Movies on infidelity have a lot in common with those on prison break — the characters are captive to their own romantic misery and seek to escape its chokehold. The difference, however, is that here, no one is stopping them from emancipating. The guards and wardens take the form of guilt and regret. This is why love has no grammar. Claiming that it does is forcing science onto it. The grammarlessness of desire is its very grammar. This is perhaps why so many filmmakers — from Baumbach to Barjatya, Jonze to Johar — submit to the temptation of romantic portrayal. Some, who foray into the territory of adultery, like it even murkier.
Shakun Batra's Gehraiyaan has kindled my interest in films that grapple with infidelity. In some stories, infidelity is a prop and in some, the protagonist. But in every single one of them, there is an inimitable allure to the messiness of it all. This list is a survey of many such films, across time, region, and language, and here are fifteen of them that make it difficult to take your eyes off adultery:
Towards the end of the movie, Rani Mukerji asks Amitabh Bachchan, "Khudgarzi ki kya sazaa hai?" (What's the punishment for selfishness?) He does not have an answer to that question. He is aware that there is none, just repentance. This film is about the discovery of this question and a quest for its answer. Karan Johar's film, arguably his most mature narrative till date, poses this philosophical conflict against the backdrop of Shah Rukh Khan and Rani's affair. The plot is seemingly simple — they are both unhappy in their marriages, and no one but the two of them empathise with each others' sorrows. Shah Rukh is a testy husband to Preity Zinta and Rani, a fault-finding wife to Abhishek Bachchan. The problem is that, to a certain degree, everyone behaves like a grown up here. In such an alien Bollywood setting, Johar presents us with an incredibly deft and literate portrayal of infidelity.
Dustin Hoffman is a bumbling and stuttering newly baked college graduate. As he moves back home, he is thrust into the world of adults, and gradually, adultery. The gorgeous Anne Bancroft, who is as old as Hoffman's mother in the movie, is dissatisfied with her marriage and tries to seduce him. He succumbs but later falls for her daughter. Given the pickle he is in, Hoffman always exhibits subtle traces of jealousy, but such are the throes of caprice and love. And oh, what a deliciously batty ending this film choreographs!
The film is set in a Nazi-occupied France in the middle of World War II. Every other man is enlisted in the military, many of whom are bound to their domestic duties of husbandhood. The war goes on, and so does the sexual desire of many women left alone back home. Isabelle Huppert, playing the wife of one such husband, is left to take care of her two young children. She is also skilled at the unusual art of performing medically unsupervised abortions for many such wives who got pregnant while their spouses were away. Claude Chabrol's film, based on the life of Marie-Louise Giraud, remains emotionally distant from the subject of infidelity yet feels sympathetic. It is heartbreaking and sublime.
Like Pulp Fiction on desi steroids, Super Deluxe does not simply get its hands dirty by using infidelity — between Samantha Akkineni and Fahadh Faasil — as an instrument to pivot its narrative, it gets its hands bloody. It pushes the boundaries. Here, cheating doesn't result in divorce, but death.
In one scene, the cheating couple reflects on their own, respective marriages. The camera, like a voyeur silently creeping into a discussion, is positioned behind a few metal bars next to them, as if they are imprisoned. Imprisoned in their marriages, imprisoned by their inability to act on their desires. Wong Kar-wai's film is a poem. It is comfortable in its silences and indulgent when active.
Through all its messiness, Manmarziyaan, in itself, is a metaphor for the chaos caused by infidelity. Vicky Kaushal is an unyielding nut, Taapsee Pannu is just like him but also menacingly mercurial, and Abhishek Bachchan is the force counterbalancing them. The former two are dictated by their hormones — impervious to the rules of the world, they date, breakup, get back together, again breakup as time passes. Abhishek Bachchan is the sad and innocent victim of their animalism. Director Anurag Kashyap and writer Kanika Dhillon are behind all this clutter — they are aware about the profundities of infidelity and replicate it not on paper only, but through their film's style, characters, and music.
I decided to club both these Scorsese movies because they are windows on indulgence. While the former's indulgence concerns romance, the latter's concerns sex. Both films are about unfaithful men operating on the whims of their desire and lust. When you watch them together, you notice a pattern — both, Daniel Day-Lewis and Leonardo DiCaprio, use women to quell their desires. While the former desires genuine love, the latter desires money. The former turns to his wife's cousin Michelle Pfeiffer for that, and the latter turns to prostitutes and hookers to stay sane enough for all the swindling. Despite the feverish opulence depicted in the movies, it is the inability of these men to resign their life of infidelity that makes these stories lurid.
