By Annie Banerji
NEW DELHI, Feb 20 (Openly) - Eschewing the typical Bollywood storyline of boy meets girl and struggles to marry in the face of family opposition, a new film approaches things differently - with a gay couple.
Touted as India's first gay male romantic comedy, "Shubh Mangal Zyada Saavdhan" ("Be Extra Careful About Marriage") stars popular actor Ayushmann Khurrana as an openly gay man, who battles conservative attitudes to be with his boyfriend.
Packed with romantic scenes including a kiss between the male leads, the film offers a rare portrait of same-sex love in a small town in India, which legalised gay sex in 2018.
"The point was not being apologetic about (gay love); not depicting it as a problem, not take it as a disease," director Hitesh Kewalya told the Thomson Reuters Foundation by phone, ahead of the film's release on Friday.
LGBT+ people are rarely represented in Bollywood and in cameo roles often cast as crude caricatures added for cheap laughs.
But since India scrapped the ban on gay sex, depictions of LGBT+ people on television have started to shift from mocking stereotypes to including gay men on dating shows and drag queens in a singing competition.
Arthouse films with smaller audiences have sensitively depicted lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender stories such as "My Brother Nikhil" which tells the story of gay man's struggle with AIDS and the 2014 drama film "Margarita With A Straw".
Bollywood's first major LGBT+ film was released last year about a lesbian couple though critics said its same-sex references were subdued.
"Our industry, unfortunately, has survived on stereotypes ... and I didn't want to do that. That was my biggest responsibility," said Kewalya about his directorial debut.
"I wanted to break every stereotype using this platform."
Despite fears of a backlash, responses to the film's trailer - viewed more than 51 million times - have been positive with a leading Bollywood magazine calling it "hilarious and game-changing".
The film is backed by some of Bollywood's biggest producers and 39-year-old Kewalya said it would be the first mainstream commercial movie to openly explore a same-sex relationship.
He said the Supreme Court's ruling on gay sex had allowed him to be more upfront with some scenes, including the kiss, which he feared could be cut by censors.
But homosexuality in the country remains taboo, with discrimination and abuse against LGBT+ widespread. Outside cities, it can be worse with threats of violence, brutality and even death.
Parental acceptance is also a challenge.
This is reflected in the film, which shows one of the families struggling to come to terms with their son's sexual orientation and pressuring him to marry a woman.
In one scene, Khurrana's character is seen strutting across a terrace, wearing a rainbow cape and announcing with a megaphone that his partner's father suffers from homophobia, "a disease with no cure".
This is not Kewalya's first attempt at tackling a taboo topic. In 2017 he wrote "Shubh Mangal Saavdhan" ("Beware of Marriage"), a film about erectile dysfunction.
"Be Extra Careful About Marriage" draws on his own experiences at design school, where he first interacted with LGBT+ people and started to understand their struggles.
Since the release of the trailer in January, Kewalya said he had received scores of messages from LGBT+ Indians.
One gay person told Kewalya that he would take his parents to watch the film and then come out to them.
"If such things happen ... that will be the success of the film more than anything else," the father-of-one said.
(Reporting by Annie Banerji @anniebanerji, Editing by Tom Finn ; Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters that covers land and property rights, modern slavery and human trafficking, gender equality, climate change and resilience. Visit http://news.trust.org to see more stories)
Openly is an initiative of the Thomson Reuters Foundation dedicated to impartial coverage of LGBT+ issues from around the world.
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