The LGBT issue is far from gaining social acceptability in a diverse and conservative society that India and much of South Asia is. But things are changing, writes Mahendra Ved for South Asia Monitor
Just before US President Donald Trump landed in India last month on an official visit he appreciatively retweeted about an unconventional Bollywood film on gay romance that is receiving critics’ acclaim and setting box-office records. Trump’s reference was to “Shubh Mangal Zyada Savadhan” (SMZS) – which roughly translates into ‘Beware of Marriage’ – a bit of a tongue-twister of a name, that delves on the once-taboo subject of homosexuality in Indian society. Indian cinema has definitely come a long way since Fire (1996) showed Shabana Azmi and Nandita Das, two unhappily married sisters-in-law engaging in forbidden sex.
The LGBT issue is far from gaining social acceptability in a diverse and conservative society that India and much of South Asia is. But things are changing. The legal acceptance has come with the passing of a landmark Supreme Court verdict in September 2018 that struck down Section 377 of the British-enacted India Penal Code that had criminalised homosexuality. Its practitioners, hidden or open, are still shunned.
Homosexuality has been a running them in European creative tradition and in English language films for long but has made its mark only recently in Indian films in a sign of changing times and the coming of age of a more assertive generation who are not bashful any more of their sexual preferences. An early whiff came in film Razia Sultan (1983) hinting at lesbianism. My Brother Nikhil (2005) stands out for early protests. Aligarh (2015) took the theme further on prejudices against homosexuality. Curiously, those who protested wanted the film’s name of the film to be changed so that their city in Uttar Pradesh did not get labelled with a ‘bad name’. Kapoor and Sons (2016) showed Fawad Khan’s character leaving home, perhaps for good, on not being accepted by the family because of his ‘oddness’.
This is where SMZS stands out. It is a welcome change with a positive approach to the issue, even making it a family affair and a rib-tickling comedy. This sequel is well written and helmed by Hitesh Kewalya, a relative newcomer to the industry who had done a prequel that dealt with another socially taboo subject, erectile dysfunction.
That families from not just metropolitan but small-town India have taken to the film of a gay romance from two talented actors – with a full-lip kissing scene on a train carrying a family marriage party barely 20 minutes into the film – is a sign of how India has changed and has become more accepting of transitioning social and sexual mores. It is an entertaining yet awareness-creating, opening-your-eyes film, without being preachy.
The two main characters in relationship are Ayushmann Khurrana, Bollywood’s latest A-lister and Jitendra Kumar, a big hit in Bhojpuri language films as a Jitu Bhaiya and popular on the web circuit, making his Bollywood debut.
The most redeeming aspect of the film is its humour, often bordering on the raunchy but never awkward. It shields a large, boisterous, conservative and socially often at odds family. But the film’s achievement lies in going where Bollywood has not gone before.
As Bollywood’s track record shows, SMZS’ success, among the crtitics and at the box office, may spawn a few clones. But that would be welcome if a positive message goes out to Indian and South Asian society that what is “not against nature’s law” is a reality that needs to be acknowledged and accepted.