Sunday, February 23, 2020


Release date:
February 21, 2020
Hitesh Kewalya
Ayushmann Khurrana, Jitendra Kumar, Neena Gupta, Gajraj Rao, Sunita Rajwar, Manu Rishi Chadha, Maanvi Gagroo, Cameo: Bhumi Pednekar

It has been a long time coming. 

From the pre-2000 decades when LGBT+ persons were almost always (almost, but not always) written purely as objects of either derision or comedy by Bollywood scriptwriters, to this week’s Shubh Mangal Zyada Saavdhan (SMZS); from an earlier era when comparatively sensitive Hindi filmmakers packed their works with subliminal messaging about same-sex love, to the post-2000 era’s intermittent open declarations; from the days when the homosexual relationships in My Brother Nikhil (2005) and I Am (2011) were assumed to be of niche interest by producers, distributors and exhibitors, to the present day when glamorous mainstream stars have been cast as same-sex lovers in films bearing all the trappings of mainstream commercial Bollywood such as Ek Ladki Ko Dekha Toh Aisa Laga (2019) and SMZS, it has been a long long time coming.

Bollywood in 2020 is far from being a jannat, orthodox masses still seem to need comedy as a package for a sensitive reality, and at a couple of  places, Shubh Mangal Zyada Saavdhan (Be Extra Wary of Marriage) does make apologetic noises to traditionalists. Still, from a time when audiences were conditioned to assume that songs like Yeh dosti hum nahin thodenge (We will not break this friendship) were about platonic male buddies, to today when SMZS is questioning those assumptions, Bollywood has come a long way, baby.

Ayushmann Khurrana stars in writer-director Hitesh Kewalya’s Shubh Mangal Zyada Saavdhan as Kartik, a young man living in Delhi and in a committed relationship with Aman (Jitendra Kumar, listed for some reason as Jeetu in the closing credits here). The two are not out to their families. When they travel to Aman’s hometown, Allahabad, for a wedding, relatives go berserk on accidentally discovering that they are a couple in love. SMZS is devoted to how Kartik and Aman come to terms with this rejection and how the family comes to terms with their truth.

Kewalya’s film is an intelligently handled affair. It is hilarious, but it never mocks the two gay men at the centre of the story. Its laughter is reserved entirely for the prejudice they encounter and the straitjacketed existence of those around them who are determined to preserve their notion of “normal”, even if that “normal” has sucked the joy out of their own lives. SMZS’s sense of humour does occasionally slip up for other reasons (example: that really flat joke about Neil Nitin Mukesh), but at no point does its comedy turn homophobic.

With a word here and and a touch there, through long conversations and fleeting references, Kewalya invites us into his questioning mind and shows a deeper understanding of human relations, gender, Hindu mythology and popular culture than most mainstream Hindi filmmakers. In 2014, when I was working on a feature about the history of LGBT+ portrayals in Bollywood, Ruth Vanita, co-editor with Salim Kidwai of the book Same-Sex Love In India, had told me that when she showed Hindi films featuring the old-style intense yaari-dosti between male leads to her students at the University of Montana, “all of them commented on the fact that the men are singing romantic songs to each other like Diye jalte hai (from Namak Haram) and the songs from Dosti. If you played those songs without knowing that a man is singing to a man, it sounds like a man is singing to a woman...” (For more on that, click here.)

Like Vanita, Kewalya repeatedly asks us to step outside ourselves and consider the possibility of messaging, including coded messaging, featured in art works and mythological motifs we have long loved but seen with different eyes in the past.

SMZS’s intelligence extends to its acting. Khurrana and Kumar are not bound by any of the traits formulaic Bollywood has so far compulsorily assigned to gay men. Khurrana does tweak his body language to play Kartik, but those changes are barely discernable and in no way stereotypical or caricaturish in keeping with Bollywood conventions.

Aman’s relatives, played by the phenomenal Neena Gupta, Gajraj Rao, Sunita Rajwar, Manu Rishi Chadha and Maanvi Gagroo, perfectly capture various shades of bias and acceptance to be found in families that are weighed down by social conditioning and ignorance, not hate.

In the midst of this carefully chosen cast, Bhumi Pednekar appears incongruous, not for any fault of hers but because of what her brief appearance in the narrative signifies. The lovely Ms Pednekar was the heroine of the 2017 Bollywood hit Shubh Mangal Saavdhan (with screenplay and dialogues by Kewalya) in which she had a solid role alongside Khurrana. Shubh Mangal Zyada Saavdhan has no plot connection to the previous film, the title merely cashes in on that one’s recall value. It is telling then that the producers felt comfortable revisiting the name while dispensing with the leading lady, instead of establishing a new brand. As it happens, this is customary in the world of Bollywood franchises and sequels. Obviously Pednekar’s cameo here is a bow to the success of Shubh Mangal Saavdhan, but her role is written almost like a spare tyre lying unused, it is embarrassingly insignificant (a cameo need not be) and forgettable, and it is an unfortunate reminder of the continuing dispensability of women stars in this male-star-obsessed industry.

Repeat: Bollywood is far from being a jannat of progressiveness. It is up to viewers to decide whether to see the glass as half full or half empty. There is a third option: we could celebrate forward movement and yet draw attention to missteps and steps yet to be taken.

