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Is Bollywood's attempt at same-sex narratives genuine?

Anubha reviews Bollywood's first films on same-sex relationships


The 2020 romantic comedy film Shubh Mangal Zyada Saavdhan (Be Extra Careful in Marriage) dives straight into its thick plot; same-sex love and homophobia. The phrase ‘Shubh Mangal Saavdhan’ is related to marriage and is often uttered to warn about the responsibilities that come with a marriage. The addition of ‘zyada’, which means extra/more in Hindi to the movie’s title is to caution against the dangers of  same-sex marriage in the Indian context. 

 

The film follows Aman Tripathi (Jeetendra Kumar) and Kartik Singh (Ayushmann Khurrana) journey as a couple to gain acceptance into the Tripathi family. The film scores on its portrayal of the gay couple with dexterity and sensitivity. If Kartik is flamboyant and revels in showing off his love for Aman, Aman is the shy and reserved of the two. Both are depicted as any other couple with different personalities and their fair share of lovers’ tiff. Mainstream Bollywood films in the past have usually depicted LGBT characters in a stereotypical manner or as a humour device. But in this film, it is Tripathi’s homophobic family that is used as fodder for humour, yet at no point getting to a point of triviality. 

 

Poster of Shubh Mangal Zyaada Saavdhan. Source: IMDB

Poster of Shubh Mangal Zyaada Saavdhan. Source: IMDB

 

In 2019, another mainstream Bollywood film depicting a same sex couple had been released. The film was Ek Ladki ko Dekha toh Aisa Laga (How I Felt The When I Saw a Girl) and had two female protagonists.

 

 Shubh Mangal Zyada Saavdhan is an upgrade from the former and a genuine attempt has been made to show the couple together and for instance, not once, but twice Aman and Kartik are shown kissing. I had watched the film with my mother and aunt in a movie hall. When I asked them about their take on the film, my aunt remarked the film is meant for a younger generation and is a good ‘fun’ film. Whereas my mother said maybe the director wanted to show that ‘such things are normal’. The words ‘fun’ and ‘normal’ is what stuck with me. The film has all the appropriate comic elements to pass off as a mass entertainer film.

 

My mind was set racing after talking to my mother and aunt. Leaving aside the plot and acting in the film, given the subject line, the film succeeds in ‘normalising’ same sex couples and trying to make them more acceptable. This is not to say that Bollywood has never tackled LGBT characters seriously before, the film Kapoor and Sons did a brilliant job in rendering open the struggles of a closeted gay man.

 

  

 Think Sooraj Barjatya, Karan Johar, Yash Johar and their ilk, or when you go further back in the 1980s, Hrishikesh Mukherjee, Basu Chatterjee et al’s middle class cinema made waves for their simple family subject plots. Owing to Bollywood’s origins and commercial structure, producers and directors are compelled to stick to safe subjects, topics that appeal to the masses. India’s first feature film titled Raja Harishchandra was based on a legendary and mythological Indian king.

 

In the heydey of Indian cinema, films heavily borrowed from local and Hindu mythological tales. Countless research has been done on Bollywood and the role it plays in espousing certain filial, Indian and nationalistic values. Baahubali, the biggest ever hit in the history of Indian cinema managed to capture so many eyeballs because it successfully mimicked themes from Indian mythologies. The sanctity of family and patriarchal approval is a key motif in Bollywood popular films. 

 

In an already crumbling and disintegrating family, his character’s discovery as a gay man is the final nail in the coffin for any hopes of the family getting together. In both Ek Ladki ko Dekha to Aisa Laga and Shubh Mangal Zyada Saavdhan, the family’s approval is of high priority. The characters in each of the films go to extreme lengths to make themselves acceptable to their respective families. The conflicts, the resolution and solution are ensconced within the framework of a joint family system, specifically, a marriage scenario. The inclusion of marriage, one of the most sacred events in a family, serves to further underscore to bring same-sex love into the fold of respectability. 

Interestingly, in both films, the father becomes key in taking forth the dialogue and reconciliation. In Shubh Mangal Zyada Saavdhan, it is the father who first spots his son kissing Kartik. Witnessing and watching the two elicits such a strong reaction that the father is forced to vomit. The mother although shown sympathetic, still thinks homosexuality is a disease and can be cured with science.

 

Whereas in Ek Ladki ko Dekha to Aisa Laga, the film starts with the age old boy meets girl trope, boy falls in love with the girl and pursues her, only to learn that the girl he has fallen in love with loves another girl. The boy then helps the girl to be proud of herself and make her father and family accept her for who she is. In both the films, it is only after the father or the main patriarchal figure approves and accepts, do the rest of the family follow. Events, confessions and conflicts revolve around the patriarchal figure as he grapples with sudden revelations around him. And in order to drive home the point, Shubh Mangal Zyada Savdhaan also includes information about the decriminalisation of homosexuality in India under Section 377 in India

 

Bollywood’s reliance on traditional Indian family values and epitomising a joint family system has a certain history (which is outside the ambit of this article), which it cannot drastically or surgically remove from its DNA. Both the films succeeded where films like Fire or Kapoor and Sons could not was because they managed to make same sex love more ‘acceptable’ to a mainstream audience. Granted both the films have their share of flaws and the familiar joint family scaffolding on which films like Shubh Mangal Zyada Saavdhan sit are restrictive, yet this is why the film was able to enjoy a larger audience and popularity. This is not to take away from the fact that the current generation and decade is different from previous generations and it’s easier to release a film tackling LGBT characters and their love interests than before.

 

To end it with Robert Frost’s famous line, ‘Bollywood has miles to go before a Blue is the Warmest Colour’.

 


 

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About the author

When not overdoing on her caffeine dose, Anubha Sarkar can be found furiously typing her PhD on Bollywood and Soft Power. With a stint in the Netherlands, she moved to the unpredictable pastures of Melbourne for her PhD and likes to dabble in films, art, books and pole dancing. Instagram: @anubhanama  

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