For the love of being extra
One of the funniest scenes in Shubh Mangal Zyada Saavdhan (SMZS) is set in a wedding. The patriarch of the Tripathi family, Shankar (Gajraj Rao) gets into a passive-aggressive dance-off with Kartik (Ayushmann Khurrana) after he discovers his son Aman (Jitendra Kumar) is gay and in love with Kartik. Despite moves that look vaguely like a bad Bruce Lee impersonator attempting Bharatnatyam, Shankar does succeed in pushing Kartik on to the backfoot (literally) and Kartik stumbles. A furious Aman helps Kartik to his feet and throwing caution to the winds, fits his lips to Kartik’s.
Panicked by this act of homoerotic rebellion, Shankar turns to his younger brother Chaman (Manu Rishi Chadha) and tells him to do something dammit. Chaman flounders for a moment and then takes off his shiny jacket and drapes it over the kissing pair, thus recreating the poster of Aashiqui — because in India, when you need to fool yourself into thinking all is well with the world when it patently is not, the first port of call is Bollywood. The second is religious ritual, and so Chaman throws himself upon the altar of Sanskrit and starts reciting shlokas. With Pavlovian efficiency, everyone else in the gathering joins in because there is no band-aid more effective than a bogus Hindu ritual when you’re in Uttar Pradesh. When the kiss continues beyond the length of the mantras, Shankar’s wife Sunaina (Neena Gupta) introduces the third comfort to tortured conservatism — tradition. In the Tripathi family, this is a thing they do, she says, smiling shinily. They’re not kissing, she explains, but trying to find the elaichi in the other person’s mouth.
Obviously, none of this is realistic, but it is funny and nestled in its elaichi-flavoured absurdity are a host of uncomfortable truths that we rarely examine. Written and directed by Hitesh Kewalya, SMZS doesn’t always get this balance between ridiculous artifice and genuine insight, but for most part, the film walks that tightrope with flair. Following the tradition revived by Dum Laga ke Haisha, once again we have a madcap family in a small town in Uttar Pradesh and a diffident hero with daddy issues who is forced to adult when he falls in love. Only in SMZS, the love interest is a man. Kewalya is keenly aware of every Bollywood cliché that he deploys in SMZS. Gift-wrapped in quick-fire dialogues, they’re devices to hold the audience’s attention while lulling it into feeling comfortable, rather than challenged.
The hope is that the audience will be entertained in the present and nudged into introspection in the future. That it’ll strike you afterwards that although this is a film about men and manliness, SMZS has some great women characters. Then, while thinking to yourself that you know so many women who are loud-mouthed and bossy like the Tripathis, maybe you’ll wonder whether the real women have more agency than the reel women. Because for all their volume, the Tripathi women are rendered ineffective by a social and familial hierarchy that forces them into subservience. The sight of Aman’s cousin Goggle (Maanvi Gagroo) defiantly riding a white horse into the dark night, dressed not in shining armour but a shinier-than-armour lehenga, may have the audience cheering, but Goggle returns bedraggled, without her steed and filled with more rage than before because her family privileged the lost son over the lost daughter. Sunaina can’t be Mother India because as a married woman (never forget the gun-toting Mother India was a widow) she has only as much authority as her husband will grant her. She can only plead with the men and hope they will listen (spoiler: They don’t).
Tucked into the absurdities, clichés and illogical details of SMZS is an unforgiving and unflattering portrait of patriarchy. The film isn’t only about homophobia. By the end of the film, rather than Kartik and Aman’s love story, it’s the hollow comfort of Shankar and Sunaina’s marriage that stays with you. Kewalya holds out no sop that the older couple’s relationship will change after the upheavals it faces, and that really is the point. For all the fights and the heartbreak, what remains unchanged is the normal made up of truisms like “marriage is a compromise”, feelings of inadequacy, gender inequality, and a deep-rooted conviction that misery is our lot.
Unless, of course, you take a leaf out of Goggle, Aman and Kartik’s lives, and be a little extra.
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