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Can films help us understand the complexities of infidelity?

Pop culture is slowly expanding how it portrays infidelity, affairs, and open marriages. Here's why this is important

The watertight, right-or-wrong perception around infidelity and open marriages is slowly changing.
The watertight, right-or-wrong perception around infidelity and open marriages is slowly changing. (Photo by Kulbir from Pexels)

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On her 8th wedding anniversary, Shivani* told her husband that she had been reading and exploring the idea, and workings, of having an open marriage. His response was the best gift for their relationship, “tell me more.”

This isn’t a fictional scene but one that in reality, is turning out to be the saviour of a nine-year marriage.

Shivani, 36, a fashion designer and Anand*, 39, owner of a bistro in Pune, are ingrained to be social beings- from their job description, to their social world, they are two individuals who only know how to be social. However, being the life of every party has left them with a wide gap between themselves.

The thought of an open marriage crossed Shivani’s mind, when one night, Anand was celebrating a colleague’s promotion, and she stayed back to curl up with some wine and Netflix. This wasn’t unusual for the two as both have sets of friends that aren’t overlapping, and are comfortable with the other having a life of their own.

Shivani ended up binge-watching Valeria on Netflix. A show where the protagonist, Valeria is a married writer who has been struck by both writer's block and sees her stagnant relationship with her husband as the ailment. After a conversation with her best friends one warm afternoon, she learns of a secret that could save her from the overwhelming feeling of dread that was consuming her: open marriage.

“While I don’t want to be an advocate of cheating or infidelity while watching Valeria, a conversation between Valeria and her husband (Adrián) opened my eyes to the fact that there was a missing link in my marriage and that, quite possibly, an open marriage could be the solution.” Explained Shivani, “We love each other, but sometimes that gets lost in all the buzz around us. Just bringing up the conversation shifted the dynamics between us. But of course, we both know it’s not easy as it is in ‘reel life’ and that we will have to communicate, probably a lot more than we were before to make this work for us.”

Despite being the country that gave birth to the Kama Sutra, the ancient Indian Sanskrit text on sexuality, eroticism and emotional fulfilment, within ourselves we are a country that has restricted one’s need to explore their sexuality, with themselves and others.

Affairs, infidelity, cheating and open marriages, have long existed in our world, so much so, that at almost every stage of our lives, we are constantly taught that these acts are wrong— unforgivable even.

But slowly and steadily, this watertight right-or-wrong perception is changing.

A screenshot of a scene from Valeria, with actor Silma López in the title role
A screenshot of a scene from Valeria, with actor Silma López in the title role

Psychotherapist and New York Times bestselling author, Esther Perel’s Ted Talk (March 2015) on ‘Rethinking Infidelity, a talk for anyone who has ever loved’, adds a layer of understanding to the ‘missing link’ for most couples, “At the heart of an affair, you will often find, a longing and yearning for an emotional connection, for novelty, for autonomy, for sexual intensity, a wish to recapture lost parts of ourselves or an attempt to bring back vitality in the face of loss and tragedy.”

Modern Indians are changing the narrative of this story as more and more people are opening up through various mediums and addressing their needs, discussing their desires and sharing their voices. Recently, OTT platforms are adding a host of content that caters to conversations around these topics, while we still have only a handful that comes with the ‘make in India’ tag, we can’t ignore our audience watching, enjoying and most importantly, discussing shows that talk about the multifold of layers within us.

Indian films like Super Deluxe, Lust Stories and more recently Gehraiyaan have a power that the earlier classics in this genre like, Mira Nair’s India Cabaret (1985), Deepa Mehta’s Water (2005) and Leena Yadav’s Parched (2016), to name a few, did not have: mainstream platforms to discuss them, and more importantly, for like-minded people to connect over the themes they explore.

Without diving into the nuances of Gehraiyaan, the film has a storyline that will make you question your own morals when it comes to commitment and infidelity. This film shines a light on the various layers that exist within all of us.

Alisha (Deepika Padukone) and Zain’s (Siddhant Chaturvedi) affair stems from their attraction towards one another— but it is also something more. For her, he was a breath of fresh air in her otherwise suffocated life, one that from the very beginning of the film, is portrayed as an exhaustive one where Alisha seems to be mothering her boyfriend, Karan (Dhairya Karwa) of 6 years, as well as dealing with a traumatic past within her own family, without any support from her partner.

In an interview with Hindustan Times, Ananya Panday spoke about how acting in a film like Gehraiyaan, has changed her thoughts about infidelity, “...what I have learnt while doing Gehraiyaan is to not be judgmental. So rather than shunning the person out completely, I may try to understand the reasons behind why they did it, what happened and all of that.”

“Pop culture representation is extremely important,” states Rhea Sakhardande (23), a budding researcher with a Master’s Degree in Sociology from Manipal Academy of Higher Education. “The way infidelity, open marriages or other sorts of relationships are depicted matters. It matters a lot. Creators should understand the amount of influence that film and tv shows, especially with actors who have a fan following of all ages, (tend to) have on their audience. With Gehrayiaan, people were revolting in the comments because they couldn’t believe that Deepika Padukone would act in such a role, where she would betray her cousin and childhood friend-turned-lover,” she says.

Sakhardande then goes on to add the crux of her point: “What they are missing out on, is the relief that she felt from stepping out of a toxic relationship with her boyfriend.”

In February 2020, a survey by Gleeden, an extra-marital dating app recorded that ‘about 55% of married Indians have been unfaithful to their partner at least once, of which 56% are women). According to wire reports, the app saw an increase in their Indian subscriber base, by over 246% during the first wave of Covid 19.

And yet, when it comes to depicting this reality via Indian pop culture, these acts, or people, are shown either as negative characters or as selfish, disappointments to their families. Or, infidelity is shown as a means by which a husband and wife come closer, thus being the route to a happy ending. The nuances are mostly always missed.

Soja Subhagar, a Berlin-based writer-activist, currently researching ‘Decolonising Gender in the context of Kerala’ believes that the portrayal of hard-hitting topics like infidelity and open marriages is majorly misrepresented in reel life.

“In shows and films, characters are often shown with unresolved trauma or low self-worth, they deem themselves ‘unworthy of love’ and indulge in coping mechanisms like codependency or trauma bonding with spurts of an adrenaline rush from ‘getting away with cheating’,” she explains. “If people can’t accept or speak about these emotions or basic needs then that is a problem, perhaps we need to look within and ask ourselves ‘why?’”.

As creators, artists, and most importantly the audience, are we ready to allow content that truly speaks to and represents the reality of the multifold layers of our human lives and nature to finally find a comfortable space in the world, through art, cinema and dialogue? Because let’s face it, not all love stories are directed by David Dhawan.

*Names changed to protect the identities of the interviewees.


Richa Sheth is a freelancer writer based in Pune. She explores complexities within human interactions and relationships

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