Divorce In Hindi Cinema Favoured The Man, Always, Until Recent Movies Changed This Narrative

Divorce should be a choice for a woman who is unhappy despite appearances; her word about this should be equally valid. Something that Hindi cinema seems to have just realised. 

Divorce should be a choice for a woman who is unhappy despite appearances; her word about this should be equally valid. Something that Hindi cinema seems to have just realised. 

He may be lame, he may be mad
He may beat her as he will:
All that worries Hanna Cash, my lad
Is – does she love him still?

~ Bertolt Brecht.

Why should divorce always be a social stigma for a woman? Why can’t it be a matter of choice for her? A very positive answer to this question comes across in a short film called Cakewalk directed by Ramkamal Mukherjee and Abhra Chakraborty, that was premiered recently on a satellite channel. It is perhaps the first film of its kind that puts across the theory that ending a marriage for reasons of personal choice is a right women can and should exercise without fear or favour.

In Cakewalk (2019) a short film recently premiered on TV, Shilpa Sen (played by Esha Deol Takhtani) chooses to walk out of this marriage even though she wants to remain a wife and become a mother, and lead a normal family life. Her husband is not a wife-beater or womaniser or a drunkard. But he is a man and a very successful one; someone who thinks that the wife should follow his dictates. Whether she is happy or not is less important here.

Explaining his inspiration for the film, the director Ramkamal says, “It came to my mind after I interacted with many colleagues and friends around me. As I speak, my wife’s best friend is getting divorced and she is in a terrible financial state, as she was not allowed to work. So she could never save any money. There is a famous TV anchor who went through a terrible marriage and was called names after she wanted divorce. We see a lot of TV stars and even film stars getting divorced and asking for insane alimony. That’s when I started studying about women going through such situations in life.”

Rarely does the popular mainstream care to reflect the changes in the mindset of, or the needs of the woman. Dissent from a woman in a marriage in cinema is a rare occurrence.

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In this Esha Deol starrer, Shilpa Sen ends her marriage to a top corporate honcho because he refused her choice of career as Chef. Why would this be revolutionary? Because social rules ordain that the husband always has the final voice in any decisions taken by the wife?

One film that comes to mind where career broke a marriage is Gulzar’s Aandhi.

A “career minded” wife

Gulzar’s Aandhi (1975), adapted from a short story in Hindi by Kamleshwar, tellingly depicted the changing shades of a husband-wife relationship. With the narrative telescoping between the past and the present, the story zeroes in on a politically ambitious wife who drifts away from her hotelier husband, driven by her political father to do so.

It is interesting to note that the woman’s ambition is not from within herself but is derived from her father who wishes to pass on the mantle to his only child.

Many years later, when the couple meet in a small town where the wife has come on a political campaign, the fires of love are rekindled, leading to a scandal. She wins the election when she publicly announces her relationship with the man. Gulzar leaves the film open-ended, with the husband spurring her on to go to Delhi for higher aspirations, opening up possibilities of a reunion (along with the daughter who grows up in boarding school in the custody of the father) in the future.

The diabolic use of an estranged husband to make political capital out of it on a highly charged election platform, is neatly sidetracked in favour of celebrating the image of a slightly repentant wife. The personal convictions of the makers against career-minded women have rubbed off onto the wife who brought out negative implications, and the husband who evoked audience sympathy through his martyrdom.

Victimisation of a woman in a marriage

B.R.Chopra’s Nikaah (1982) tried to examine the victimisation of the woman through marriage, but the attempts were not really successful.

Nikaah, a film with a Muslim setting, critiqued the use and abuse of a woman by two successive husbands. In their eagerness to demonstrate their ability to ‘give’ rather than to ‘receive’ they use the woman, an educated young Muslim beauty who sings well too, as the stake to lay bets on. When her first husband divorces her with those three ugly words sanctioned by Muslim divorce – talaq, she finds it extremely difficult to get a respectable job because the men take nasty pot-shots at her divorced state. When she finally arrives at a newspaper office for freelance assignments, the editor does offer her commissions but also falls in love and marries her. That is the end of her journalistic career.

The woman is treated like a ping pong ball between the wishes and wants of two men, who use and abuse her for their own “principles”.

The extra-marital relationship

Arth (1982) had all the gimmicks of a masala film such as lavish mounting, good production values, melodious music, sad songs, certain cinematic clichés and a carefully selected acting cast.

Drawn from parallel cinema though with its commercial intent, Arth is looked upon as an offbeat film, even as a turning-point film that defines a modern, but ordinary housewife’s reaction to adultery committed by her husband.

A husband who expects to be accepted by the wife when he “comes back” to her when disenchanted by his other relationship. And who questions her when she does not. And a wife who refuses to accept him and asks the all important question – would he have accepted her if she had returned from a similar relationship? Thus unmasking the hypocrisy of Indian society.

The pre-marital relationship

A husband who cannot let go of a prior relationship despite getting married, and tries to hold on to both.

Gulzar’s choice of a remote railway station as the backdrop and its waiting room as the central stage for the flashback in his Ijaazat (1987) was inspired by the moving Bengali film Jatu Griha (1964) directed by Tapan Sinha. The sounds of a moving train, the diagonal slashes of light from the windows of a moving train falling on the platform, the sudden arrival of Pooja’s second husband (Shashi Kapoor in a brilliant cameo), and the moment of final distancing of the former husband from Pooja enriched the visual texture of the film, making it Gulzar’s most poetic celluloid statement on love within and without marriage.

