The Silsila syndrome: When reel life affairs are unacceptable to Indians

Painting Movie Silsila

Extramarital affairs are as old as marriage itself. Since fiction reflects facts, it is only natural that films as mass media will depict them from time to time. Released in 1981, Silsila was a turning point in this genre. First, because it focused more on the affair. Second, Yash Chopra managed quite a coup when he convinced Rekha and especially Jaya Bhaduri to act in the film with Amitabh Bachchan, when in real life Amitabh was rumoured to be having an affair with Rekha while married to Jaya.

The Indian film hero can be a robber or a killer or a smuggler, but he can’t be a rapist or a child killer or adulterer. Hence an extramarital affair by the lead, especially if played by the silver screen god Amitabh, needs solid backing. InSilsila, Amit’s (Amitabh) affair is justified for more than an hour before the real plot unfolds. Amit loves his girlfriend Chandni (Rekha) and his brother Shekhar (Shashi Kapoor) equally. Sadly for him these two loves conflict at a point. Shekhar dies, leaving his fiancée Shobha (Jaya) pregnant. Being an unmarried mother in India is unthinkable, and unlike real life, in films no one has discreet abortions. To rescue her from shame Amit has to marry her, while still in love with Chandni.

After a few days he and Chandni meet again and the love (never really dead) is rekindled. Silsila was mostly based in Delhi. It succeeded in capturing the high society and the arty circle of Delhi. The actors in this film are realistically dressed and they talk realistically too. But there are, of course, beautiful foreign locales and heavy doses of Punjabi culture, like most Chopra films.

Related reading: My flawed concept of ‘The One’

Amit as a playwright writes heavy words but talks like a fun loving regular guy and woos his girl like a stalker. (The stalker act always works in films.) Chandni is the beautiful heartbreaker, a mystery. Rekha is basically playing herself as the untouched diva.

Shobha is the typical helpless damsel always waiting for a man to rescue her. That’s what she tells Amit when he tries to leave her: “You rescued me once, now if you leave me there can’t be another Amit.” She is regressive and without an iota of self-respect. In short, the kind of wife that the Indian public worships.

Generally, wives are economically dependent, too old to get any men (because men are always busy chasing young women), scared to hurt their kids, reluctant to sacrifice the secured social status, wary of destroying the hard work that went into building a home and, most importantly, our society is too unsafe for women to live on their own. Hence, they have no way other than to ‘look the other way’.

But it is strange when the successful doctor husband looks the other way. Possibly Chandni’s husband (Sanjeev Kumar) was madly in love, but how madly can one fall in love within the first year of an arranged marriage?

Rekha, Amitabh and Jaya in silsila
People don’t want their heroes to cheat

In the real world, women are always judged harshly by their own family and friends compared to the slap on the wrist men get for affairs or divorce. Chandni gets away lightly.

In the last three decades women have become economically independent and are able to interact with a variety of men on social networks. Wives having affairs is not impossible, implausible or unheard of any more. Who knows what the future will bring? Maybe one day husbands too will start ‘looking the other way’ like Sanjeev Kumar.

The main problem with the film is the execution and editing. Unnecessary events get more screen space and it rushed through the most significant part of the story, which was the acceptance of existing marital relations.

The film is timeless so far as Indian marriages go. People frequently get married under parental pressure, leaving behind persons they are in love with. Most of the time, these people adjust to new situations and sort of fall in love with spouses. And for the spouses ignorance is bliss.

Of course in today’s age of social networks it is very difficult to be ignorant. Hence, there is more disturbance in the equilibrium. Social networking can work both ways. Old lovers can reconnect and rekindle their love. It is so easy to discreetly go about it with the gadgets we have. However, the consequences and eventualities of the rekindled affairs are the same as they were in the 1980s.

In 2006, inspired by Silsila, Karan Johar made Kabhi Alvida Naa Kehna. It is truly a film about affairs, not leftover love. Thankfully there was no long-drawn justification. Rhea (Preity Zinta) has a successful career while her almost unemployed husband Dev (Shahrukh Khan) is generally mean to her, obviously suffering from an inferiority complex. Maya (Rani Mukherjee)’s husband Rishi (Abhishek Bachchan) is loving and caring, while for some reason she always behaves passive aggressively towards him. Strangely though, I get it. Dev and Maya are terrible spouses but they are perfect partners for each other. The affair is depicted more clearly than in Silsila, because of changed times. Like Silsila, this film too was not commercially successful. Viewers didn’t sympathise with the lovers. One thing is certain: Indians may commit adultery on a daily basis, but they don’t want their heroes to cheat like a common person.

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