For Kewalya, the humour lies in how people go to extreme lengths to avoid talking about sex. (Designed by Gargi Singh)
'Sab mixed hai andar' (Everything is a blend within),” says writer-director Hitesh Kewalya, talking about how his exposure to a multicultural way of life has shaped his vision. His debut directorial venture, Shubh Mangal Zyada Saavdhan (SMZS), billed as the “first mainstream gay film,” released on February 21, and has received critical acclaim.
We begin our conversation with Delhi, a city he was born and grew up in, and which is central to his cinematic sensibility. “I lived at Malviya Nagar, where I still have a home. I come from a typical middle-class family, where the emphasis was on studies,” he says. His father, who worked at the National Thermal Power Corporation, was a film enthusiast, and would often take him to watch movies. Besides, dialogues and repartees had always been a way of life for the Kewalya family, courtesy their obsession with Bollywood. Even today, Kewalya converses in a manner as if he is spouting one-liners from the next film that he is writing. “I have always been a storyteller, but I sort of rambled through various mediums,” he says.
After completing school (Apeejay School in south Delhi’s Sheikh Sarai) in 1998, he did his Bachelor’s through correspondence, and also dabbled in radio-writing, advertising, animation, theatre, scripting events and fashion shows. After three years, it struck him that cinema was where all this came together. “I packed my bags and arrived in Mumbai in 2001,” says Kewalya, 39.
Besides, dialogues and repartees had always been a way of life for the Kewalya family, courtesy their obsession with Bollywood.
Since then, it has been a long, fun-filled journey. In 2017, he was approached to write the dialogues for Shubh Mangal Saavdhan (SMS), another comedy starring Khurrana, which was a hit. “Sandeep Nair (creative director at Colour Yellow Pictures) eventually also gave me the task of writing the screenplay,” he says. Writing SMZS was the logical result of that collaboration. Kewalya, after he wrote the script, wanted to direct the film, but waited for the production house to make the first move. “Aag dono taraf barabar lagi thhi (the fire raged on both sides), but we were both playing the waiting game,” he says.
Kewalya straddles several parallel worlds. This is what makes him tick. “In school, I was liked by and got along with everyone. So be it the first-ever porn magazine that was circulated in the class, or the OP Sharma mathematics guide, it all came to me first. I had a 360-degree view of the world around me, and that’s what, perhaps, shapes me and my work,” he says.
Part of his varied influences are his mother, who is from Kolkata, and from whom he has picked up her language. From his aunt, he has learnt everything about being a Gujarati. “Growing up in Delhi, you also soak in the Punjabi culture,” he says.
In SMZS, Kewalya tackles homophobia but without the chest-thumping, preaching-from-a-pulpit approach.
The dialogues in SMS, a film which centred around erectile dysfunction, were very well received. The humble Parle-G biscuit went on to become a humorous euphemism for “gents’ problem”, especially in a country where sex is still considered a four-letter taboo word. In SMZS, Kewalya tackles homophobia but without the chest-thumping, preaching-from-a-pulpit approach. The result is very much like the one in Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayenge (1995), except that Raj ends up meeting Rocky, not Simran. “When I was growing up, whenever a condom ad would come on TV, hum log baglein jhaankne lag jaate the (we would look in other directions). Those were the days when there was only one channel — Doordarshan. I never understood why there was a horse running in a condom ad. There was also the image of a couple holding hands in a silhouette. A 10-11-year-old turns to his parents — curious as hell — who are then supremely embarrassed. This world fascinated me, where we do what all adults are supposed to do, but we shall not talk about it, ever,” says Kewalya.
For Kewalya, the humour lies in how people go to extreme lengths to avoid talking about sex. “How we use innuendos, and how we try too hard to avoid uttering the word itself, it’s hilarious,” he says. Was the landmark Supreme Court’s reading down of the Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code in 2018 the trigger for the film? Apparently not. “The film had been in the works even before the judgment. We might have shifted something here and there, given the legality of certain things. I think I was writing the climax when the verdict came out. And, when SMS came out, this question had bothered me: why was no one talking about male sexuality? As for female sexuality, we are light years behind. We club things together under one umbrella — heterosexual sex,” he says. The filmmaker feels that SMZS is an attempt to understand what goes on in the mind of queer men. “With SMS, when the hero of the film is dealing with the ramifications of not being a man, we need to redefine what it really is to be a man. With SMZS, we are taking that narrative even further. We need to redefine masculinity.”
After he arrived in Mumbai in 2001, Kewalya worked as fifth assistant director (AD) on a daily soap for ETV 24 and wrote scripts on the side. Things began to look up when he cleared the first round of the entrance for a Master’s degree in film and video communication at the National Institute of Design, Ahmedabad (NID). “I had applied to NID two-three times before, but never got selected. And, now, when I had made the transition from being the fifth AD to the writing department, I got this call. But, after speaking to people, I realised that this might be the only chance that I will get for formal education,” says the director.
At NID, from 2002-05, Kewalya rubbed shoulders with fashion designers, like Rahul Mishra and Nachiket Barve, and artist Sumer Tagra. They were all in the same hostel. “I was finally getting to write and direct myself. NID is a holistic place. And I was studying liberal arts which I had no exposure to before, and, finally, the way I always wanted to,” says Kewalya. It was at NID where he met his future wife, Nupur Bhargava, who was studying animation-film design.
Returning to Mumbai, however, Kewalya would find himself sitting at home, doing “nothing”. His wife, meanwhile, worked and ran the household. “But, after a point, I wanted to contribute, too. That’s when I started writing the promos for TV shows. Suresh Triveni, the director of Tumhari Sulu (2017), gave me my first writing gig for a children’s science show. I had auditioned to be the host of the show, but I ended up writing for it instead. I went on to write for 10 years for TV serials like Miley Jab Hum Tum and Iss Pyaar Ko Kya Naam Doon I was also the show creator for Humse Hai Life, which aired on Channel V,” says Kewalya. He also worked on a script with Amit V Masurkar, who directed Newton (2017), but nothing came out of it. “Masurkar wanted to collaborate with me as my Hindi was very good. But it didn’t go anywhere. Besides, I wrote six more films for friends and acquaintances that never saw the light of day,” he says.
With the success of SMZS, humour seems to have become the lifeblood of Kewalya’s writing. However, he feels no emotion exist in isolation. “It’s like a tool. You cannot just wave it without a base and context. Agar kabootar udha hi rahe ho, chitthi laga ke udhaoge toh zyaada effective hoga na (If it’s pigeons that you must fly, tie a letter to it),” he says.