Shubh Mangal Savdhan: A grown-up issue dealt in grown-up ways
Prasanna and Rai turn what was essentially the multiplex Tamil cinema into Rai's counterpoint to the Bollywood multiplex film, and fashion it as a satire on the fragility of masculinity
Whatever his limitations may be as a director, it is undeniable that Anand L. Rai has brought an arresting sense of authenticity to Hindi cinema. At least, a section of Hindi cinema that became the unloved sibling for a while during the multiplex boom. It's in how his lead characters come across - well defined, finished products who are not just residents in his head. They are both original and relatable. It's in how even the supporting characters possess this quality, individually or in the ways they interact with each other, and none of them is ever dispensable. Shubh Mangal Savdhan is of course RS Prasanna's film (with screenplay and dialogues credited to Hitesh Kewalia) - Prasanna's remake of his Tamil film, Kalyana Samayal Saadham - but we have seen enough films from Rai's stable that reinforce his fecundity of imagination in moulding any story into his brand. It was apparent even in a minor film like Happy Bhaag Jayegi. Turning what was essentially the multiplex cinema of the Tamil industry into Rai's counterpoint to the Bollywood multiplex film, fashioning it as a satire on the fragility of masculinity, is probably Prasanna's and Rai's greatest achievement.
For a change, it is good to see lead characters who are unsure of themselves. Unsure of approaching each other, unsure about a relationship, unsure about marriage, and even unsure about sex before marriage. We've long been fattening ourselves up on the Imtiaz Alis, Karan Johars, and Ayan Mukherjees, their perfect worlds of modern relationships, middle finger to marriages, sex-first-learn-names-later paradise of films. Here are Rai and Prasanna telling us about Mudit (Ayushmann Khurranna) and Sugandha (Bhumi Pednekar), who have dreams of a marriage by way of romance, but are fine if turns into an arranged marriage by way of romance. Their movie references are as old fashioned as their names - Ek Duje Ke Liye, Chameli Ki Shaadi, Qayamat Se Qayamat Tak, Dil Hai Ke Manta Nahin. They have the problem of the nose getting in the way when they kiss. Or the helmet visor. This unsure nature, this lack of confidence manifests as a physical problem for Mudit and therefore becomes the conceit to build a film that revolves around Sugandha.
Cast: Ayushmann Khurrana, Bhumi Pednekar
Director: RS Prasanna
Prasanna plays with this conceit in several suggestive ways. He begins in the very first scene, where Mudit cannot even build up the courage to go speak to her. And just when he does, he is stopped by a bear. It's as funny as it is bizarre. They finally meet - through the process of arranged marriage and parents' sanction - when as they walk and talk, there is a board outside a shop that says, 'All Mobiles Tempered'. Another instance, after dropping Sugandha home, he walks into her house and says his bike refused to start. After a while, this is overdone when it is played up just for easy laughs. The film once again begins to take control when Mudit's problem becomes a collective problem. More specifically, it becomes Sugandha's problem as she tries to expose his one-dimensional approach towards solving it.
By now, it is a running joke that all of Bhumi Pednekar's films, so far, revolve around her marriage. What we tend to miss is the beautiful fact that all her films also revolve around her character and not many actresses can claim that this early in their career. Shubh Mangal Savdhan is also about Sugandha's agency, recognizing that she may be okay with arranged marriage, she may be reluctant about sex before marriage, but at the same time, she refuses to be taken for granted. When Mudit says he'd rather call off the wedding due to his problem, she admonishes him for not considering her opinion. And now that they are on this journey together, she won't tolerate his grouchy disposition for the rest of their life. Shubh Mangal Savdhan makes you slowly realize that those movies referenced before were not as old-fashioned as we thought them to be. And Prasanna contrasts this fragile male ego with the edifying openness of the female at every step. Sugandha's mother, much to her consternation, uses clever metaphors but she is loud and blunt in talking about sex. Her friend Ginni brings up neighbourhood gossip and the real reason behind a divorce, and how Katrina Kaif is leaving ordinary women like themselves, high and dry. Compare this to the father, who operates at the wee hours and makes sneaky phone calls to Mudit to talk about his problem. Or Mudit's own friends using euphemisms to discuss his issues, even in private.
The film's trajectory in exploring this problem from the other side of the male gaze is a joy to behold. A meaningless ritual to make final arguments is a masterstroke from Prasanna. A Jimmy Shergill special appearance is well-intentioned but tonally off, though there is something to be said for the man's man of Anand L. Rai's films speaking those words. Shubh Mangal Savdhan will also be remembered for another reason. In the era of Hindi films embracing the current government's policies, in both suggestive ways or as propaganda, RS Prasanna's film becomes the first mainstream film to poke fun at them. There is a wink at demonetization and a well-placed joke about "digital India". What's not to like?