MUNMUN GHOSH revisits some of the most fascinating, enduring Hindi films on the subject and dwells on the insights these offer on the workings of the human psyche and changing dynamics of marriages.
A key reason why the film RUSTOM, grounded in Mumbai’s recent history easily trampled over its parallel release MOHENJO DARO, based on ancient history, must surely be RUSTOM’s central theme around which every scene of the film is wrapped – infidelity. Even though the original Nanavati case (1959) on which RUSTOM was based had more strength, layers and romanticism than the film could capture, the sheer power of this tale of infidelity by a beautiful wife and her passionate husband’s murder of her lover, supported by deft direction and period recreation, carried the film to success. Bollywood, which has maintained an unwavering focus on love and marriage as a prime motif down the years, has not shied away from touching or exploring its chief threat – infidelity – to varying degrees and from different perspectives, right from its first sound motion picture ALAM ARA (1931) directed by Ardeshir Irani.
Sex is a basic instinct, marriage an ideal that humans seek to actualise for smooth functioning of society, to prevent anarchy. If fidelity between partners was natural, it would not need to be institutionalised. But the truth is, human emotions are unpredictable. So fidelity or commitment is sought to be ensured through sacred marriage rites or civil court procedures, and a marriage is made public knowledge to solicit societal support to keep the couple together and ensure social order. However, like with all restrictions, the rebellious human spirit (and flesh) often militates against this restriction and sometimes flouts it violently. Infidelity is as old as the institution of marriage. Its repercussion almost always is mayhem and eventual establishment of a new equation, a new order.
Given the drama, conflict, sensual ecstasy (forbidden intimacy being always keener), sorrow and moral imbroglios infidelity involves, it’s not surprising that infidelity has erupted on the Hindi film screen from time to time, to various receptions. Interestingly enough, Bollywood which has been accused of gender bias (towards the male species) has been gender-neutral in this matter, not hesitating to show a woman as an adulteress from the very beginning. In the film ALAM ARA, lost to the world now, Dilbahar, one of two wives of a king, attempts an affair with his General and later wrecks vengeance on the General when the affair turns sour. Indeed, in the three major films GUIDE, GUMRAAH and YEH RAASTE HAIN PYAAR KE, which wrestled with the theme in the 1960s – perhaps the earliest Hindi films to do so in depth – it was the woman who was depicted as straying, for different reasons. If in GUIDE, it’s her husband’s utter callousness and lack of love for his wife that drives Rosie into the arms of a caring Raju, in GUMRAAH, it is the wife’s inability to snap ties with her paramour of her pre-nuptial days that disrupts conjugal harmony.
In the Sunil Dutt-Leela Naidu-Ashok Kumar starrer YEH RAASTE HAIN PYAAR KE – the first film to be made on the Nanavati case (Commander Nanavati’s trial for murder of his friend and businessman Prem Ahuja in 1959 in Mumbai that ended the jury system in India), the wife’s adultery is roundly imputed to her husband’s long periods of absence. The film did not make waves at the box office though, and was considered too bold for its time.
Even in the 1976 hit DO ANJAANE, grandly fronted by Amitabh and Rekha, it is the woman who succumbs to the temptation of fame and money and slips out of the embrace of her honest, devoted husband, lured by his friend (Prem Chopra). Interestingly, she becomes an adulteress in the film by default and not through focus, because the friend helps her to realise her ambition of foraying into the glittering film world. The film directed by Dulal Guha, can be credited for inducting a high level of complexity into the treatment of infidelity. For the first time, the heroine is portrayed in a strong negative light and not given any extenuating factors for her behaviour. Of course, by the end of the film, she moves to repentance for her guilt and to the honourable fold of marriage.
Two other films which beautifully ploughed this terra in the Seventies, PATI PATNI AUR WOH and GRIHAPRAVESH, centred on the straying husband, played incidentally by the talented Sanjeev Kumar in both cases. In both, the husband is drawn to a glamorous woman at his workplace, his secretary, and courses along with her some way, to return eventually to his wife. However, while the box-office hit PATI PATNI AUR WOH was an outright comedy and treated the subject as such, Basu Bhattacharya’s GRIHAPRAVESH got into the thick of a middle-class couple’s life in earnest and highlighted an important truth of marriage. In a moment of epiphany, the betrayed wife (Sharmila) vocalises her realisation from her husband’s confession of attraction towards his secretary (Sarika). She says (not the exact words) ‘I became so immersed in executing all household duties perfectly, mainly cooking and bringing up my child that I forgot to groom myself, forgot that I had to also remain attractive to my husband’ — a thought that would surely resonate with many wives. She acts on the epiphany and asks her husband to invite his new love to their home. When he comes home with his secretary, he is shocked to see his wife’s transformation – in place of the carelessly-dressed housewife who flurried around without a care for her looks, was a beautiful, well-turned out woman. He can’t take his eyes off her.