Vinod Pande’s Ek Baar Phir (1979), Hrishikesh Mukherjee’s Abhimaan (1973), Dulal Guha’s Do Anjaane (1976), Shekhar Kapoor’s Masoom (1982), Vijay Anand’s Tere Mere Sapne (1971) and Mansoor Khan’s Akele Hum Akele Tum (1996) are unabashedly commercial films. Bhimsain’s Dooriyaan (1979), Jabbar Patel’s Subah (1981) were off mainstream.

The everywoman trapped in a marriage

What links the films Anubhav (1971), Avishkar (1973), Grihapravesh (1979), Panchavati (1986) and Aastha (1996) is more than the fact that they were all directed by Basu Bhattacharya. There is the commonality of man-woman relationships explored within the parameters of an Indian marriage.

There is a certain degree of universality in the way that Bhattacharya took something from the institution of an Indian marriage and either twisted it, or perfected it, or inflated it, broke it and then drew that moment back into a question about the very form of the image of the man-woman relationship within marriage and also, within the film.

Each of these films produces a self-consciousness of both marriage and cinema, a kind of commentary not only on marriage per se, but also on marriage as choreographed on film, through carefully choreographed mise-en-scene, through imaginatively lit production design where the decor forms a part of the cast and of course, through metaphorical music, somewhat circumlocutory dialogue with elaborately designed pauses, and eloquent silences.

Interestingly, in recent times, divorces in Bollywood films are less frequent than divorces in the real lives of stars of television and cinema. There are schisms within married relationships but they do not lead to divorce and even when they do, the reunion happens before the marriage can go over the edge.

Rich wife, middle-class husband = fights

Aziz Mirza’s Chalte Chalte (2003) produced by Shahrukh Khan’s production house begins after the lead pair, Shahrukh and Rani Mukherji get married, and around the interval the marriage gets into trouble.

Rani plays a Greece-based fashion designer daughter of rich parents, engaged to a boy in childhood. Shahrukh runs a small engineering business of his own. Rani is very successful and rich while Shahrukh is not very successful and middle-class. They are not like-minded people; they discover this very slowly as the marriage pulls along the two through constant arguing, squabbling and fighting.

Why do they fight at all? Because that is the only way they can express their love for each other (!!) so though there is a separation for some time, the film closes with the two getting together all over again fighting, arguing and quarrelling right through the rolling of the credits.

The marriage that never happened

One fine example of how a broken engagement can redefine a conventional young girl’s life and lifestyle is reflected in Queen (2014). It is about Rani, a naïve, Punjabi girl engaged to be married to a boy chosen by the respective families but whom she adores personally.

By the time the wedding is fixed, Vijay, (Rajkumar Rao) now a foreign-returned guy with a major attitude problem, feels Rani is no longer the kind of girl who would suit his style and lifestyle. He breaks the engagement two days before the marriage.

A heartbroken Rani locks herself up in her room. But when she comes out, she decides to leave for their planned honeymoon to Paris and Amsterdam all by herself, alone. The family is shocked but her parents say “yes.” She finds her bearings on foreign soil where she meets up with another Indian girl who is an unwed mother.

When she comes back to India, she stops the car on the way home to halt at Vijay’s home. She utters just two words to him and leaves. “Thank You”, she says, and we learn that for her, the broken engagement turned out to be a wonderful learning experience. This is an extremely post-modern, finely tuned version of an urban marriage-to-be which did not happen. It turned out to be one of the biggest hits among Bollywood films in 2014.

The “intolerant husband”

Tanu Weds Manu Returns (2015) directed by Anand Rai, unlike most sequels, turns out to race past the original Tanu Weds Manu (2011) that closed with the marriage of the Kanpur girl Tanu prefixed with the adjective teekhi mirchi and Manu, the boring doctor from London. In the sequel that opens four years after the original ended, shows Tanu and Manu in troubled waters with Tanu accusing Manu of domestic violence traced back to his “psychological” problem and he finds himself in a mental clinic.

Hindi cinema has rarely witnessed such a feisty, outspoken spitfire of a girl who turns all mushy and soft at the turn of your little finger. When they come to India determined to file for divorce, Tanu has gone her own way while Manu finds a convenient ‘substitute’ for Tanu in her look-alike Datto, a Hariyanvi athlete Manu takes a fancy to.

Apart from their identical looks, Tanu and Datto are poles apart. Tanu is one of the strongest and most powerful woman Bollywood mainstream has met in a while. There is no divorce of course because just when Manu and Datto is about to tie the knot, Tanu appears throwing her weight about and asserting her claim to Manu as his wife all over again!

Mainstream cinema’s exploration of changes, subtle and visible, in the institution of marriage, has been more lip-service than a genuine movement to make a political statement on the man-woman relationship sanctioned by religion, or law, or both.

In real life, the institution of marriage has undergone a metamorphosis. The pressures are not totally new but they were comparatively invisible till recent times. The education of women, industrialisation, urbanisation and widespread dissemination of information about the evils of patriarchy and injustices towards women, has resulted in lesser tolerance among wives.

After marriage, women are caught in a web of contradictions and ambiguities. They are expected to distance themselves from their natal kin at marriage, for ritual reasons and for reasons connected with the power to be wielded over them by their husbands. Yet, they are discouraged, by those same considerations of power and authority, from forging intimate bonds with their husbands. Thus, they often come to feel that they are “one’s own” to no one at all.

Cakewalk may change mindsets.

Images source: YouTube

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About the Author

shoma chatterji

I am a freelance journalist, film scholar and author based in Kolkata. I contribute regularly to around a dozen print media and online publications on Indian cinema, gender issues, human rights and child rights besides read more...

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