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Men Forgiven, Women Shamed: What’s With Bollywood’s Portrayal Of Extramarital Affairs?

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By Aakanksha Bhatia:

In India, watching movies have been a cult tradition. As Bollywood industry recently completed 100 years of cinema, you can well estimate its importance by an analogy often enunciated in humor about cine’ma’ being as important as ‘ma‘ (mother). It would be diminutive to talk about the enduring impact of the films we watch. Though as audiences we are well aware that the reality is far away from what we perceive on the ‘bada parda’ (big screen), our mind somehow still tricks us into believing that perhaps it is true. The ‘entertainment’, ‘romance’, ‘thrill’, ‘horror’ or ‘humor’ factors often linger in our minds as we tend to internalise the actions of the protagonists and at times, even the antagonists (social learning theory), and exhibit like behaviors when we come across similar reel-real life situations.

By the way I am not a movie buff, or at least not anymore, nor am I a film critic who can diligently analyse all the aspects of movie making which are habitually overlooked by naïve audiences. I have to admit that I don’t even go to theatres as often as I used to a few years back. However, as a regular consumer of Indian movies, I have observed a particular pattern of showing illicit relationships in the mainstream cinema which I find quite upsetting.

Although on one hand, the Indian film industry portrays the complexities of love, marriage and extramarital affairs, it does not necessarily indicate the maturity of the film makers, and the audiences at large. If we agree on the premise that the films are a mirror of our society, then the representation, understanding and acceptance of women’s characters need to be revisited.

"Silsila"
“Silsila”

What the mainstream cinema has innumerably represented is the ease with which a male protagonist indulging in adultery receives forgiveness. The adulterous relationships are depicted as a luxury for the male characters whereas forgiving such a partner seems like an obligation for the female protagonists! Surprisingly, his stature of ‘being a man’ remains untarnished and in fact, the climax of most of these films revolve around his transformation into a ‘loyal husband’ thus giving an impression of a happy ending (“Silsila”, “Ek Hi Bhool”, “Swarag Narak”, “Zeher”, “The Train”, “Raaz”). The center plot of the films focus more on bringing back the ‘estranged husband’ rather than highlighting the emotional turmoil faced by the female character on discovering her man’s adventure with his mistress. Most of us already know about the film’s ‘happy ending’ much before it is actually portrayed because this is what we (are socialised to) always expect!

The chronicles of the man, the woman and the third person have been narrated across various eras, genres and sub-industries, the most favorite being in the genre of humour. Remember films like “Pati Patni aur Woh”, “Saajan Chale Sasural”, “Gharwali Baharwali” and the relatively recent ones like “Sandwich”, “Thank You”, “No Entry”, “Masti” etc. All these films were a successful attempt at veiling the misery of the wives of the straying husbands. While few films depict the ‘happy’ reunion of the couple after a few learned lessons, regrets and apologies, the other ones blatantly support bigamy (against the laws!) in the name of comedy. I am still wondering whether it is alright to confuse the idea of infidelity with humour.

Moving ahead, let’s think of the movies where the female protagonist has committed infidelity or has expressed love for her previous lover or found love in ‘another’ man after marriage. Her character is bound to go through extreme negative emotions like regret, guilt, humiliation, shame, remorse etc., (Shilpa Shetty’s character in “Life in a Metro”). Even if she chose to be with her husband in the end, she certainly bears an indiscernible label of being a woman with ‘unscrupulous’ character in the minds of the audience (Mallika Sherawat in “Murder”).

"Murder" (2004)
“Murder” (2004)

Worse, the fate of her character is, in most cases, tragic – alienation or death, or both (Priyanka Chopra in “Aitraaz”, Bipasha Basu in “Jism”, Archana Puran Singh in “Bade Dilwala”). Mercy or forgiveness is not something that her ‘unsympathetic’ and ‘disloyal’ character should expect! If at all, it comes her way, she needs to express immense gratitude for her good fortune and husband’s ‘honorable’, ‘gracious’ and ‘pardoning’ character (Ashmit Patel in “Murder”, Anil Kapoor in “Bewafaa”). To sum it up, the particular female character is not preserved with dignity in the minds of the audience. The entire attention is gathered by her ‘godly’ husband who accepted an ‘inferior’ woman like her back in his life. Most of the audience credits her generous stars for her second chance at life rather than something that she deserved. Oh! The double standards of Indian cinema (as well as our society).

However, there have been certain movies that can be best credited for their strong portrayal of feminism like “Arth”, “Astitva”, “Akhir Kyon?” etc. Although wrapped in dignity and values, the portrayal of the female characters still seem fearless. The female protagonists bestowed with an ‘uninfluenced’ mind showed the audacity to make decisions regarding the fate of their relationships with their wandering spouses. Such films question the very fabric of Indian society that has knitted conventional norms for Indian wives while sanctioning ‘one’ or ‘two’ adulterous encounters as ‘normal’ for men. Such films make the audience question and explore other alternatives for women rather than simply forgiving a cheating spouse only to forcefully spend an entire lifetime as his ‘governess’.

What we are yet to see in mainstream cinema is the replacement of pseudo-feminist characters like Vasudha (Vidya Balan in “Humari Adhuri Kahani”) who was stuck in a miserable bondage of the ‘sanctity’ of her mangal sutra, with strong willed characters like Pooja (Shabana Azmi in “Arth”) or Aditi (Tabu in “Astitva“) who made a choice to move ahead in life with un-regretful autonomy and independence, without any man!

One of the strongest pillars on which India’s colossal film industry relies is the genre of ‘romance’ and ‘relationships’. Though the trend is shifting, we know that there have been only a handful of movies which are untouched by this popular category – such is the importance of romance in our lives! While we discuss about films, showbiz wouldn’t have meant a thing, if it failed to show the dark side of love i.e. adultery. Many actors, film writers and directors have given their best performances and beautifully captured the nuances of marital (and extramarital) relationships. However, script writers need to empower the female characters in its truest sense to make their self-governing choices regarding their deceitful spouses. A path-breaking positive change in the mainstream cinema would come with a clear focus upon women’s freedom of choice when stuck in situations that question their identity and self-respect. Forgiveness in a marital relationship, on the silver screen, should be depicted as the sole discretion of the partner and not a decision influenced by one’s gender, social status or the society in which one lives.

We live ‘cinema’ and thus, only appropriate portrayals can set empowering examples for real life too.

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  1. Abhijeet singh

    The very fact that you as a member of the sample can see the gap and know this gap exists on a decent scale makes the cimema a reflection of society but a distorted one.It has an entertainment and wanna be components added to it.

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