SHOMA A.CHATTERJI | 24 JULY, 2019
Adultery in Indian Cinema
Good woman and bad woman constructs
The word adultery conjures up the figure of a wife who has had a sexual relationship with a man other than her husband and not of a husband who has had sex with a woman not his wife, which is integrated within the social ethos of Indian culture. This, despite both configurations happening in India.
But, within the social realm, a wife who has committed adultery becomes a social outcast and her act of adultery is considered a crime. When the husband has a mistress, it is taken to be a way of the world, the man's world, easily overlooked in the polygamous world of The Laws of Manu (the most cited of the dharmasastras) and in the two great epics, the Ramayana and the Mahabharata.
Indian cinema has explored the concept of adultery among both husband and wife effectively in many films. Hindi cinema's hesitant, very cautious footsteps into the taboo world of the adulterous woman perhaps began with Ek Baar Phir (1979) which marked the debut of Deepti Naval, Suresh Oberoi and Pradeep Verma.
A pretty, artistically inclined Lucknow girl suddenly finds herself married to the matinee idol of Bollywood. She goes to London with her husband for a location shoot. She discovers that behind that mask of super looks and dashing demeanour, lies the soul of a spoilt, womanising, drinking lech who flaunts his one-night-stands right into her face. Shocked, she joins painting classes where she meets an Indian friend. The two fall in love and consummate the relationship. The husband leaves for Bombay, leaving his wife to finish her course. When he calls her back, she says over the telephone, "I am not coming back."
The final shot of film shows the girl and her boyfriend sitting side by side on the steps of the portico of the girl's home. There is no suggestion that they will tie the knot in future. The sum of the story is the woman's restoration of self-esteem which she lost in marriage to a husband who was not only a man but also a film star! Her adultery is neither wilful, nor designed nor immoral. It is purely an extension of the friendship with the man she is slowly falling in love with. It is the physical expression of an emotional bonding. It is a conscious step and once taken, she is not willing to back out.
Shyam Benegal's Bhoomika (1976) was adapted from the autobiography of a famous Marathi actress Hansa Wadkar, a famous Marathi stage and film actress of the 1930s. Smita Patil played the actress whose early childhood memories are filled with an alcoholic father, a grumpy mother and her conniving lover. The mother's lover marries Usha when she grows up and then lives off her earnings as a star. But when she finds this too suffocating, she breaks free, only to try and find solace in the arms of different men. Her dilemmas are ironic because she is an actress doomed to play a variety of roles but confused about her own role in real life.
Usha's search for sexual and emotional security drives her restlessly from one man to another each of them using her in his own way or forcing her into yet another male-cast mould. Repeated acts of adultery are expressions of autonomy which begins with sexual autonomy but ends with a search for coming to terms with herself, on her own terms, within her own space. Tired of the world of men and of their attempts to curb her independence, Usha decides to live alone, refusing a space even in her now grownup daughter's home.
In Dulal Guha's Do Anjaane (1976), the ambitious and materialistic wife has starry aspirations. This does not stop her from encouraging her lover (the husband's friend) to throw him off a running train and he is presumed to be dead. There are shades of Billy Wilder's Double Indemnity (1944) about a wicked woman who encourages her lover to kill her husband. In Do Anjaane, the heroine gets into a live-in relationship with the lover though the sexual angle is deliberately kept invisible in terms of narrative and cinematic space.
But she turns around and disowns him once she has used him as the ladder to the top of the celluloid world. The fact that she has become a famous star of the Bombay film industry is interwoven with her 'story-sessions' in hotel rooms with aspiring producers and directors. The sexual innuendo is more lucid here. But the director develops cold feet and organizes a very melodramatic union between the couple.
Yash Chopra tried to cash in on a reportedly real love affair between Amitabh Bachchan and Rekha in Silsila (1981.) Chopra brought the three in Silsila, portraying them in the same roles they allegedly had in real life: But the film failed to set the large screen on fire because Chopra suddenly converted the film into a cheap love story with song sequences shot against the picturesque backdrop of tulip fields in Holland. And that put paid to the cinematic possibilities ingrained within an adulterous relationship where both partners are already married to another.
