Faces of infidelity in Bollywood

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.

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.

Faces of infidelity in Bollywood

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.

Faces of infidelity in Bollywood

Two other films which beautifully ploughed this terra in the Seventies, Pati Patni Aur Woh and Griha Pravesh, 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 Griha Pravesh 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 raas-leela between Amitabh and Rekha, and sizzling with their on-screen chemistry (who can forget the pictorisation of songs such as ‘Yeh kahan aagaye hum…’ or ‘Rang barse bheegey chunar wali…’) 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?).

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