My favourite scene in Shubh Mangal Saavdhan is one where (I feel) Bhumi Pedneker scolds all men on behalf of all women as she yells at Ayushmann Khurrana for falling into a trap of his own making. In a grand show of his love for Suggu (Bhumi Pedneker), Mudit (Ayushmann Khurrana) takes a death-defying leap from one cable car in Rishikesh to the other, where Suggu sits, and misses. He ends up hanging on the cable car from a window on the side, and begs Suggu to give him a hand. She refuses, basically telling him it’s his own stupid fault he’s hanging there and no one ever asked him to jump from a cablecar.
It’s a wonderful moment that neatly reflects the frustration and absurdity women feel at the plight of men around them trying to deal with the consequences of toxic masculinity, or struggling to deal with the patriarchy’s negative effects on their own lives.
Shubh Mangal Saavdhan, a remake of the Tamil movie Kalyana Samayal Saadham, is the story of the marriage between Sugandha and currently-impotent Mudit. Shy, bumbling-but-also-not Mudit suffers from (temporary) erectile dysfunction, which he and Suggu discover during an ill-fated pre-marital tryst, and the rest of the movie revolves around negotiating parents, in-laws, publics, veterinarians (yes) and their own relationship woes to get married despite it.
It’s a surprising topic, and definitely one a lot of people don’t talk about. In that way, Shubh Mangal Saavdhan falls squarely into a trend we seem to be smack in the middle of, which is of Bollywood movies deliberately speaking about typically “taboo” subjects, like Phullu, the story of a man who saves the women of his village by inventing sanitary pads, Toilet: Ek Prem Katha, which is Akshay Kumar’s ode to Narendra Modi’s Swachh Bharat campaign, and the upcoming Padman, where Akshay Kumar will save the women of the country by, you guessed it, inventing a pad-making machine.
That’s pretty much where the similarity ends though. Toilet, which also featured Bhumi Pedneker, has been described as a “long Swachh Bharat ad with songs”, and it repeatedly whacks you in the face with a message that honestly seems to be the government’s marketing strategy these days: Real men build their women toilets. Phullu valiantly cuts his own hand for blood to test the pads he’s making (seems a bit excessive, no?) and fights all odds (including the women around him) to save women. Padman, which tells the story of Tamil Nadu-based Arunachalam Muruganantham, who found a way to provide low-cost pads to women, hasn’t been released yet, but it’s to be headlined by Akshay Kumar, so you can be sure that whatever day it is, Kumar will surely be the one to save it.
Shubh Mangal Saavdhan isn’t in the business of building male heroes, preaching or politics. There’s no moral or message, it isn’t issued in public interest and you won’t learn anything about the reality or biology of erectile dysfunction if you watch it. It’s just a fun movie about the difficulties and hilarities that could possibly come out of a situation involving a couple, erectile dysfunction, a family and a wedding.
Part of the movie’s appeal is also in its unexpected moments of irreverence and wry humour. After Toilet, you feel pleasantly surprised seeing Bhumi in a movie that pokes fun at the plan of “digital India”. There’s also a subtle, hilarious and kind of meta scene where the family is in a theatre, watching a commercial that Bhumi’s mother stars in: It’s for a GPS tracker that spies on your “bahu-beti” for their own safety. It somehow feels like Shubh Mangal Saavdhan is littered with these little Easter eggs of feminist jokes for women to laugh at privately in their heads if they get it.
For me, the experience of watching the movie first thing this morning was also uniquely fun. As entertaining as this movie is, it doesn’t have the star power or the kind of subject matter that fills up first day first shows, so the theatre I watched it in was mostly empty, except for a handful of other women in twos and threes, and a school kid couple who came to make out. So it felt fine to laugh a little extra-loud, exclaim at the fun bits and look around appreciatively during the jokes, because we were the only people in central Bangalore who had chosen to spend a weekday morning watching a movie about erectile dysfunction. Surprisingly but also not surprisingly, the boy half of the school kid couple was the only male in the theatre I watched it in.
Back when Kalyana Samayal Saadham, the Tamil original was released, the hero was praised for agreeing to this kind of a role in a time when “heroism was synonymous with machismo”. In that case, perhaps Ayushmann Khurrana too deserves praise in 2017 for taking on a role that flies in the face of all the machismo and saviour-complexes we continue to demand from our heroes. Ayushmann’s heroism doesn’t lie in his ability to beat up bad guys (which he does in fact do once in the movie), nor does he even come close to saving anyone (in fact, it’s Bhumi who saves him). He loves Bhumi: not in a nasty way that invokes mothers or goddesses, just in a real, young, human way. He credits her for his confidence and his remaining security in his masculinity, and in fact says that it’s Bhumi who’s turning him into a man (if this sounds like a weird thing to say, just trust me, it works in the movie). His real victories aren’t the ones he wins when he beats lechers on the street, but the more difficult ones, with confidence, and family.
Mudit’s masculinity is constructed in the movie by showing you where masculinity doesn’t lie: In getting an erection, being sexually aggressive or brash or violent. In the course of the story, you’re shown that there’s nothing masculine or desirable about being the kind of person who makes decisions for your girlfriend, or who doesn’t know how to take no for an answer. If anything, this movie tells you that masculinity isn’t about being able to get it up, but it is about anything else you want it to be, and anything that you are. It doesn’t teach you that real men build toilets, it doesn’t teach you anything at all. And that’s a good thing.
In fact, despite being touted as such, this movie isn’t even really about erectile dysfunction after all, although that is something that happens in it. It’s mostly just about figuring your way through love and family in an embarrassing situation, so much so that we don’t even get to finally hear how they get over the whole erectile-dysfunction problem. It was supposed to be enough for us to know that they do, and in fact, it is.
Co-published with Firstpost