I recently watched the Ayushmann Khuranna and Bhumi Pednekar starring film Shubh Mangal Saavdhan. I assumed it would be a generic romantic comedy about boy meets girl, boy and girl fall in love. And though the movie had a generic boy loves girl storyline, the theme of sexuality ran as an undercurrent throughout.
Here, boy falls in love with girl in the usual ‘love at first sight’. Though from there what follows is a string of failures owing to the awkwardness that the boy and girl find themselves in, as on one night, though they try, they aren’t able to engage in any sexual activity. The scene felt like just another scene in the movie until I realised that everything that was to come would be a chain of dominoes falling over as a result of that one incident. I got glued to the TV as knots formed and kept forming in the movie. It was this one simple incident (or lack thereof) that led to these many knots.
And so, the to-be groom and to-be bride end up on a roller coaster ride. The boy ends up searching the Internet for things like “gents problem” while the girl opens her laptop and somehow struggles through her first porn film with dialogues that feel alien to her. Through a downfall of emotions and events the girl also comes to believe that this may be a result of something that is her problem. The boy decides to visit a sage who, in the movie, is described as being “limp and weak.” The mother decides to speak to her daughter about her own ‘golden night’ and they even decide to go shopping for lingerie. Throughout this set of scenes unfolding, what was difficult to just speak about was that the male protagonist had experienced erectile dysfunction. “Woh wali problem hai… biscuit wali… woh… gent’s problem…” (It’s that problem…the biscuit one…that one… gent’s problem…), was the explanation, represented by dipping a biscuit into a cup of tea until it turned soggy and limp.
It felt like a commentary on the way we live, our surroundings, our psyche and our culture. I’ve worked in a psychiatric hospital in a smaller part of town in Jharkhand. The hospital was situated on the outskirts of Ranchi. It was an isolated psychiatric hospital with another psychiatric hospital close-by. People all around town would sometimes refer to Kanke as “paagal khaana” (mad house). Sometimes patients would turn up in the hospital with sexual complaints, but would have no language around it. As a clinical psychology trainee who was also a woman sitting in front of a family in the OPD, taking a diagnostic case history, the family found it difficult to just somehow tell me that their young boy was having wet dreams, or in medical terms, that he was having nocturnal emissions. I sat there in front of them wondering what my patient was trying to tell me. He explained how he would get on to buses and how he would stare at women, but everything from there on was a pause. There was a gap… in the language.
I had another patient who was very religious. He, like my previous patient, also had nocturnal emissions. This patient had been referred for psychotherapy. I decided to speak openly to him about sexual intercourse and how it’s normal and healthy to have desires, and about how repressing sexual desires can become unhealthy. Once we began to speak openly about how it is okay to want sex and how it is healthy to masturbate, his nocturnal emissions decreased on their own. He began speaking to me about how that part of his life had become better and we began to engage in dialogues about other areas of his life that were troubling him.
While growing up with the many notions that we unknowingly learn via exposure to school, media, cultural symbols, a lot of young people come to believe that sex is wrong and dirty; that if a woman desires sex it is something dirty. There is a lack of a clear language about sex. It isn’t just that it’s taboo, but that while we are growing up there is confusion about sexuality, desires – what is healthy (eg. knowing what one wants, consensual sexual engagements, etc.) and what is unhealthy (eg. engaging in abusive behaviour, not respecting people’s boundaries, etc.) .
A lot of the conversations that we would have while we were growing up, with the then young adults of my own age, would be around sexual intercourse – who did whom, who managed to do how much; there was even a game called ‘Never Have I Ever’ which somehow at parties always turned out to be either about who was the king of kink or who was to be shamed because they did not engage in any sexual activity. There was so much bubbling sexual energy yet there was a lack of comfort in just talking about it as something normal. Do we ever talk like this about drinking water when we are thirsty? Do we gloat about it? Are there movies about the joy of having water? Is half the media just objectifying a desire to have water? It was much later in life that I realised that sex had become this thing outside – it was no longer just another biological need and a physical expression of a desire. It was this thing that makes you dirty or fills you with shame or makes you stand out. I write this with fear as there is no one easy way to talk about sex – as soon as one talks, it must be spoken about only in whispers.
