Shubh Mangal Saavdhan movie review: Bhumi, Ayushmann's film travels from super fun to superficial
Director: RS Prasanna
One of Shubh Mangal Saavdhan’s achievements is that although, on the face of it, it visits territory familiar to both its lead stars – Bhumi Pednekar and Ayushmann Khurrana – it has its own distinct identity.
Khurrana debuted playing a professional sperm donor in 2012’s Vicky Donor in which Shoojit Sircar did not generate a single icky moment from a subject that a lesser director might have taken down an icky road. The actor has been mastering the art of playing a repressed middle-class boy through 2015’s sleeper hit Dum Laga Ke Haisha – which happened to be the sprightly Pednekar’s maiden film – and Bareilly Ki Barfi, which was released a fortnight back. Vicky Donor dealt with intimate bodily concerns, so do Shubh Mangal Saavdhan (SMS) and Pednekar’s second film, Toilet: Ek Prem Katha, which too is currently in theatres. She too has acquired her own M.A. in playing feisty women in a conservative milieu through her three films.
Add to this the fact that Seema Pahwa, who plays the heroine’s mother here is also the heroine’s mom in Bareilly Ki Barfi, and it is easy to see how SMS might have acquired a been-there-seen-that feel. Like I said, it is to the director and cast’s credit that they give their film a stamp of individuality in so many ways, that five minutes into its running time, fresh memories of toilets and barfis fly out of the window.
SMS is the story of an engaged couple in the National Capital Region who learn that the boy suffers from erectile dysfunction (ED). While the first half is devoted to how Mudit and Sugandha discover the problem in the months leading up to their wedding, the second is about the search for a solution and its effect on their relationship.
That an Indian storyteller might consider ED an issue because it would deny a woman sexual pleasure in her marriage – and not merely because of the social pressure she will inevitably face to beget heirs carrying forward her husband’s family line – is reason enough to sit up and take notice. That he wants us to view sex as a means to express love and affection between the partners involved, and not merely as a function performed to make babies (or for that matter, not as an instrument of physical satisfaction alone), is such an interesting turn of events.
Even when the conservatism of Mudit’s family threatens to tear them apart, it is evident that writer-director R.S. Prasanna sees Sugandha and Mudit as equal partners. Even though SMS is an out-and-out comedy, it is clear that Prasanna does not consider their intimacy a frivolous pursuit. Frankly, this man’s refreshingly different attitude to life is spelt out from the opening moment of the film when SMS gives us something you rarely ever get in commercial Indian cinema: a female voiceover and the introduction of the heroine before the hero.
SMS is a remake of the Tamil film Kalyana Samayal Saadham which starred Lekha Washington and Prasanna. The original and SMS are both directed by R.S. Prasanna. He also wrote the original. The screenplay and dialogues for the Hindi film have been written by Hitesh Kewalya who manages to neatly capture the environment in which the film is set while also flirting with sexual innuendo at places without ever getting crude.
The first half of SMS is a complete riot, yet manages to evoke stirring passages of emotion between the two leads. From their initial meeting, to the manner in which they get past the hurdles involved in courtship in a society where a direct and open expression of interest in a person of the opposite sex is frowned upon, a woman is expected never to make the first move and a decent man must therefore find ways to approach a woman he likes without being a stalker or a lech; from their shy shot at having sex one night when they get her house all to themselves, to Sugandha’s mother’s effort to drive home the virtues of virginity to her daughter, and the bride’s calculating yet affectionate chachu, everything is designed to have viewers rolling in the aisles with laughter even while driving home the point it wishes to make. And Prasanna succeeds on both counts.
Pednekar and Khurrana are so sweet together and separately, that I wanted to reach out and hug them throughout. She, with less experience, performs as if she was born to live before the camera. That they are good actors is a given. This film further serves to establish that they are a shubh jodi on screen, and could well be our new Deepti Naval-Farooque Sheikh combination.
In one scene, Mudit tells his fiancee that he ate “onion” kulchas earlier in the day. In another, he refers to his “resumé”. I loved how Khurrana mispronounces both words – with seeming effortlessness – without turning his character into a caricature. I loved too that the film is not condescending in its gaze on the people of its chosen setting.
Of the supporting cast, Seema Pahwa and Neeraj Sood playing Sugandha’s parents get the benefit of the best-written characters, and return the favour with scintillating performances.
Though Mudit’s Mum and Dad are not examined as closely by the screenplay, Supriya Shukla and Chittaranjan Tripathy too have their sparkling moments. The only other supporting players who are written with any depth are Sugandha’s eccentric uncle (played by Brijendra Kala) and her best friend Ginni (Anshul Chauhan) – both actors are just fantastic.
This being middle class India where everyone in your extended family and neighbourhood has an opinion about the most private details of your existence, and where “bachche kab karoge?” (when will you have children?) is a question people ask even virtual strangers without any qualms, of course after a point Mudit’s troubles become a talking point in the entire biraadari. When the narrative reaches this place, it falters, getting carried away with its hyperbole.
(Possible spoilers ahead)
This is one of the reasons why the post-interval portion of SMS is much weaker than its opening half. The other reason is that after a while, the team seems not entirely sure how to handle the complexities of their theme while sustaining the humour. At this point, substance gets sacrificed in favour of absurdity, loudness is used to cover up lack of layering, and an exploration of the Sugandha-Mudit equation is replaced by frenzied activity on screen. Enter: a clumsily handled guest appearance by Jimmy Sheirgill, and the insertion of Mudit’s touchy-feely ex in the picture, the only purpose this irritating creature serves being to keep us informed that the boy did manage to do it in the past.
(Spoiler alert ends)
Criminally, too, SMS is casually ignorant in its discussion on erectile dysfunction, dismissing ED with a wave of the hand as a condition driven purely by psychology. Performance anxiety is just one of many reasons that could spark off ED in a man, and it is inexcusable that a purportedly sincere film would spread further falsehoods about a subject that is already so mired in misinformation in this country.
The standard reaction to such criticism is to say, “C’mon yaar, this is not a documentary, it is a fiction feature.” Yes, yaaaaar, but A Beautiful Mind and Rain Man were not documentaries, yet they gave us deep insights into schizophrenia and autism respectively. And before anyone responds further with, “C’mon yaar, but SMS is a comedy,” let me add, yaaaaar, that I can recall scene after scene in Rain Man that were comical, yet the film was not uninformed.
SMS’s lacunae though, surface only in the second half, by which time the mood is so firmly set, that half the battle has been won.
Among the many things to recommend this film are the lightness of touch in the songs (written and composed by Tanishk-Vayu) and in DoP Anuj Rakesh Dhawan’s take on the NCR and Haridwar sans mandatory visits to famous landmarks – what Dhawan gives us instead, for the most part, are narrow streets in congested residential colonies, crowded public roads, small middle-class homes and a sparing use of long shots while he is at it, which goes well with the film’s endearing lack of pretensions to grandeur or a large scale. (For the record, FYI, SMS was shot on location in Delhi, Gurgaon, Haridwar, Rishikesh and Mumbai, in addition to a Mumbai studio.)
Shubh Mangal Saavdhan then is super-fun till it gets superficial. It is, to borrow the tagline of another film now in theatres, sundar, susheel and risky in its first half, flails about in the second, but remains entertaining overall. Handle it with care and alertness.