Infidelity came into full bloom as a theme in the Eighties, with directors shedding all reservations and exploring the subject from different angles and the public lapping up these films avidly. Yash Chopra’s SILSILA, building on rumours of real-life raasleela between Amitabh and Rekha, and sizzling with their on-screen chemistry (who can forget the pictorisation of songs such as ‘Yeh kahan aa gaye hum…’ or ‘Rang barse bheegey chunarwali…’) projected the infidelity theme full-on. Even though the film’s beauty, power and appeal largely emanated from the adulterous couple’s passionate rendezvous, SILSILA yet again reiterated the sacredness and strength of the institution of marriage. Like GUMRAAH and much before it Raj Kapoor’s SANGAM, SILSILA loudly decried an earlier romantic involvement as a just or acceptable reason to continue the liaison once one took the saat pheras with another partner, for whatever reason. If one broke a marriage, one would only incur social censure and condemnation (Remember Amitabh’s turbaned friend rebuking him for his outing with Rekha and reminding him of how they had all lauded him when he had married his late brother’s fiancée to save her honour?). Marriage had to be prioritised over an unruly heart’s desires. It is sacrosanct – the film’s message was unequivocal. In Gulzar’s 1988 offering IJAAZAT, wound round the same theme, the husband (Naseeruddin) who indulges his former girlfriend as she turns psychotic after his marriage to another woman (Rekha) is left high and lonely at the end of the film, while Rekha moves on and into harmonious coupling with another man (Shashi Kapoor).
The Eighties, for the first time, yielded films which posited that it was all right for a spouse to not forgive a partner’s infidelity and annul the marriage, irrespective of gender. And remarkably enough, the rejecting partner in a few of the most memorable films of the ’80s, was a woman. Vinod Pandey’s poetry on celluloid EK BAAR PHIR (1980) gracefully traces a wife’s journey to liberation from her blatant womaniser-husband, through an affair with a young artist and her self-discovery, culminating in her decision to not go back to her pompous, self-assured husband. And then came Mahesh Bhatt’s ARTH. No film before or after, perhaps captured the agony and ecstasy of infidelity like ARTH, which was inspired by the maker’s own experience, pitching as it did two of the most powerful actors of Hindi cinema, Shabana Azmi and Smita Patil against each other, as wife and the other woman respectively. The two scenes in the film where the women come face to face, one at a party and the other in Smita’s house, are incendiary. Also noteworthy are the arguments the two women offer for finally leaving the man (Kulbhushan Kharbanda) – ‘If you can leave your wife for me, then one day you may discard me for another woman. How can I feel secure with you?’ – the other woman’s argument and the wife’s – a simple question to her husband when he returns to her and proposes re-building their marriage, ‘If I had done to you what you did to me, would you still take me back?’ In all honesty, the husband shakes his head and they go their separate ways.
Not only was walkout by a wife, in protest against her husband’s philandering sanctioned, so was her remarriage. Om Prakash’s 1985 film AAKHIR KYON ends on a bold note with Alok (Rajesh Khanna) applying sindoor on the forehead of author Nisha (Smita Patil) and officiating their long-term relationship that began after her separation from her unfaithful husband. Also, the tabooed subject of one-night stands or a fling and its repercussion was explored sensitively by Shekhar Kapur in the Naseer-Shabana film MASOOM (1983). A wife is suddenly confronted with the challenge of accepting a child by her husband’s brief interlude with another woman, into her family. The film shines tall on all fronts and affirms the heft of human compassion that can rise above all ego-centric emotions.
Cinematic studies of infidelity have continued into the new millennium, sometimes going over well-trod ground and sometimes torching new, disturbing marital realities. Also, many of these films now take their inspiration from foreign films. Like AASTHA (1997) which seems to have been inspired by the 1967 French film BELLE DE JOUR that followed a young wife’s recourse to prostitution, to experience sexual pleasure which her otherwise compatible husband was unable to provide her. Her forays at the brothel help her to work up some real heat between her husband and herself and rev up their sex-life, though it has other serious negative consequences. Basu Bhattacharya used this core story in AASTHA and gave it a different spin – projecting the urban phenomenon of prostitution as a response to consumerism and changing ethical values. Manasi (Rekha), much-married wife of Amar (Om Puri) a professor and the mother of a school-going daughter, slides into prostitution with a little egging on, to satisfy her materialistic desires which can’t be met by her husband’s humble salary. The film effectively mirrored the slow shift in Indian values post opening up of the economy in the Nineties – from ‘simple living and high thinking’ to ‘If you have it, flaunt it’ philosophy. To flaunt, you need money to acquire the new goodies flooding the marketplace and often you have to dump your old values for the same as does Manasi in the film, though she stages a comeback in the end.
Another successful film which took off from foreign soil and which played a rare card – the woman boss as an adulteress, seeking sexual favours from her employee – was AITRAAZ (2004). While Priyanka Chopra sketched the revengeful seductress to the tee, Kareena lived out the role of the loyal, supporting wife who believes in her husband (Akshay Kumar)’s innocence and fights his case with conviction. Just as in RUSTOM, the wife comes out in staunch support of her husband, acknowledging her own guilt and courting public censure, to save him.
While much has changed in the way infidelity is depicted in our films, what hasn’t is the clear bias towards the wife and the need to keep the institution of marriage intact. The success of RUSTOM at the box-office proves this fact yet again. As in 1959, when the actual Nanavati case lobbed Mumbai and the masses lobbied for Nanavati’s pardon, regarding him as a hero who had accidentally killed the villain, even today, the on-screen loyal husband easily gains audience sympathy. Rustom’s wife is forgiven her weakness by both Rustom in the film and by the audience in the spirit of that eternal SANGAM song ‘Ai mere sanam…kuch aur nahin insaan hai hum.’ For the audience wants to see them living together (which was what happened in reality, the Nanavati couple migrated to Canada and lived peacefully) and the marriage preserved and infidelity forgotten.
Infidelity devastates lives, but makes for great art. So surely, we have not seen the end of it on-screen.