Some films help you understand your own moral calculus better. In this list, these are films that force you to sympathise, somewhat empathise, with the cheater. Tabu cheats on her husband, a living, breathing embodiment of male chauvinism. He believes that women cannot work and should be queens of their household. When Tabu's music instructor suggests that she can sing professionally, he laughs and shrugs it off. This movie questions your definition of morality in romance. In such a setting, is it okay to cheat?
Satyajit Ray is anything but straightforward. He deals with infidelity more delicately; rather than presenting it explicitly, the romantic betrayal lies within Madhabi Mukherjee's long, furtive glimpses and in the pauses between Soumitra Chatterjee's words. Charulata is more direct — the wife of a struggling newspaper founder falls for his cousin. In Kapurush, it is Chatterjee who tries to convince his former partner, now wedded, played by Mukherjee here as well, to elope with him. Ray questions your sensibilities of infidelity, he brings gradations to the idea of cheating — in his account, it need not be physical. Charulata and Kapurush complement each other well — the infidelity, here, lies in the desperate need to suppress desires.
Amitabh Bachchan, who marries Jaya Bachchan because she is pregnant without a father, views his marriage as a duty. It binds him to a life of lovelessness, where the famous quote, "Duty is the death of love" takes a different meaning. However, Bachchan only loved Rekha, who is now married to a doctor. And as a result of his lovelorn-ness, he reignites their relationship. She is his bridge to the past, a correction — this is what his life was supposed to look like, a life with her. Yash Chopra's film is a study on romantic fortitude — it wages a fight between duty and love, inundating it with constant melancholy and regret.
Oh, Monica Vitti! The news of her passing, last week, devastated me. Director Michelangelo Antonioni does a masterful job of using Vitti's character as a victim of lust, which feels rather telling of the time, too. Marcello Mastroianni, a writer, surrenders to his curiosity about intrigue and deceit by cheating on his estranged wife. Their emotional and spiritual distance parched their love and caused a violent tempest of extramarital desire. First, he kisses a psychologically unstable patient at a hospital and then, Vitti, the host of a party he is invited to. But this tempest of infidelity rages in the conclusion, when he kisses his wife, and she him, who is aware about his infidelity. The infidelity, at the end, is inward. They are cheating themselves.
Everyone in this film is a hostage to their miserable relationships. For the married couple, love is an errand, a chore that they have to perform perfunctorily but perform nonetheless. Each of them can only find passion outside because their home is the site of domestic performance. Shilpa Shetty finds joy in a theatre artist and Kay Kay Menon, sexual pleasure in his assistant. But director Anurag Basu does not use adultery as an instrument that tugs a commentary on human behaviour. The substance lies in the after-effects of their infidelity, transforming this subject into a commentary on patriarchy instead.
The most unusual of the lot, Mia Hansen-Løve's film layers infidelity in a plot that relies on mise en abyme. Vicky Krieps, who plays the writer plotting the story on infidelity, is in a strained and frazzled marriage, as if the story is meant to mirror her desire to momentarily forget said marriage. The married couple are visiting Faro, the island dedicated to Ingmar Bergman and his filmography. Her filmmaker husband Tim Roth hosts screenings for his films there and she uses the quaint cottages to work on her script. Like Bergman's movies, this one, too, is twisty. You do not know whether the story Krieps writes reflects a reality, desire, or just an idea.
Just like in La Notte, Marcello Mastroianni plays an artist here, too. Federico Fellini's 8½ depicts an overlap between creativity and desire — how deep does one need to go into the fissure of desire and infidelity for one to find some creative inspiration? Fellini's answer is — very deep. The film begins with Mastroianni bringing his mistress to a hotel near the spa he staying it. He dresses her up and makes her play act, as if his job as a director does not end at the set. Here, extramarital desire fuels creativity. Infidelity is his chance at creating yet another world for himself.
Mani Ratnam jostles against the traditional definition of infidelity. Does it only need to be romantic? Is the betrayal of trust in a friendship infidelity? And of course, within this, lies actual infidelity, too. Mohanlal and Prakash Raj, both Dravidian politicians who started out in the film industry as inseparable comrades, cheat on their wives and each other. As Tabu bathes Prakash Raj, she remarks, "Your taste for love has changed". This film situates infidelity within such changes — from love to lust, friendship to folly, virtue to vice.