The Rachel Papers

When Burkha-Clad Women Wept for the Niloufer of Nikaah

Rachel Dwyer is Professor of Indian Cultures and Cinema at SOAS, University of London
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The state of the union

THE OVERWHELMING public support for the Supreme Court judgment on Triple Talaq may enable wider discussion of divorce in India, not just as a legal issue but about marriage itself and its breakdown. Hindi films, which are so preoccupied with love and marriage, have given little space to divorce, whose unhappiness is the antithesis of all that is celebrated in their fantasies of beauty, romance and eroticism.

To have an idea of what divorce means, one needs to understand what marriage means. There is a critical distinction between non-modern and modern views of marriage. The former view it in the context of property and reproduction, sanctioned by religion, and centred on the wider family, while the latter are concerned with the commitment to romantic love and sexuality as a means of self-definition and self-knowledge, and personal happiness. A more recent view of marriage in the West as an optional institutionalising of a relationship, often only for couples with children, is not one that is accepted in India where few couples live together without marriage. The Western idea of serial monogamy, moving on from one marriage to another as romantic love disappoints or a new love is found, has also been rejected in India, with divorce remaining relatively infrequent and even sometimes socially stigmatised.

Hindi films often show unhappy marriages, but they are often resolved rather than ending in divorce. Interfering in-laws seeking to break Raja and Aarti’s marriage in Dharmesh Darshan’s Raja Hindustani (1996) have the opposite effect as the couple declare that marriage is for life and not something that can be broken. An understanding of the true meaning of love and marriage brings together the couple in Sanjay Leela Bhansali’s Hum Dil De Chuke Sanam (1999), when Nandini (Aishwarya Rai) realises that the love that her husband (Ajay Devgn) shows her is more meaningful than her romantic affair. In Yash Chopra’s Silsila (1981), a plane accident and a pregnancy bring the lovers to their senses as they realise that their lives have moved on and their future now lies with their spouses.

Vijay Anand’s Guide (1965) almost glosses over the issue of marriage with its spectacular song-and-dance numbers. Rosie’s exuberant Aaj Phir Jeene ki Tamanna Hai celebrates her leaving her husband and running off with the guide, and the memorable songs about the breakdown of their relationship are about an adulterous affair. There is no divorce, but there are no happy relationships in the film.

One of the earliest films I recall that has a divorce is J Om Prakash’s Aap ki Kasam (1974), where Kamal (Rajesh Khanna) is unreasonably jealous and obsessed with his wife Sunita’s (Mumtaz) friendship with his best friend (Sanjeev Kumar), leaving her without knowing she is pregnant. Sunita remarries and it is only when Kamal comes to their daughter’s wedding does he take stock of his folly. The film has many wonderful songs, but Zindagi ke Safar Mein is one of the greatest of all heartbreak songs in Hindi cinema, as a man destroys his love and family for no good reason.

Mansoor Khan’s Akele Hum Akele Tum (1995), a remake of Kramer vs Kramer (1979), focuses on the courtroom battle of divorce as parents fight for custody of their child, ultimately choosing a soft ending after the bitterness of the film.

Like all BR Chopra films, Nikaah addresses a serious topic, namely the Muslim divorce, arguing that to be able to divorce by the uttering of three words is not in the interest of women or even of men

Karan Johar, the master of contemporary melodrama, deals with many problems in families, but his film which looked at divorce, Kabhi Alvida Naa Kehna (2006), was about the breakdown of two marriages, one because the disabled husband is angry with his wife for not giving him and their son time, and angry with his son for not being a sportsman like he was. The other couple is infertile, but the wife does not love her perfectly decent husband. Dev (Shah Rukh Khan) and Maya (Rani Mukherji) have an affair but they suffer separation until their former spouses remarry and they finally allow themselves their passion.

Two films engage specifically with Muslim Personal Law, one with the issue of the Triple Talaq, BR Chopra’s Nikaah (1982), which was to be called Talaq Talaq Talaq. Like all BR Chopra films, it addresses a serious topic, namely the Muslim divorce, arguing that to be able to divorce by the uttering of three words is not in the interest of women or even of men.

The film is surprisingly frank about sexual matters, from the depiction of the female nude at the beginning, as ‘Woman’ talks about the suffering and sacrifice she has undergone in history, to the married relationships of Niloufer (Salma Agha). The nawabi Wasim (Deepak Parasher), Niloufer’s first husband, makes it clear that his love for her is based not on companionship but on sexual pleasure. His lack of any empathy for her is clear when he divorces her in a fit of temper but cannot see why she should be unwilling to take him back. Haider (Raj Babbar), Niloufer’s second husband, by contrast, sees companionship as central to their relationship, although the physical side is also a key part. The weeping nawab, as he listens to an old gramophone recording of Ghulam Ali’s rendition of Hasrat Mohani’s Urdu ghazal Chupke Chupke, encapsulates the decadence of the film, for Wasim is being punished for his own actions and yet the genuine sorrow is in the images and the words, and the music. The film was said to have found a major audience among burkha-clad Muslim women who wept with the heroine and enjoyed her questioning of the divorce law and her decision to leave both men, until they admit that they have wronged and misunderstood her.

While Guru Dutt’s Mr and Mrs 55 (1955) is a delightful comedy, taking off on the idea that the new Hindu Code Bills of the 1950s would lead to a breakdown of the institution of marriage and that women would start to make a mockery of marriage, it is his Kaagaz Ke Phool which makes a stronger point about divorce. It is an unusual film in that the hero’s marriage has broken down beyond repair. Suresh (Guru Dutt) is separated from his wife, at least in part because her family looks down on his role in the film industry (he is working on a remake of Devdas, the classic story of disastrous relationships). He falls in love with another woman, Shanti (Waheeda Rehman) who is presented as pure and good. While she seems willing to enter a relationship with him, even though he is married, his daughter persuades her that this is damaging his family. When Shanti withdraws from the film world to take solace in teaching, Suresh falls into a downward spiral of alcoholism and self-hatred and his professional life collapses. The film has some happy songs, but its main song foregrounds the betrayal of relationships: Dekhi Zamaane Ki Yaari. The brilliance of the film and its theme are encapsulated in the track Waqt Ne Kiya. It shows that even if two souls can meet in some form of light from heaven, a struggle remains between the impermanence of the self and of love.

And to lighten matters, after that gloomy note, after 31 years of marriage, I still repeat my favourite joke on every wedding anniversary. We have never thought of divorce, but we’ve often thought of murder.