Is Bollywood Ready to Have its Queer Reckoning?

Shubh Mangal Zyada Saavdhan, which depicts the love between two men, is far from perfect. But its power lies in its attempt to reach a mass audience.

Poulomi Das

January 27, 2020

Is Bollywood Ready to Have its Queer Reckoning?
Jitendra Kumar and Ayushmann Khurrana in Shubh Mangal Zyada Saavdhan (2020)

“Can we just take a moment to appreciate the fact that they included a kiss in the trailer?” reads one of the over 35,000 YouTube comments under the trailer of Shubh Mangal Zyada Saavdhan, a Hindi film releasing next month. The kiss in question is between two men, a hitherto nearly alien scenario in mainstream Hindi cinema. The moment lasts for a jaw-dropping three seconds but has been replayed for far longer over the past few days.

Bollywood is usually much more synonymous with an exaggerated display of machismo. Though Shubh Mangal Zyada Saavdhan isn’t perfect — it still casts two straight men in gay roles — if the kissing scene manages to pass through India’s persnickety Censor Board, which is notorious for its regressive values but lacks purview over online trailers, it will become the first Bollywood movie explicit in both its language and depiction of gay love.  

Director and writer Hitesh Kewalya’s sequel to Shubh Mangal Saavdhan (2017), which tackled erectile dysfunction, stars Ayushmann Khurrana and Jitendra Kumar, who play openly gay characters reaching for a happily-ever-after on their own terms. 

What makes this kiss more than just a gimmick is that Shubh Mangal Zyada Saavdhan refuses to conceal the sexual orientation of the two leads as its big reveal, a narrative device mainstream films (Kapoor and Sons (2016), Ek Ladki Ko Dekha Toh Aisa Laga (2019)) have used to appeal to the largely traditionalist Indian audiences without alienating them. Instead, the movie takes on its queer plot head-on: Khurrana wears a nose-ring and dons a rainbow flag as a cape to fight homophobia. The intimacy between the two leads isn’t depicted as sexless or joyless; one scene has Khurrana resting his head on Kumar’s shoulder while riding pillion and another sees them holding hands.

The film is also far more explicit in its language than earlier depictions of queerness in Indian film or television. Khurrana utters the word “gay” as an admission of his orientation in the very first scene of the trailer; the Supreme Court’s hearing of Section 377 — an archaic law that criminalized consensual gay sex until it was struck down in September 2018 — is invoked in another. In another scene, Khurrana addresses a gathering where he refers to homophobia as a “disease” that has no cure — a sly callback to India’s right-wing ruling party frequently labeling homosexuality as such. The clincher is the scene that recreates the climactic train sequence from Aditya Chopra’s Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayenge (1995), the ultimate heterosexual romantic gesture for over two decades. In its queer reclaiming, Shubh Mangal Zyada Saavdhan quietly argues for casting same-sex love under the broader ambit of “love.”