Marriage Stories in Bollywood

‘Happily ever after’ is one of Hindi cinema’s oldest traditions, but cracks have appeared in the on-screen marriage
Marriage Stories in Bollywood

In Kabhi Alvida Ne Kehna (2006), as protagonists Dev and Maya decide to let go of their inhibitions and pursue their feelings for each other, the ballad ‘Tumhi Dekho Na’ swirls around the couple, drawing all of us into the rose-tinted euphoria of their romantic bliss. There is only one little glitch: Dev and Maya happen to be married… to different people.

‘Tumhi Dekho Na’ is one of those rare love songs picturised on two people committing the biggest sin of Hindi cinema — breaking the sanctity of marriage. When Karan Johar chose to make a film about adultery with Kabhi Alvida Na Kehna, he was committing Bollywood blasphemy. Not only did the film show extramarital relationships in a sympathetic light, its cast included some of Hindi cinema’s biggest stars, our usual paragons of virtues. Suddenly here they stood, putting forward the possibility that not all marriages are perfect and that sometimes, it's okay to look elsewhere for love.

For decades, mainstream Hindi cinema has presented marriage as not just a solution but also the ultimate resolution to virtually all problems. The “and they lived happily ever after” was the neatly-tied bow at the end of stories from across genres. Most marriage stories were broad comedies that made light of extramarital affairs and ignored the complexity of husband-wife relationships. A few attempts were made by filmmakers like Basu Bhattacharya and Gulzar with offbeat films like Anubhav (1971), Aandhi (1975), Griha Pravesh (1978), and Ijaazat (1987) to delve into the complexity of what the institution of marriage means for individuals, but for all the acclaim they received, they were exceptions in a cinematic universe where marriage was the destination rather than a complex journey with its own set of challenges. Unhappy marriages were the domain of ‘art’ (or non-commercial) cinema.

The first cracks

Even as the country and society changed, films like Maine Pyar Kiya (1989), Hum Aapke Hain Koun…! (1994), Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayenge (1995), Hum Saath Saath Hain (1999) and Kabhi Khushi Kabhie Gham (2001) peddled the triumph of a value system that places families built on traditional marriages as the core of all bliss. Perhaps the peak of marital smugness is in Sooraj Barjatya’s cinema, which championed the idea of happy families and happy, perfectly-in-place marriages as the foundation of a fictional, middle-class India. As we entered the 21st century, imperfect marriages finally started surfacing on screen in Bollywood. Saathiya (2002) and Chalte Chalte (2003) captured post-marriage conflicts of lovers who have crossed the honeymoon period and felt refreshingly novel. In Jaane Tu Ya Jaane Na (2008), Jai’s girlfriend Meghna (Manjiri Fadnis) chooses to stay in denial about her parents’ rocky marriage, trying to find cuteness in their resentful fights and arguments. Her coping mechanism reflects the collective discomfort of Hindi film audiences (and even the filmmakers perhaps? ) towards a messy on-screen marriage.

Couples struggling to keep their marriage together started becoming more prominent by the mid-2000s, though few directors placed them front and centre the way Kabhi Alvida Na Kehna did. Rajat Kapoor’s underrated Mixed Doubles (2006) was one and this high-concept absurdist comedy introduced conversations about open marriages to talk about monotony and loneliness in seemingly happy and stable marriages. Reema Kagti’s Talaash (2012), while primarily about the solving of a film-star’s mysterious death, also offered a poignant portrait of a married couple who have grown distant after the death of their son. More recently Dum Lagaa Ke Haisha (2015) and Meenakshi Sundereshwar (2021) picked at the stereotype of stability in joint families and acknowledged how newly-weds struggle when surrounded by relatives.

He said, she said

By and large, marriage on screen in Hindi cinema is shown from one perspective, focusing on the journey or redemption of one partner. In hero-driven films such as Toilet: Ek Prem Katha (2017) or Airlift (2016), the morally vagrant husband redeems himself in the wife’s view and restores love and respect in their marriage. Article 15 (2019) has its protagonist Ayan (Ayushmann Khurana) striving to be respected by his wife Aditi (Isha Talwar) while ascending to impossible nobility on the professional turf. Earlier this year, we had Jersey (2022), a tearjerker father-son story, also has a rocky marriage at its core. Arjun (Shahid Kapoor) is a failed cricketer and his track record as a husband isn’t much better. Arjun’s wife Vidya (Mrunal Thakur) minces no words when she repeatedly points out Arjun’s shortcomings to him and despite the film being told from Arjun’s perspective, our sympathies lie also with Vidya.