And it was this that I thought the movie Shubh Mangal Saavdhanportrayed to my surprise quite charmingly. Something as simple as one bad attempt at sex, the couple has no language around. Suddenly it is a big secret that is to be kept inside, not to be spoken about. The silence around this overbearing secret must be carried around like water in a balloon surrounded by needles. The water always to be kept inside and the needles always a threat that this water would burst out – and if there then is no water, there is no balloon, only the identity of the couple drenched in shame. In their case, the water breaks, giving birth to shame in the family. Suddenly the water becomes representative of stains the family is carrying, the burden of which crowd as doubts in the mind of the new couple. The whole movie is a satire. After a long haul of ridicule and shame, the groom-to-be visits a veterinarian, a doctor for animals. On being questioned about how he is not a doctor for humans, this doctor with a sharp sarcastic tongue decided to quote the famous line, which we have all used in our school essays, “Man is a social animal.” The doctor then uses a double-entendre, for perhaps the lack of simple language, to explain that this boy needs to not make a fuss about sex – ‘just relax.’ The boy, though, is anything but relaxed. The climax (as pun in the movie would have intended it to be) is that the couple tries having sex behind closed doors while everyone is waiting outside, betting on whether they will be able to do it. There is a curiosity about what happens behind closed doors. The scene is set with people from both the groom’s side and bride’s side, betting on whether this couple would finally have sex. There is chaos infirming the sexual identity of the couple. What goes on behind closed doors? Is it safe or is it dangerous? The couple walks out with everyone waiting to hear the proclaimed secret – will our Mary have an immaculate conception or have they finally had sex? There is so much curiosity about the act of sex.
The movie was using humor as hyperbole: a bubbling goofy energy at one end of the spectrum and yet at the other, a speechless silence to be borne through – ‘that a biscuit can go limp.’
I attend clinical seminars where practitioners discuss clinical cases pertaining to the theory and practice of psychotherapy. In context of a case that was being discussed, my supervisor said, that as a woman to have a healthy sexual life, what one ought to experience is integration. She was explaining to us how when we have sex, we need to be able to take something that is external inside – it is an experience of taking something in. Sometimes this experience of taking something in can become interrupted and difficult because we haven’t been able to take in our own truths. As men and women, to have a satisfying and healthy sexual life, what we ought to experience is a feeling of being whole and integrated.
The movie was also a commentary about how this experience of un-integration can lead to chaos in the mind, resulting from a chaos in society. A lack of dialogue that sex is normal, that sometimes it is boring, that sometimes it can frustrate leads to a whole lot of chaos in the minds of this unit – this boy and girl, each filled with many doubts – and though they struggle to build a language, it only fragments and gets broken inside, leading to a further deterioration of events. I thought it was interesting as the movie in itself was a double-entendre – a comedy about sexual struggles of a new couple – but also the truth about sometimes carrying the weight of sex in our society which sometimes we do not want to address or acknowledge.
In one clinical seminar, we were elaborating on and discussing perversions as being a denial of the truth – a distortion of the truth. If we could break apart the sexual from sexual perversions, we would realise that in some ways, we are all perverse. We all end up denying facts of life – because in its denial there is a haven. For instance, on an everyday basis sometimes we all deny the fact of life that it is certain that time passes and that we will die, that it is certain that good things end and that it is certain that we were born out of a creative activity of our own parents. In its denial is a comfort in not acknowledging a painful truth. Perversion in intensities is not just forgetting or suppressing something down our memories – it is something that cannot be unearthed. Perversions are a lack in the development of a language – they are a negation and an inability to stay with the truth. When one often relies on denying and distorting a truth as the entire basis for the blueprint of their life, it occurs because this kind of corruption of truth helps this individual survive. Sometimes perversions are what help one survive through intensities in extreme situations.
The movie Shubh Mangal Saavdhanwas a commentary about perversions in our society – the denial of the truth about sexuality, that sex is normal, that sex could be just another physical need, that sometimes sex can be boring, that sometimes sex can frustrate. It isn’t that we have forgotten sex or suppressed it, but it is that we have made it into a perversion; it is resulting in a perversion. In a crude way, rape, sexual abuse and domestic violence – they are metaphors of this perversion being carried on the bodies of the perpetrators and survivors of this violence – the body of the perpetrator stuffing the body of the victim like a dump with corrupted unwanted truths. We as a family gather around closed doors and wait while we suffer from our voyeurism, to just pervert the truth, destroy it, and wait for this couple to come outside and unearth the truth that cannot ever really be unearthed. We are all suffering from this perversion. And I loved how simply the movie Shubh Mangal Saavdhanportrayed this.
*I owe my gratitude to Ms. Malika Verma under whose supervision I have been a part of clinical seminars.