On screen, Ayushmann Khurrana and Jitendra Kumar were locking lips for the much hyped big Bollywood gay kiss. But the real revolution sparked by Shubh Mangal Zyada Saavdhan (SMZS) was happening offscreen, around me in the theatre in Kolkata.

There were grey-haired elderly couples on a movie outing, young college students in noisy groups, dating couples with tubs of popcorn, families with their teens in tow. We could have been at a screening of Bhoot or Love Aaj Kal.

“Are there even other gays here?" my partner wondered, looking around. No one seemed an obvious candidate.

A few years ago, I remember going to see Aligarh at a theatre in Kolkata. Most of those in that sparse audience seemed to be couples who had come in for a few hours of amorous air-conditioned dark. They giggled and murmured, oblivious to the tragedy unfolding on screen as a diffident professor found his private life splattered all over the media thanks to homophobic goons.

In SMZS, when the two men kissed, no one tittered, no one sniggered, no one went “OMG". If it achieves nothing else, Shubh Mangal has done this much. Along the way, it has reminded us that gay films too deserve happy endings.

SMZS has its detractors. The gay couple is too “straight acting", some have said. There are too many jokes at the expense of women. In the end, once the hurly-burly is done, the young couple don’t really upend the old patriarchal order the way a good revolution should. It preaches a bit too much for the benefit of the unenlightened masses and then settles down in happy heteronormativity.

I would like to think SMZS is not for the likes of those who march in the many LGBTQ+ Pride parades that happen in India these days. For those who have long moved beyond coming out and now worry about issues like “preferred pronouns", same-sex partner benefits in the workplace and intersectionality, SMZS is just Gay 101.

But representation still matters. No matter how much we say we are out and proud, deep inside we bear the scars of being different, only seeing a distorted image of ourselves in popular culture, as if through some carnival’s trick mirror. I did not want to see Anupam Kher’s simpering Pinku, who could not keep his hands off Prem Uncle in Mast Kalandar, the Pinku whose pink hair is triumphantly shaved off by the “real man" played by Dharmendra. Invisibility was better than that kind of Bollywood visibility. I didn’t want to see it. More importantly, I dreaded my family seeing it. The moments of relief, of seeing gay characters that didn’t trigger a gag reflex, were few and far between—a Honeymoon Travels Pvt Ltd or Pyaar Ka Punchnama—but always as a side character, one storyline tucked away in an ensemble.

Starved for images, we read gay subtext between the lines. We turned the tomboy in the love triangle between Rahul, Anjali and Tina into a real boy in Kuch Kuch Hota Hai. We read volumes into what Parveen Babi’s Khakun might have been doing to Hema Malini’s Razia Sultan behind the white feathered plume. We imagined a romance in the till-death-do-us-part dosti between Jai and Veeru in Sholay. It was like our own secret Braille that the rest of society was blind to.

But that nagging discomfort persisted. Like Jim Sarbh’s cunning eunuch in Padmaavat, we were resigned to the queer man scrubbing his sultan’s feet in the bath, knowing he would never take the place of Padmavati in his fantasies. When we laughed at Kantaben’s shock at discovering Shah Rukh Khan and Saif Ali Khan in bed in Kal Ho Na Ho, we knew deep down that we were being told homophobia was somehow hilarious. When Khan and Khan reprised that act at an awards show, and the audience guffawed, we laughed along uneasily. But being gay was still so revolting that when John Abraham and Abhishek Bachchan were pretending to be a gay couple in Dostana, they had to make it clear to the audience that they had separate bedrooms in their flat. Even in 2020, Karan Johar played up that can’t-keep-his-hands-off-any-man gay stereotype at the Filmfare awards as he stole the pants off Vicky Kaushal and Varun Dhawan. Krishna too would steal the clothes of gopis bathing but Krishna was never the butt of that joke.

Years ago, I remember sitting at the famous Castro theatre in San Francisco’s gay neighbourhood watching Onir’s My Brother Nikhil at a film festival. For a San Francisco audience, the film must have seemed mild, especially in gay terms. Its lead couple never kissed. Their status as lovers had to come across just through body language, the way one got the other tea in the morning. But grown men who had lost lovers to AIDS, men who were living with the disease, tough men and women who had marched in protests against senators and presidents, wept like children as Nikhil’s family grappled with their love for him and their fear of the disease he had contracted. Onir told me later he had thought a San Francisco audience would go for the gay angle. “But a Mexican man who had been positive for 15 years came to me and said, ‘Thank you for making a film about family.’"

It feels old-fashioned to keep harping about family but what to do, we are like that only. The truth is we don’t like talking about sex. We like talking about sexuality even less. But we understand marriage and family. The great furore over Deepa Mehta’s Fire was not just that characters named Radha and Sita fell in love but that this was a lesbian love affair happening between sisters-in-law, under the nose of the family. In Kapoor And Sons (Since 1921), many gay men recognized themselves in the good boy, the best son in the world afraid to break his mother’s heart by coming out. We are accustomed to think of coming out as a singular act of individualism but in India coming out is often less a “pyaar kiya toh darna kya" clarion call of defiance as it is a plea for acceptance by the family.

When he appeared at the recent Tata Steel Kolkata Literary Meet, Ayushmann Khurrana said unapologetically: “The core subject (of SMZS) is a love story between two boys. It’s not a parallel (track), it’s not a by the way." That is true but unlike most love stories we never learn how the men met and fell in love. It starts at the point at which many love stories end—with them already a couple. It’s really a coming-out-to-family story. Family acceptance is the happily ever after this fairy tale is looking for. Khurrana also said unabashedly, “I was actively looking for a homosexual love story because I think India is ready for this." He wanted a film that would not just preach to the converted but also reach out to those “averse to homosexuality". In SMZS, director Hitesh Kewalya does that by cleverly making the family, not the gay couple, the butt of jokes.

Will SMZS be a game changer? I don’t know. Even as the film released, I was reading about a young man, a civil engineer from an Indian Institute of Technology, openly gay, apparently someone with many friends, killing himself. You cannot cure the heartburn from years of toxic homophobia with one feel-good SMZS elaichi. I am not grateful to the makers of SMZS or an Ek Ladki Ko Dekha Toh Aisa Laga because an honest portrayal, shorn of hurtful cliches, should be a right, not a favour. But I am thankful because it’s no small thing to watch gay characters appear larger than life on a screen before you without cringing and hoping that no one sees them in you when the lights come on.

When the lights came on, my partner and I felt invisible but in the best possible way. We were smiling, unable to stop humming Bappi Lahiri’s catchy “Yaar bina chain kaha re/ Pyar bina chain kaha re" from the closing credits.

For a moment, we were just like everyone else in that theatre, nothing more, nothing less.

Cult Friction is a fortnightly column on issues we keep rubbing up against. Sandip Roy is a writer, journalist and radio host.

@sandipr

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