When the protagonist of the film is the heroine, the marriage story tends to be about a woman’s personal growth. In Mahesh Manjrekar’s Astitva (2000), Aditi — older than the average on-screen wife — admits to committing adultery after enduring years of loneliness, when her husband prioritised his work over his personal life. At the end of the film, she walks out of the house. Ritesh Batra’s The Lunchbox (2013) also has a failed marriage at the core — Ila’s (Nimrat Kaur) bond with Saajan (Irrfan) blooms while her disillusionment about her marriage intensifies. Thappad (2020) revolves around Amu (Taapsee Pannu) and focuses on her finding her autonomy even while looking at other supporting characters and their relationships.

Invariably, Hindi films about marriage tend to be about clashing ambitions and bruised male egos. A woman with a successful career has long been the perfect ingredient for a failing marriage — remember Abhimaan (1973), Aandhi (1975), and Akele Hum Akele Tum (1995)? R.Balki’s Ki & Ka (2016) inverted the template and showed the husband as the humbler spouse who suddenly starts outshining his partner. Tumhari Sulu (2017) is a rare film that used these familiar themes in a way that nonetheless felt fresh because of the easy rapport that Sulu (Vidya Balan) and Ashok (Manav Kaul) share. Their household is not confined within strictly-defined gender roles, but when Sulu achieves fame as a late-night RJ, we see how it impacts Ashok. Even when they’re sympathetic to the husbands, most of these films do critique the fragile male ego and point out the unfairness underlying a husband demanding the woman make the sacrifices to maintain ‘peace’ at home. However, the films remain champions of marriage as an institution. In Life in a Metro (2007), Shikha’s (Shilpa Shetty) story is that of a woman in an unhappy marriage, who finds herself falling for another man who is equally in love with her. Ultimately, she prioritises her marriage and returns to the husband (who has, incidentally, been unfaithful to her with a subordinate at work). While her husband effectively gets away with having abused the trust of multiple women, Shikha resigns herself to her imperfect marriage. It’s one of the least romanticised takes on the institution in a commercial Indian film.

The patriarchal roots of marriage

For all the eagerness that Hindi film may have shown to interrogate status quo and examine ambiguities, much of the writing looks at marriages from a masculine point of view. The gendered difference is palpable when you look at how families and interpersonal relationships are explored in, for instance, Ayushmann Khurrana’s films and how the patriarchal roots of marriage are critiqued in films like Lipstick Under my Burkha (2017) and Dolly, Kitty aur Chamakte Sitare (2020) by Alankrita Shrivastava, who showcases women who have lived half-lies and been mired in self-doubt because they had to massage the fragile egos of husbands. Another example is Reema Kagti’s Honeymoon Travels Pvt. Ltd. (2007), which shows six newly-married couples and their teething troubles. Kagti’s heroines actively tackle their marital conflicts and gradually gain both confidence and authority in their relationships.

Most recently, Raj Mehta’s Jugjugg Jeeyo (2022) showed two crumbling marriages and made a bold decision by giving one of the relationships an expiry date. While the film ends on an optimistic note, it does show the older couple — Geeta (Neetu Kapoor) and Bheem (Anil Kapoor) — falling apart after Bheem has an affair. It’s the younger pair of Naina (Kiara Advani) and Kukoo (Varun Dhawan) who don’t give up on their marriage. The film raises pertinent questions about what it takes to make a marital relationship work and the way women invariably end up shouldering the emotional labour, but the ending turns its back on all the insights shared. Opting for comfort, Jugjugg Jeeyo urges the viewer to shove all the issues surrounding marriage under the metaphorical carpet, just as the characters in the film are expected to.

As marriages become steadily more complicated in the way they’re presented in Hindi cinema, perhaps the honeymoon period is finally coming to an end and we can look forward to marriages in fiction that reflect the complexity of our contemporary reality. Are we ready for a story about two good people in a bad relationship? What is keeping filmmakers from telling stories like Revolutionary Road (2008), with flawed characters that we nevertheless care about and a portrait of marriage as heartbreak? Can we imagine characters who find their way out of a marriage and still manage to live happily ever after? How do our stories find that balance between relatability rooted in realism and the comfort of romantic fantasies? The answers, as always, lie in the stories we choose to tell ourselves.

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