Cinema: Essay

Adultery as an Attitude

Shreevatsa Nevatia is a Kolkata-based journalist
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It was the sociology of Hindi cinema that first decriminalised it

LOVING SOMEBODY ELSE’S WIFE IS never easy. There is too much enthusiasm and desire one has to curb. The fear of discovery is exacerbated by the guilt of deception. You can only text at certain times, and you can only meet when your schedules and stars somehow align. With togetherness largely depending on chance, there may be consummation, but often enough, there is little or no culmination.

For 158 years, the illicit Indian lover has had to suffer more than just heartache. Not only was he doing something ‘wrong’, he was also doing something criminal. Section 497 made adultery an offence that was punishable by a fine or five years in jail. Only the husband’s ‘consent or connivance’ could protect the lover. Considered the property of her husband, the wife was absolved of any crime or punishment.

While striking down this absurd law, a bench of five Supreme Court judges came to a unanimous decision on September 27th: ‘When parties to a marriage lose their moral commitment to the relationship, it creates a dent in the marriage and it will depend upon the parties how to deal with the situation.’ Cuckolded husbands, as a result, will now not be able to avenge their humiliation in courts and police stations. Their wives, on the other hand, will have greater agency. Consent will be only theirs to give.

Peeved by the idea that a husband’s approval could give his wife’s lover amnesty, Justice Fali Nariman said, ‘This can only be on the paternalistic notion of a woman being likened to chattel, for if one is to use the chattel or is licensed to use the chattel by the ‘licensor’, namely the husband, no offence is committed.’ Chief Justice Dipak Misra was more fire and brimstone: ‘Any law which dents the individual dignity and equity of a woman in a civilised society invites the wrath of the Constitution.’ While examining Section 497, the judiciary could have made straying wives culpable too. The route it took instead was altogether atypical. Suddenly, a wife’s transgressions became radical, even revolutionary.

The Hindi film industry too has periodically tried to make the institution of marriage less patriarchal. Sadly, their efforts have seldom curried favour at the box office. Even Silsila (1981), the definitive extra-marital manual, was declared a flop. In retrospect, Pamela Chopra, wife of the film’s director Yash Chopra, had perhaps said it best: “Marriage is a very, very sacred institution in India, and when the director created sympathy for the two lovers who were willing to go outside their marriage and continue their love affair, he did not carry the audience with him.” Time, strangely, did not make infidelity an easier sell. Astitva (2000), Kabhi Alvida Naa Kehna (2006) and Humari Adhuri Kahani (2015) were all brave, yes, but none was profitable. Like its participants, adultery too seemed cursed.

Given our distaste for realistic depictions of infidelity, it would follow that the apex court’s recent judgment might be hard for us to stomach. Like the films mentioned here, it says out loud a secret we usually trade in the most hushed of whispers. Though denial is an undeniably powerful tool, the country’s top court has forced us to momentarily take our head out of the sand. For too long has marriage had to labour under the burden of obese words like ‘institution’ and ‘sanctity’. In rescinding Section 497, the Supreme Court has created a new vocabulary. Undeterred by box-office collections, the Hindi film industry has sometimes tried speaking in a judicial tongue. It has often got its diction all wrong, but what Bollywood says has always mattered more than how Bollywood speaks. Anurag Kashyap’s Manmarziyaan released in early September. The court delivered its verdict on adultery later that month. In hindsight, each made the other seem relevant and more topical.

The characters of Manmarziyaan are more indecisive than Hamlet. Vicky Sandhu (Vicky Kaushal) dithers when Rumi Bagga (Taapsee Pannu) asks him to marry her. The arranged network meanwhile has thrown up Robbie Bhatia (Abhishek Bachchan) as a potential suitor. Stable and polite, he wants to be Rumi’s rock, but she is in a hard place. She can’t make an honest man out of Vicky. He is too much of a rake for the altar. Robbie offers her escape from this recurrent disappointment. After many a flip-and-flop, she marries him. Marriage, sadly, is not happiness. Rumi is stuck. She cannot move on. The smartphone, an enabler of modern-day infidelity, brings Rumi and Vicky back together. They have sex.

According to the Court’s ruling, adultery might not be the cause of an unhappy marriage, it could be the result of one. Rumi and Robbie laugh only when they are drunk. Their silences don’t seem too friendly either. Rumi’s unhappy marriage makes her adulterous, but it could perhaps also be argued that her emotional infidelity had made her marriage unhappy. The court and Anurag Kashyap both choose to circumvent this echo chamber of possible blame. Justice DY Chandrachud, for instance, said the sexuality of a woman was part of her ‘inviolable core’. It was a definitive expression of identity, one that neither the state nor marriage could disparage. So, before all her guilt, Rumi first had her agency.

The possibility of imprisonment has perhaps never really dampened the ardour of illicit lovers. While Rumi is more flustered by her sexual transgression, Vicky is convinced no one will suspect a thing. Her head on Robbie’s chest that night, Rumi bursts into tears. The next time she sneaks out of home, Robbie is curious enough to follow her. From a crack in the doorway, he sees Vicky hover over Rumi. The dialogue makes their affair evident. Vicky asks, “When you close your eyes while making love to [Robbie], do you picture me?” Rumi stays silent and Robbie leaves soon after. He has seen enough.

