi (black cauliflower) and vague farmer’s protests woven into the story, the absence of which could have easily reduced the run time of the film by a precious few minutes. Not to mention, Bhumi Pednekar’s extremely immaterial special appearance.
However, not all is wasted in the film. The music is in fact one of the better elements of the movie. With 3 of 7 songs proving to be chartbuster hits within days of their release – Ooh la la, Pyaar Tenu Karda Gabru and Mere Liye Tum Kaafi Ho – you get your money’s worth tapping to the high voltage drama weaved into these songs.
Despite the cinematic glitches and sub-par portrayal of the subject, Shubh Mangal Zyada Saavdhan tackles an extremely sensitive and controversial issue – gay love – that continues to raise eyebrows despite the highest court of law in the land decriminalizing homosexuality. To that end, and that alone, the movie is a must-watch for families across the length and breadth of the country. As long as they can come out of the theater being able to accept different choices – and different kinds of love – whether they wholeheartedly agree with/understand it or not – the movie will have its done job well.
P.S. Special mention for the grace with which the kissing scenes between the leads were handled. If that is not brave, then I don’t know what is!