Saturday Features

Stage fright

  • In the new Shubh Mangal Saavdhan, a romantic comedy centred on erectile dysfunction, director RS Prasanna and actor Ayushmann Khuranna try to punch a few holes in the Bollywood archetype of the ideal hero
- OBIE SHRESTHA
The film is a right riot in more than a few places all thanks to some crackling writing by Hitesh Kewalya, so much deft humour packed into scenes and dialogues that it’ll take a couple of rewatches to catch all the little blink-and-miss visual cues and jokes scattered throughout

Sep 9, 2017-You can’t really accuse Ayushmann Khurrana of ever being risk-averse. In his few short years on screen, the young actor appears to have made it a personal mission to avoid conventional “hero” stints in conventional films, if choices such as Vicky Donor and 2015’s Dum Laga Ke Haisha are anything to go by.

But never has he so obviously exerted himself to—if not transcend altogether—at the very least punch a few holes in the Bollywood archetype of the ideal man as he does in the new Shubh Mangal Saavdhan, a romantic comedy centred on erectile dysfunction.

Definitely not risk-averse, then.

Khuranna plays Mudit, a twenty-something Delhi boy who has just laid eyes on, and almost instantly fallen for, Sugandha (Bhumi Pednekar), both waiting in one of those long post-demonetisation lines at the bank. When his efforts to try to ask her out go awry (a silly incident that doesn’t ‘bear’ dwelling on), he ends up taking the easier route, ie having his parents send an online marriage proposal to Sugandha’s folks. And although this is a far cry from the filmy Big Romance—complete with elopement and family hysterics—that she’s been dreaming of all her life, Sugandha has a good feeling about Mudit and so accepts. Soon enough, the two clans have made things official over Skype, wedding preparations have begun in earnest, and it’s all looking to be smooth sailing ahead.

Well, not quite. One night at Sugandha’s place, when her parents are away, the two start making out. But just as they’re headed into the bedroom, and it seems like the inevitable is about to happen, Mudit finds that he is unable to ‘perform’ and locks himself in the toilet, mortified. Sugandha is confused and unable to grasp the nature of this “gents’ problem” he’s referring to—especially since he won’t just come out and tell her exactly what’s going on—until a soggy biscuit comes to function as helpful visual aid. But even as the couple struggle to work through the strain the issue has suddenly put on their relationship, matters are rendered much worse when their families become involved, letting loose all manner of pre-marital chaos: anxieties escalating, egos clashing and splintering, chests beaten in dramatic dismay, and unsolicited advice—and blame—flung about left and right.

Khurrana and director RS Prasanna—whose 2013 Tamil film Kalyana Samayal Saadham provided the blueprint for Shubh Mangal Saavdhan—seem to open our eyes to more pluralistic possibilities of masculinity, through male characters who aren’t afraid to show vulnerability and weakness, so as to counter the narrow, prescriptive and ultimately toxic version that the movies have so far been feeding us by the shovelful. Indeed, Mudit looks to have been created in deliberate contrast to the sort of aggressive machismo and hot-headed pride that Bollywood has long glorified as qualities to covet in a man—rather than the indications of potential psychopathy they should’ve been recognised as. It’s an effective commentary on the pitfalls of conflating sexual potency with perceived manliness, and Khurrana—with that warm, inoffensive air he has about him, and an organicness of personality—is the perfect vehicle to drive home the point.

Also lovely to watch is how Shubh Mangal Saavdhan frames Sugandha’s response, after the initial shock—and indeed the reactions of most of the women onscreen—which is to say, far more open and candid than the men in discussing the problem and trying to come up with solutions. A scene in which she tries valiantly to seduce Mudit in the middle of a picnic in the park, but falters minutes through the effort, is a wonderful, moving testament to how the issue has brought out her insecurities as well as Mudit’s, but also how, unlike him, she is determined to deal with—rather than run away from—their predicament. Pednekar, who previously worked with Khuranna in Dum Laga Ke, and who recently did a stellar job in Toilet: Ek Prem Katha, proves reliable once more; much like her co-star, she is exceedingly well suited to this sort of home-grown, slice-of-real-life role.  

But if what you’ve read so far has given you the impression that Shubh Mangal Saavdhan is some sort of dull sermon on the frailty of the male ego, or worse, a biology lesson, I should tell you now that is absolutely not the case. The film is a comedy at its core, and a right riot in more than a few places—it’s been a while since I’ve laughed quite so much at the movies—all thanks to some crackling writing by Hitesh Kewalya. There’s so much deft humour packed into scenes and dialogues here, particularly those to do with the would-be in-laws, that it’ll take a couple of rewatches at least to catch all the little blink-and-miss visual cues and jokes scattered generously throughout the film. 

And while it would’ve been easy to veer into crass, lowbrow gags given the premise, Kewalya and Prasanna manage to keep things fairly clean, opting for playful, even whimsical, over provocative. In fact, the funniest parts of Shubh Mangal Saavdhan have very little to do with erectile dysfunction, but everything to do with the affectionate (if exaggerated) portrait the film draws of life in a North Indian middle-class family—replete with loud, interfering, but well-meaning relatives who feel entitled to stick their nose in everyone’s business, and for whom privacy or personal space are alien concepts. And playing these relatives are a slew of fantastic performers, including Seema Bhargava, Brijendra Kala and Gopal Datt, among others, who steal every scene they’re in.

Considering how enjoyable the first two acts are, it’s disappointing, then, that the film loses steam towards the end, sputtering into an over-the-top climax that feels utterly contrived and out of sync with the subtlety of proceedings thus far. There’s also a star cameo that makes very little sense and a belated injection of action that is as random as it is unconvincing. But if you’re able to blank out that final half hour or so, you’ll find that Shubh Mangal Saavdhan is among the most likeable, most consistently entertaining films Bollywood has churned out all this year. 

Published: 09-09-2017 08:59

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