Bollywood is currently readying itself for the release of “Shubh Mangal Zyada Saavdhan” (Be extra careful of marriage), an upcoming romantic comedy based on a gay couple’s story. Touted as a milestone for LGBTQ+ cinema in India, the film has garnered a lot of attention – and criticism (more on that later!) – for bringing an LGBTQ+ narrative to the masses with popular actor Ayushmann Khurrana as its gay protagonist; n.b. the actor himself identifies as straight. The filmmakers have just released a song called “Mere Liye Tum Kaafi Ho” (To me, you are enough) from the feature’s “original” soundtrack and I have questions about the treatment of queer narratives in the song, and by extension, the film itself.
In the song, Ayushmann Khurrana (yes, he voices the track too) sings “Tum kuch adhoore se, hum bhi kuch aadhe; aadha aadha hum jo dono milade toh ban jayegi apni ik zindagani”. This roughly translates to “You’re a bit incomplete, I too am half of my self; when our two halves meet, our lives will become one/complete.”
I’m sorry, but who are you Mr. Khurrana and team to tell anyone that they are “incomplete”?
Now this isn’t an uncommon analogy used in Bollywood to glorify romanticism, and so it’s not surprising to see the filmmakers fall for this notorious sentiment. Honestly, I’m all for romance but this ideology of an individual only being ‘complete’ or ‘whole’ through the existence and validation of a romantic partner is problematic and needs to be done away with immediately. Furthermore, it’s an especially troublesome trope to be applied to the context of queer characters because queer folk are constantly stereotyped as being ‘less than’, ‘imperfect’, and/or ‘not enough’. Using this archaic sentiment to represent queer folk is counterproductive and only reinforces the harmful labelling of LGBTQ+ folk as inadequate. The very title of the song (To me, you are enough) places an irksome need for an individual to be authenticated as “enough” by someone else, while the use of the word ‘enough’ implies the need for some metaphorical measure of completeness or enough-ness to be considered worthy of approval. As someone who is repeatedly marginalised for identifying as non-binary, this is especially triggering. Words have power and to use them so insensitively can only fester poor self-worth in people.
In the 1987 film “Pyaar Karke Dekho” (Fall in love and see), actors Govinda and Mandakini’s characters sing the song “Tumhare bin hum adhure, humare bin tum adhure” which translates to ‘Without you, I am incomplete; without me, you are incomplete’. In the song “Adhoore” (Incomplete) from the 2011 film “Break ke Baad” (After the Break), popular actor Deepika Padukone’s character sings “Adhoore tum, adhoore hum bin tumhare” which translates to ‘You’re incomplete, I’m incomplete without you’. First of all, zero points for creativity and originality. Secondly, it’s proof that this regressive analogy isn’t new to Bollywood and has been passed down over generations. The only difference is that this same narrative is now being applied to a queer storyline; and sadly, this is what happens when an LGBTQ+ story is told through a heteronormative lens.
According to Jo, Digital Editor of Gaysi and PhD researcher at SOAS University, “the way queer relationships are being portrayed in the film are less organic and more within the norms and conformities of how a heterosexual relationship would look.” This is evident in the way that the gay couple in the film are constantly juxtaposed with their heterosexual counterparts. In the song’s music video, Kartik (Ayushmann Khurrana) is seen mimicking a heterosexual couple by affectionately hugging his boyfriend Aman (Jitendra Kumar) who is driving a motorbike. In another scene, Kartik and Aman are seen recreating an iconic scene from the 1995 film“Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayenge” (The big-hearted will take the bride away’) wherein the female protagonist is seen running towards her male lover on a train. These scenes were included to possibly highlight the fact that queer couples are no different from their heterosexual counterparts, and that audiences should see them in the same light. While in some ways (- only some) this is true and understandable, can’t the filmmakers also portray the gay couple’s affections independent of a heterosexual reference?
As an important cultural referent, Bollywood movies have an incredible impact on public opinions and issues. When I say ‘mainstream Bollywood’, I refer to big-budget films with a popular cast and the ability to have a widespread (theatrical) release. Given its power in shaping public knowledge and attitudes, it is important for us to keep track of the ways in which those that dominate the industry represent queer themes. Unfortunately, queer characters are mainly conceived by using heteronormative motifs and more often than not, these characters prove to be inaccurate representations of the LGBTQ+ community. Simply put, there aren’t enough positive imageries of LGBTQ+ folk in Bollywood, let alone music catered to the community. Hence when a film like “Shubh Mangal Zyada Saavdhan” comes out, one would expect it to be sensitive and respectful of the audience it intends to represent. One would also expect the filmmakers to do their due diligence by researching the issues faced by the local LGBTQ+ community and being mindful about how effectively they’d like to bring about a positive change.
Sadly, Khurrana didn’t even know that same-sex marriage is illegal in India! In an interview with the Times of India, Khurrana said that, “We are really proud that we are supporting the community. Our country is very progressive that it legalised same-sex marriages.” In 2018, the Supreme Court of India decriminalised homosexuality, it did not legalise same-sex marriage. Khurrana has apologised for the mistake but activist Twitter account ‘badassbrownactivist’ who confronted him online makes a valid point (below). To learn more about what happened at Mumbai Pride 2020, read this post curated by The Pink List India‘s Anish Gawande.
The bottomline is that if you are someone who isn’t queer and are going to make a film about queer people’s lives, do not do it in a tokenistic way that only ends up doing more harm than good. Get queer people on board to tell their own stories. Use your platform to truly champion the LGBTQ+ community by respecting its history and understanding its current political ordeals. Lastly, stop writing about LGBTQ+ people using heteronormative notions.
While it’s great to have cis-gendered actors with massive platforms champion and usualise LGBTQ+ narratives (for e.g. Sonam Kapoor in the film “Ek Ladki Ko Dekha…”) in the mainstream, one must also be a decent ally to that very community. Khurrana is currently being branded as ‘bold’ for taking on a role that most popular Indian actors would avoid for a myriad reasons. While fashionable for Khurrana, wearing a nose-ring on screen shouldn’t necessarily be seen as ‘bold’ of him because queer folk who do the same on a daily are prone to inhumane violence. Activist Vikramaditya Sahai highlights this point in an eye-opening Instagram exchange (below) by also referencing the fact that many queer people in India are being increasingly disenfranchised by the recent Trans Act and the Citizenship Amendment Act amongst other things*.
It’s also no coincidence that “Shubh Mangal Zyada Saavdhan” is being released during LGBTQ+ History Month, but in a time where LGBTQ+ folk in India are being ostracised and discriminated against, attention should be paid to those trying to profit from and piggyback off the community and its movement. We cannot be swayed by those that don a temporary rainbow veil, hiding their true colours in the name of homonationalism and pinkwashing. There is no doubt that the film will boost conversations around LGBTQ+ acceptance and visibility, and yes we do need all of that. Visibility matters; however, visibility isn’t enough.
What we don’t need is another film to tell people that they aren’t ‘enough’. Queer or not, each of us are individually whole and beautiful. We are NOT incomplete so stop telling us otherwise, Bollywood. We are expansive beings fully capable of finding happiness and contentment within ourselves. As Amani Saeed, cowriter of my upcoming film “Queer Parivaar” (Queer Family), says, “in relationships, it’s about complementing a person, not completing them”.