Like films, extra-marital relationships are often ruined by spoilers. Robbie takes to the bottle in his grief, but even in his drunken confrontation with Rumi, he comes across as aggrieved, not incensed. He has been hurt more than his ego. According to the Court, Section 497 conferred ‘a licence on the husband to deal with life as he likes which is extremely excessive and disproportionate’. Robbie, thankfully, is endearingly moderate. Marriage, for him, seemed more an agreement than institution. He had given Rumi the choice to opt out of it on several occasions. In the end, it is he who makes the choice to annul their brief union. By ruling that adultery can still be grounds for divorce, the court has actually protected the ‘sanctity’ of marriage, even if critics argue otherwise. Together with Kashyap, the court has reminded us that cakes can at times only be had, not eaten too.

In his separate concurring judgment, Justice Chandrachud wrote, ‘Sexuality cannot be disassociated from human personality. For, to be human involves the ability to fulfil sexual desires in the pursuit of happiness. Autonomy in matters of sexuality is thus intrinsic to a dignified human existence.’ There’s something a touch hedonistic in those lines, but by separating sexuality and personality, they rid infidelity of their moral baggage. An adulterer can no longer be branded dissolute. Films like Astitva had shown infidelity was too complex for the labels it attracted. The apex court finally seems to agree.

Eighteen years ago, Astitva’s director Mahesh Manjrekar had rather similar ideas. With her husband Shrikant (Sachin Khedekar) emotionally and physically absent, Aditi (Tabu) finds herself attracted to her music teacher. Defending her subsequent affair, Aditi sounds much like Justice Chandrachud’s ‘As an embodiment of virtue, society expects the women to be a mute spectator to and even accepting of egregious discrimination within the home.’ Astitva was an assault on domesticised patriarchy, and even if belatedly, the court appears to have bolstered that onslaught.

Hindi comedies, on the other hand, have all relied on slapstick and sexist humour when depicting infidelity. In films like Pati Patni Aur Woh (1978), Masti (2004) and No Entry (2005), it’s only husbands who have the liberty to stray. Section 497 never did impinge on their agency. In Masti, for instance, Meet Mehta, a beleaguered husband played by Vivek Oberoi, once says, “Ladkiyan aur din subah hote hi badalne chahiye. (One’s girls and days should change as soon as a new day breaks.)” This is the sort of casual misogyny that would likely attract the censure of our judges. Section 497, Chief Justice Misra noted, allowed married men to have intimate relations with unmarried women, divorcees and widows. Their impunity stuck out, revealing the inequity of the old law.

Bollywood’s actors, it can be presumed, would rather cheat than get cheated on. To his credit, however, Abhishek Bachchan has played the cuckold twice. Beyond the conventions of its melodrama, Kabhi Alvida Naa Kehna did something subversive. The film saw Maya (Rani Mukerji) step out of her marriage with Rishi (Bachchan) to be with Dev (Shah Rukh Khan), a married man himself. As Belgian therapist Esther Perel wrote in The State of Affairs, ‘Infidelity has a tenacity marriage can only envy.’ Silsila, in comparison, was more bravado. Having decided to give their adulterous relationship a lasting chance, Amit (Amitabh Bachchan) and Chandni (Rekha) fail to factor in their conscience. Eventually, they return to their forgiving spouses. The film ends with the quote, ‘Love is faith, and faith is forever.’ Silsila circumscribes the autonomy of its straying characters even while it pretends to be progressive.

Though mortal, Hindu scriptures hint that Ahalya’s beauty was close to celestial. Her husband, the ascetic Gautama, had a temper, while Indra, the king of the gods, had a libido which was hard to contain. Finding Ahalya home alone, Indra fatefully disguised himself as Gautama. He persuaded Ahalya to have sex with him, and once Gautama returned home, he turned his wife into stone. Depending on how the story is told and the text you read, Ahalya comes across either as a fool or as a feisty rebel. The adultery debate clearly precedes contemporary concerns.

In Sujoy Ghosh’s short film Ahalya, this myth is upturned. Wife to a 78-year- old sculptor, Ahalya (Radhika Apte) helps turn a bevy of potential Indras into stone instead. It’s she who is the seductress here and it’s obvious that she has the agency to sleep with whoever she chooses. It is again Justice Chandrachud who is on point: ‘The notion that a woman is ‘submissive’, or worse still ‘naïve’ has no legitimacy in the discourse of a liberal constitution. It is deeply offensive to equality and destructive of the dignity of the woman.’ In Lust Stories, Reena (Manisha Koirala) seems intent on disclosing her infidelity to her husband as a way to regain control.

Esther Perel writes, ‘An affair simply alerts us to a pre-existing condition, either a troubled relationship or a troubled person.’ Bollywood has taken this notion a little too literally. ‘The other woman’ in Hindi films is often conniving, amoral or unhinged. Though Arth (1981) is widely considered a realistic portrayal of adultery, it reduces Kavita Sanyal (Smita Patil) to a mad woman in the attic, someone who Inder Malhotra (Khulbushan Kharbanda) feels obliged to tend to. His wife Pooja (Shabana Azmi) demands one’s empathy, and it is her sorrow that makes poignant Justice Indu Malhotra’s observation: ‘Adultery undoubtedly is a moral wrong qua the spouses and the family. The issue is whether there is a sufficient element of wrongfulness to society.’

In a submission to the SC, the country’s BJP Government had argued, ‘It is submitted that striking down section 497 of IPC […] will prove to be detrimental to the intrinsic Indian ethos which gives paramount importance to the institution and sanctity of marriage.’ In going against this advice, the Supreme Court has staunchly separated the public from the private, giving us jurisdiction over our own bodies and desire. Men can no longer monopolise a woman’s body. As Manmarziyaan shows, the most they can hope to win is her affection. For women reduced to ‘chattel’, this is surely a relief.