Why Shubh Mangal Zyada Saavdhan is a film about how to watch a film

SMZS proves that cinematic experience is more enriching if you move away from thinking clearly to queerly, and to be a perverse spectator and read between images.

 |  8-minute read |   02-03-2020
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While I was waiting with my friend to enter the auditorium to watch Shubh Mangal Zyada Saavdhan, my friend loudly speculated, “There must be a lot of gay boys here.” Thereafter, we started using our gaydar and tried to speculate on who may or may not be gay. In a way, we were reading and trying to look for signs and contexts which would allow us to guess the sexuality of a person. After having watched the film and while exiting the auditorium, I told my friend, “What we were doing in the beginning, these people will start doing now.” After all, SMZS is a film which asks its audiences to see things, and see things differently. A lot of the film’s humour is born from this disjunction between seeing and not seeing.

One of the crucial scenes - Jitendra's wedding - is central to the cinematic design of Hitesh Kewalya’s film, which is not merely a mainstream gay romantic comedy, but also a commentary on ‘gay spectatorship’. This is how a gay spectator looks back at the canon of Bollywood industry; this is one of the ways in which gays and queers have always romanced with Bombay cinema when queer representation was not explicit or direct. SMZS may present itself as the “first” mainstream gay rom-com but the joke is on us if we fail to see the irony and sarcasm in this. By using Bombay cinema’s reservoir of desire, the film puts pressure on the idea that those of us who have a “dirty mind”, have been engaging with the spectre of gayness which has always haunted the Bollywood industry. Sholay is as much a gay romance as SMZS; one needs a ‘dirty mind’ to recognise and appreciate it.

But what does it take to have a “dirty mind”, one may ask? Or to push it further, what dividends can a “dirty mind” yield which a naive gaze cannot? In many ways, the film tempts us to think that cinematic experience can be far more enriching and rewarding if one moves away from thinking clearly to queerly; to be a perverse spectator and read between images, rather than lazily consume pre-given meanings.

main_smzs-sholay_you_030220012222.jpgSholay (R) is as much a gay romance as SMZS (L), and one needs a ‘dirty mind’ to recognise and appreciate it! (Photos: YouTube screengrab)

I would mention two things in this regard. Firstly, many queer scholars such as Shohini Ghosh and Kareem Khubchandani have pointed out how the Bollywood film industry, through its melodrama, high-camp songs, dances, and item numbers, have offered sites of identification to queer people. Meena Kumari, Sridevi, Helen, Madhuri, Rekha, amongst others, have been queer icons to generations of kothis and gays, who would imitate their ultra-femme dance moves and sway hips at private parties and personal gatherings. To many queer folks, the dialogues and songs of Devdas (2002) and Pakeezah (1972) are far more endearing than those of Dostana (2008) or Kapoor & Sons (2016). More than a question of identity, gayness with regard to these visual artefacts is negotiated in terms of sensuousness, camp aesthetics, and melodramatic extravagance. SMZS taps on this notion of queerness as a matter of spectatorship, divorced from the narrow limits of identity and demonstrates the multiple possibilities that Bollywood offers and has historically offered to generations of queer people. In a scene, where Aman’s father beats Kartik with a stick, the camera runs into a slow-motion video with the background score — “Kya karte the sajna tum humse dur rehke, Hum toh judai mein akele, Chhup chhup ke roya karte the.”

The original song, released in 1989, is stripped of its connotations of heterosexual separation and appropriated to suit the pangs of queer romance in 21st century India. Once again, the film puts its finger on a vital lesson of queer spectatorship: it is not imperative for heterosexual metaphors or signifiers to move towards heterosexuality, they can drift away towards homosexuality and acquire new associations, meanings, and lives of their own.

main_dil-chahta-hai_030220012513.jpgFilms like Dil Chahta Hai that have centred male friendship as the main plot bear testimony that trope of bonding between men is common language in Bollywood. (Photo: YouTube screengrab)

Second, through the revamping of Bappi Lahiri’s iconic song, “Yaar bina chain kahan re”, and turning it into an anthem for the film, the director plays around with the various performatives of “yaar” and ‘yaarana’. This trope of bonding between men is not an uncommon language in the history of Bollywood cinema. Films like Anand (1971), Sholay (1975), Dil Chahta Hai (2001), Student of the Year (2012), among several other movies which have centred on male friendship as the main plot bear testimony to this.