Aruna Raje's Rihaee (1988) starring Hema Malini and Vinod Khanna in the lead, is the most scathing attack ever, on the promiscuity of male migrant labour vis-a-vis their assumption of sexual fidelity from their sex-starved wives. Set in Gujarat, noted for its male migrant labour from villages to cities in search of employment, Rihaee's main thrust is on the married woman's right to an active sex life. When the pretty young wives in the village are left behind to cope with their loneliness, one man from abroad returns to the village. He seduces them more because they are all starved of an active sex life than because he is handsome or smart. Their husbands are shown amusing themselves with sex-workers in the city.
When the leading lady gets pregnant, she refuses to abort the baby and faces her husband when he asks her how it all happened. And he is forced to sympathise with her logic. Rihaee stands out as the only film in mainstream Hindi cinema to get across the message that a grass widow has every right to satisfy her sexual desires through alternate sources when her husband denies it to her. Surprisingly, the Central Board of Film Certification did not come down on the film with its huge pair of scissors which it uses rather indiscriminately and very politically.
Prakash Jha's Mrityudand (1997), is all about the oppression of women in Indian villages today, which has not changed with time, except for the rebellion that can sometimes break out, when one woman triggers off this rebellion among all the women in the village. The older of the two sisters-in-law Chandravati (Shabana Azmi), is supposedly barren. Accusing her of her infertility, her husband Abhay Singh (Mohan Agashe), deserts her and the family and becomes the chief priest of the main temple after having his predecessor murdered.
Chandravati falls seriously ill from the shock of desertion and is sent away to the city for medical treatment. The low-caste family loyal Rambharan (Om Puri), who is now affluent, nurses her back to health. They fall in love and the relationship transcends the emotional to step into the physical. When she discovers she is pregnant, she is thrilled at the discovery that she is not barren. Instead of panicking at the social stigma she will have to face back in the village, when Ketaki (Madhuri Dixit), the younger sister-in-law asks her whose child it is, she smiles and simply says, "mine." This is the strongest statement in the entire film.
Did Mansi in Basu Bhattacharya's film Aastha commit adultery? This is a rather piquant question since the fact of her sleeping around with men who are not her husband/s is undercut by the fact that she is paid for the 'services' she renders. In other words, she is a prostitute who sells herself for money. How does one try and connect the question of adultery with the raw reality of prostitution? Basu's film throws up this question, albeit unwittingly (unwillingly?) but fails to offer an answer. In the rather confusing climax, her husband says he 'understands' her.
Does that mean she goes on prostituting herself and silences her husband with expensive gifts on the one hand and sizzling sessions in bed on the other? Aastha triggers off an intriguing backtracking to Hindi cinema and how it has treated sexuality among its women when the women were, on rare occasions, the ‘subjects’ of the film.
More recent films like Tauba Tauba, Murder, Julie and Jism have focussed the sexuality of the Indian woman. Though this has given the director and producer ample scope for exploring the anatomy of the woman in a hundred different ways to lure the box office, the one positive spin-off of these films is that they have uncovered the sexual desires of the Indian woman. The woman need not be beautiful though it is mandatory that she has a beautiful body. The woman need not be single either.
Astitva, (2000), directed by Mahesh Manjrekar, is a turn-of-the-century statement on the sexually deprived married woman’s right to her sexuality, despite her husband. Aditi (Tabu) who finds a voice at the end, blasts not only her husband who disowns her for a single sexual encounter that was extra-marital, juxtaposed against his several ‘affairs’, but also the man who sired her only son, who felt grandiose in donating his entire property to her just because she mothered his child. He too, like her unfeeling husband Shrikant, did not care to consider the repercussions of his action on her life, even after his death.
The son castigates the mother because she is ‘immoral’ and Aditi is left with her memories of a 27-year-old marriage that turned out to be as empty as the suitcase she carries out with her. “Should I spread out my begging bowl when I have the need for sex?” she asks her husband point-blank, disgusted with the cutting out of the family she has nurtured with love, care and commitment for so many years.
There is a savage and rampant mystification of female sexuality through different socio-communicative practices ranging from the traditional to the post-modern, from religious literature to advertising to pornography. Our society gives mixed signals about female sexuality, which women find difficult to relate to. Indian cinema exhibits brazen representations of female sexuality and flaunts the female body. A woman who objects to her husband seeing erotica is likely to be labelled a ‘prude.’A woman who actually enjoys it is likely to be called ‘too fast.’
All societies have constructs about ‘good women’ and ‘bad women’ based on sexual identities constructed for them, and for women in general. In reality however, both constructs can be used against women to deny them any authentic experience of sexuality. Remember Guru Dutt’s Sahib, Bibi Aur Ghulam?