SMZS falters during a scene in which Aman’s mother laments her husband’s unwillingness to fight for her son, but simultaneously criticises her son for – so she says – expecting his family to evolve overnight. This monologue is designed as an expression of empathy, so it has to be placed on the record that marginalised social groups do not owe it to dominant groups to break them in gently. Individuals may CHOOSE to do so for strategic reasons or out of love and affection, but no one has a right to demand it.

Whether this scene is a mark of the writer’s own sub-conscious conservatism or a safety net spread out with commercial compulsions in mind is hard to tell. It is troubling though, as is the odd emphasis on how homosexual relations ought to be private during a TV news announcement about the Supreme Court’s ruling on Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code that earlier criminalised same-sex relations. This moment in the film would perhaps pacify conservatives who seem to have this bizarre expectation that anyone who is not heterosexual wants nothing more than to have sex in public. Perhaps that is why it is there.

Hopefully these aberrations will find mention among the many conversations SMZS will spark off. That it will spark off conversations is a given. This is, after all, no ordinary film raising ordinary questions, as is evident early on when two characters dwell on how a father’s sole contribution to creating a child is his  sperm. One of them adds that a child spends an entire lifetime repaying the debt of that single sperm. So you see, SMZS’s courage lies not just in its condemnation of homophobia, but also in its questioning of the very foundation of the Indian patriarchal family structure which rests on the belief that children owe parents a debt of gratitude for having made them/us.

SMZS is funny, brave, smart and thoughtful, and Kewalya is a voice worth listening to.

Rating (out of 5 stars): 3.5

CBFC Rating (India):
Running time:
119 minutes 37 seconds 

This review has also been published on Firstpost:


Release date:
Kerala: February 7, 2020
Delhi: February 14, 2020
Anoop Sathyan

Shobana, Dulquer Salmaan, Suresh Gopi, Kalyani Priyadarshan, K.P.A.C. Lalitha, Urvashi, Johnny Antony
Malayalam with Tamil

Gawd, she is gorgeous!

In a decade that has been crying out for more films with Shobana, debutant director Anoop Sathyan – son of the legendary Sathyan Anthikad – has pulled off a coup. First, he convinced the stunning actor-dancer to star in Varane Avashyamundu (Groom Wanted). Then, in an era where major male stars in their 50s and 60s insist on playing comparative youngsters romancing women played by female actors of their children’s generation, he cast veteran stalwart Suresh Gopi in the role of her beau. As if that were not impressive enough, Anoop has Dulquer Salmaan – one of contemporary Mollywood’s most powerful young stars, debuting as a producer here – happily hanging out in the background playing one of several charming characters in this ensemble film, instead of using his clout to increase his screen time.

A hat tip to Dulquer for willingly subordinating himself to the requirements of the script. A hat tip and a salaam to Anoop for envisioning a primary role for an older woman star in an industry that marginalises women of all ages, more so those past 30/35.

Varane Avashyamundu is set in an apartment complex in Chennai, home to a disparate group of people. Shobana plays Neena, a French teacher and single mother whose daughter Nikitha (Kalyani Priyadarshan) is obsessed with arranging a marriage for herself. Dulquer plays a chap nicknamed Fraud, sharing a home with his much younger brother and a lady he calls Akashavani (K.P.A.C. Lalitha). This sociable gang are a sharp contrast to their diffident, hot-tempered, lonely neighbour, the retired Major Unnikrishnan (Suresh Gopi).

From the moment we are introduced to these characters, it is not hard to guess where they will end up. Despite that predictability and the incompleteness of a couple of the relationship graphs, the overall pleasantness of the narrative, the progressiveness that goes beyond just the casting and the collective charisma of the actors combine to elevate the film to another level altogether.

So yes, I would certainly have liked to better understand Nikitha’s long-standing resentment towards her loving mother. It would have been nice to better explore Fraud’s equation with his little sibling. And names like Fraud and Akashavani sound more than a bit pretentious. But in other areas, Anoop’s script proves unexpectedly satisfying.

For one, the romance between Neena and the Major develops smoothly without caricaturing either of the individuals involved or mocking their age. Second, the warmth between Nikitha and the parent of one of the potential grooms she finds online is heartwarming. Varane Avashyamundu has an easy sense of humour, and like his father, Anoop has an easy storytelling style. He also reveals himself to be a thinking writer when he features older people who turn out to be more forward thinking than their children, contrary to prevalent ageist assumptions that equate liberalism with youth. And most important, in an industry that has for decades now displayed a casual approach to domestic abuse, it is a relief to see a Malayalam film in which a husband’s violence towards his wife is considered condemnable.

The cast is uniformly likeable and the statuesque Shobana’s presence made me yearn for more of her in future (though I wish we were listening to her voice rather than Bhagyalakshmi dubbing for her here). Anoop elicits a relatively controlled performance from Gopi, during which just once does he allow the actor’s trademark mannered style to surface in a scene in which the Major asks a troublemaker menacingly, “Ormayundo ee mukham?” (Do you remember this face). That’s another thing – the film’s referencing of popular Malayalam cinema needed to be better written, and it could have done without that running joke about how Neena resembles Shobana.

But she is hotness and dignity personified, her co-stars are all easy on the eye and the storyline is sweet even if not extraordinary, making Varane Avashyamundu a happy overall experience.

Rating (out of 5 stars): 2.75

CBFC Rating (India):
Running time:
145 minutes

This review has also been published on Firstpost: