Without the kissing scene, Shubh Mangal Zyada Saavdhan wouldn’t have cut so deep: Jitendra Kumar
Jitendra Kumar, Neena Gupta and director Hitesh Kewalya on normalising same-sex love with Shubh Mangal Zyada Saavdhan
The mission statement of Shubh Mangal Zyada Saavdhan is encapsulated in a scene that comes around midway. Kartik (Ayushmann Khurrana) drops some heavy truth-bombs on his lover Aman (Jitendra Kumar). He tells his docile, reluctant partner that contrary to what he thinks, most parents have an early measure of their child’s sexuality. “They always know…,” Kartik says. It’s just that, he explains, they are afraid of judgement, and what the larger society would make of them. Societal compulsion — and not lack of empathy — is what turns Indian families against their own, Kartik argues.
For writer-director Hitesh Kewalya, this is the central thesis of his film, released in theatres on February 21 and hailed as Bollywood’s first gay romcom.
“Homophobia in India is a function of perception,” says Hitesh. “It’s always about ‘What would someone else think?’ That someone else can be other family members, your neighbours, or the world at large. What if we just reverse that and ask ourselves: What do I think? Or, more importantly, what do I feel?”
Unfolding in Allahabad, the film tracks Kartik and Aman’s efforts to win the acceptance of the latter’s family. That includes his patriarchal father Shankar Tripathi (Gajraj Rao) and crabby mother Sunaina (Neena Gupta). The central conflict is treated with humour, including a funny track about genetically modified crops that Shankar grows in his nursery. When Kartik is beaten up for broadcasting his love openly, a goofy music score is used to extenuate the violence, putting family audiences at ease.
“We did not want heroes or villains in the film,” Hitesh explains. “A character like Shankar Tripathi is a product of his conditioning. The film does not judge him, just studies his thought process. And there’s no better way to do show that but humour.”
In other aspects, though, the film is bracingly upfront. There are two kissing scenes between the male leads: first on a train and later, in the midst of a wedding. In the second instance, the shock of the family mirrors the general squeamishness of the Indian theatre-goer, forever accustomed to heteronormative displays of affection on the big screen. According to Jitendra, the kiss was important to normalise the idea of same-sex love. “Without the kissing scene, the film wouldn’t have cut so deep. Unless we, as a society, are comfortable with the visual of two homosexual people kissing, homophobia will persist,” he says.
This is Jitendra’s second theatrical release after Gone Kesh (2019). It also announces his transition to mainstream Bollywood after a successful start in the OTT space. “Shubh Mangal Zyada Saavdhan was the perfect take-off point for me,” the actor says. “I was part of India's first web-show (TVF’s Permanent Roommates). From there, I’ve done everything from sketches to stage shows. With this film, I am getting to expand my audience all across India. I just feel lucky.”
Neena Gupta says she’s happy the film has opened up the conversation around homosexuality in India. “Before the release, a lot of people would be surprised when I said SMZS is a family film. But that’s the beauty of it. We have addressed an important problem without being insensitive or preachy,” she says.
Like Badhaai Ho, the film makes delicious use of her chemistry with Gajraj Rao. In one memorable sequence, Aman’s parents, when confronted with their son’s sexuality, end up reassessing their own relationship as a couple. “Chemistry is a spontaneous thing,” Neena says. “When you are collaborating with a good actor, when you understand each other and don’t have any ego issues, it just happens. This was perhaps the first film where the character actors, including Gajraj and I, shot for 40-plus days. We were there in most of the scenes. Naturally, a sense of togetherness crept in.”
After SMZS, Neena Gupta will be seen in The Last Colour, a social drama exploring the plight of widows in Vrindavan and Varanasi. The film, which marks the directorial debut of chef Vikas Khanna, was screened at multiple festivals and was eligible for the 92nd Academy Awards. She also has two web releases (Masaba Masaba and Panchayat) in 2020 and two feature projects, including Nikhil Advani’s untitled next.
“The last few years have been a golden period in my career,” says Neena. “I wish I was younger now so that I could do all kinds of roles. Still, I am thankful for the work that’s finally coming my way. For instance, my film with Nikhil is completely different and will be my most challenging role yet.”