Readers Write In #201: How the Indian family film meets Hitchcock in Shubh Mangal Zyada Saavdhaan

Posted on June 7, 2020


(by Ankit Sinha)

Of all the ingredients that make up a scene, ‘tension’ has to be the most ubiquitous, the most essential, the most common. It is tension that glues a scene about the meeting of two lovers just as much as a scene about the meeting of two warring ganglords. It is what the master of tension and suspense – Alfred Hitchcock – believed, and you see that in how he directs a love scene in ‘Vertigo’ with the same eye of suspense as a chase scene.

Francois Truffaut writes in the introduction to his famous book Hitchcock/Truffaut – “All of this brings us to suspense, which, even among those who acknowledge Hitchcock’s mastery of it, is commonly regarded as a minor form of the spectacle, whereas actually it is the spectacle in itself. Suspense is simply the dramatization of a film’s narrative material, or, if you will, the most intense presentation possible of dramatic situations. The art of creating suspense is also the art of involving the audience, so that the viewer is actually a participant in the film. In this area of the spectacle, filmmaking is not a dual interplay between the director and his picture, but a three-way game in which the audience too is required to play.”

It is what you see in the recent Ayushmann Khurana – Jitendra Kumar release “Shubh Mangal Zyada Saavdhaan” too – which is otherwise a comic family drama – when their relationship is revealed accidentally to a parent and now they must have a confrontation. In a way, it makes perfect sense, because for a conservative father to find about his gay son’s sexuality, is no different than a suspense film about a man venturing into an uncertain darkness. That is how the revelation scene is shot too, when Aman’s (Jitendra Kumar) father – Shankar Tripathi (Gajraj Rao) – hits into his son kissing his male partner in what looks like a realm of light and shadows, like an underground beneath Shankar’s small town life. It has now become my favorite sequence in Hindi films this year, in how it makes the Indian “family film” meet the Cinema of Alfred Hitchcock.

Hitesh Kewalya films this moment in a train. The train not just becomes a representation of the entire Indian family structure – the parents & the siblings, the uncles and the cousins are all present – but also a revelry of Indian Culture in the fact that they are all on their way for the marriage of Aman’s cousin Rajni (Maanvi Gagroo). Everyone present in that space is lost in the colors of celebration and the high of a song when Aman & Kartik hide in a corner by the train’s bathroom and engage in a passionate kiss – the film song, which has majorly been a space of heterosexual expression, also becomes a cinematic image of our culture. Shankar accidentally chances upon the sight of their passion when he exits the door of the coach.

With this, the Train of Culture enters a dark tunnel and the colorful shots are assaulted by a game of flipping darkness and light – its made clear, Shankar Tripathi, like the train itself, has been thrust into a realm of darkness/uncertainty where he has to face a truth that he has no idea how to respond to. It makes sense that more than disheartened, Shankar is disoriented in this moment, which is why his response is more physical – he vomits. Aman & Kartik notice him too and recoil away from each other in shock.

The next scene is where the Hitchcockian Suspense game ensues. The staging from here on is superb. The train is stopped now – as if the linear, unaccomodating journey of our culture were stopped in shock when asked to face this truth. This is matched in Shankar’s response, who like the train, is lying immovable, unconscious. Around him, his entire extended family is engaging in minor quibbles, without knowing that they have a much bigger chalenge that will dwarf all these smaller conflicts.

Aman and Kartik are the outsiders here, so they are staged in a different space outside the train. Shankar wakes up, and without speaking to anyone else, simply gets off the train with all the weight on his heart and mind. This is where his eyes meet with Aman – it is the first point of contact between the two ends of suspense.

I call this sequence Hitchcockian because it follows the master’s principle of suspense – to throw all the parties involved in the field and watch how suspense stems out of their contest. We know that the parties involved here are Shankar – the representative of Culture – & Aman – the outsider – and both of them are like opponents on two ends duelling on a field. In accordance with Hitchcock’s principle theory, the sequence is no more about the ‘surprise’ of the father finding out – that is taken care of quickly – but the suspense of Aman confronting his father who now knows what he has been hiding for years, and about the father’s response, which is something that the film goes on to become soon after this sequence – a debate of perspectives. We are told that Aman is going to confront his father and Hitesh Kewalya fills this sequence up with immense suspense leading to a confrontation.

Kartik encourages Aman to approach and confront his father without fear, something that Aman eventually agrees to, thus bringing close the two opponents against each other. Aman takes slow steps towards his father, and upon reaching him, says – “Papa”. At this moment, Shankar is helping a railway assistant with a water hose and is turned away from Aman – we’ll soon find our that the water hose has been planned deliberately and most correctly. When he hears Aman’s voice, he is startled and his eyes grow alert – again Hitesh lets the tension build up here too, as Aman repeatedly calls after his father and Shankar stands turned away from him in a close-up, working at the hose with resentment and uncertainty about just how to communicate with and express himself to his son.

The rising tension tells us that we are approaching the point of resolution, and we find out the role of the hose in this sequence when it finally throws up water – thus releasing all the pent-up tension of the sequence – and Shankar finally turns towards Aman, launching all the water from the hose at him, catching Aman off-guard. This is a brilliant resolution to the built-up suspense because through the hose, Shankar who was unclear of how to communicate, ends up expressing all his anger at his son through this, in an attempt that becomes a purification of the sin that he thinks he has seen his son commit as much as a punishment for the darkness that Aman has made him face.

But if this climax of suspense was excellent, the finale of the sequence is even better. The water hose stops suddenly, and now Shankar once again finds himself alienated without the tools for expression. Aman, who was until now not looking into his eyes, now stares at him with seething anger and pain. Shankar notices this when he finally approaches him, and his heart finally breaks to see what he has just done to his golden child.

The suspense is resolved with this climax of the sequence – they are no longer opponents but family once again, and the scene concludes with a fine coda that will define their relationship from this point on. The tension between the two finally melts into a moment of empathy. They were at the two ends of a contest of suspense in the beginning of this sequence. Now that it is resolved with ugliness and the social man in Shankar has vent his anger at Aman, the father in Shankar finally reaches out to his son and places a hand on his shoulders, and says – “Us ladke se door raho”. What a conclusion that is – one that says “I may be by your side because I’m your father after all, but this is wrong”. Both Gajraj Rao and Jitendra Kumar are brilliant here – Jitendra just stands there with indignation & pain in his eyes, and Gajraj Rao brings deep humanism to this character when he says that final line, which sounds somewhere between a warning and a plea to his son. This concluding dialogue is also wonderful because it does what all good scenes must do in a film – as this sequence ends, the dialogue sets the tone for the sequences that will follow it now in the film, and also for their relationship from here on- that the son will look him straight in the eye from from this point on, and the father, although resentful, will still agree to have dialogue with him.