This is also writ in the Indian culture at large. It is commonplace in India to see men holding hands in public or walking with their arms around each other. This yaarana or dosti, or prevalent homosociality between men cannot be understood by a singular register of male-male intimacy or bonding; this register cuts across lines of friendship, companionship, love, romance, and at times, all of these together. In a humorous moment in the film, therefore, the homophobic father tries to explain and convince Aman that his desires for Kartik are not necessarily sexual or romantic since it is usual for men to experience such intense intimacies with their buddies.

The homophobe reminiscences, “Even I have slept with boys on the same bed during my hostel days. Sometimes my leg would touch his, and during deep sleep, my hand would touch parts of his body. But that doesn’t make me homosexual!” Willingly or not, through these words, the homophobe has identified the problem of spectatorship and the difficulty or near impossibility of reading sexual intimacy. Just as holding hands can be both romantic and non-romantic, a man touching a particular part of the body of another man can be both sexual and non-sexual. There is no definitive way in which these moments can be read and they open themselves up for multiple possibilities of reading, interpretation, and appreciation. It is indeed ironic that the “dirty mind” of the homophobe is the first to recognise such moments and read them as instances of sexual intimacy between men.

main_smzs_twitter_030220012915.jpgCritics have pointed out that SMZS is for the homophobes and the uninitiated, not for the ones who walk in pride parades. (Photo: Twitter/ @Smzsofficial)

SMZS then capitalises on this idea that it is difficult to separate the domain of the sexual from the non-sexual, the homophobic from the homoerotic, and finally the hetero from the homo. Sexuality is hardly a given identity but emerges at different moments through complex, and often hilarious, ways of seeing and un-seeing, reading and misreading. Through a fantastic cinematic strategy of invoking iconic moments of Bollywood film — such as the repeated references to Amitabh Bachchan, parodying the Jai-Veeru coupledom, and recreating the train scene from Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayenge (1995) — and turning them around to render queer effects, the film challenges its own claims that this is the “first” gay romantic comedy. This lesson in queer spectatorship informs us that all these films that have preceded SMZS can be considered as gay/queer films if one chooses to read them as such. After all, the homophobic father has most wondrously demonstrated the amazing things that a “dirty mind” can do!

A lot has already been said and written about SMZS. Some people love the film, while others hate it. Some find its representation of characters as sensitive while others discern an exclusive valourisation of “straight-acting gay men” who churn comedy out of sexist jokes. A few critics pointed out that this film is for the homophobes and the uninitiated, not for the ones who walk in pride parades.

I want to raise a different set of questions here. One needs to ask in relation to the film: where is queerness in the narrative? How is queerness produced? When does queerness emerge? Is queerness only at the level of the main plot which revolves around the struggles of two male lovers? Or, is queerness also at the level of the larger cinematic design of the film which delays and postpones and cracks open all possibilities of heterosexual consummation in the film? After all, it is worth noticing that the director not only showcases two men kissing on screen but also sabotages two heterosexual marriages (Goggle’s and Kusum’s), turning around queerness from ‘identity’ to ‘aesthetics’.

This is a film where heterosexuality fails, or at best dwindles through multiple trials and tribulations, with a core as rotten as Chaman Tripathi’s black cauliflowers. To this extent, I would suggest that this film is for everyone — pride marchers and homophobes — because it pushes us to look for queerness where we rarely expect it to find. This is a film about how to watch a film.

Also read: Will India finally say Shubh Mangal Saavdhan to sexually fluid characters?


Rahul Sen Rahul Sen

The writer teaches courses on critical writing, gender and sexualities at Ashoka University. He tries hard to pull off a Meena Kumari or Audrey Hepburn through his personhood but fails miserably every time!

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