Sex, emotions, comedy, death: Malayalam cinema's exploration of extramarital affairs

It was KG George who first explored the taboo topic of extramarital relationships, that too in his debut film, 'Swapnadanam' (1976).
Sex, emotions, comedy, death: Malayalam cinema's exploration of extramarital affairs
Sex, emotions, comedy, death: Malayalam cinema's exploration of extramarital affairs
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Malayalam cinema has seldom stepped into unexplored terrains when it comes to the dynamics of extramarital affairs. These relationships are routinely judged, typecast and receive a clichéd treatment. And it goes without saying that women are always the ‘victim’. But, there have been exceptions to the rule too. Here's a look at films which have dealt with the issue and how the director chose to portray it. 

Rohini (Sreevidya) is married to Dr. Raja (Madhu), a businessman who shuttles between meetings in stiff suits. She is a college lecturer who is stifled by the lack of intimacy in their married life—that’s when she gets into a relationship with her ex-lover, Bhagyanath (Soman). After several clandestine meetings, her husband catches her red-handed and throws her out of the house. Directed by Hariharan, written by MT Vasudevan Nair, Idavazhiyile Poocha Mindapoocha (1979) deals Rohini's betrayal sternly, pushing her to a life of loneliness and guilt. In fact, the narrative begins with a Rohini who's past her prime, with all the joy taken out of her life. She is even deprived of the chance to meet her daughter on her wedding day and eventually kills herself. While the husband doesn’t remarry, he lives on with a lifetime of hatred for her.

It was KG George who first explored the taboo topic of extramarital relationships, that too in his debut film, Swapnadanam (1976). He never went into the morality of such complicated relationships, and most of his films bravely explored this theme. Swapnadanam had a man trapped helplessly in a loveless marriage and trying to make it work, but his mind is with his former lover.

In his Lekhayude Maranam Oru Flashback (1983), the heroine (Nalini) gets into a relationship with a much-married movie director, Suresh (Bharath Gopi). One of the most touching scenes in the film is when they are lying in bed and she tells him of a horrible recurring nightmare - she is lifted high by giant hands and then dropped on to jagged rocks. “No one has ever loved me,” she sobs plaintively in his arms, “won’t you save me from this hell?” His response to this is a dry “Njaan athinu sramichu nokkam. Let us see.” Not for George the language of romance and prevarication. Later in the film, when she walks out of her house and goes to Suresh, he says worriedly, “I can’t imagine the mess this is going to create.” “Nothing is going to happen,” she tells him confidently. This, he rebuffs with “I was talking about my family.” While the film is a brutally honest depiction of a cruel, demanding space like the film world which does not suffer personal weaknesses, it remains judgemental towards the woman in the infidelity scale. 

In KG George’s Adaminte Variyellu (1983), Alice (Sreevidya) is married to a man who forces her to sleep with his clients. She, in turn, finds love in the arms of a younger man. She pops sleeping pills every night — it’s her way of shutting herself from her husband Mamachan's (Bharath Gopi) nocturnal prowls in the domestic worker's room. She develops a drinking habit and neglects her children. And Mamachan has no qualms in calling her “irresponsible” when the daughter elopes with a stranger. It’s not enough that she has suffered neglect and exploitation at her husband’s hands but also has to put up with his sickening misogyny. That’s why we want to applaud Alice’s repartee when Mamachan warns her to be more cautious about her affair. “We have two grown children,” he tells her. “Are you sure these are your children? Your pimped me to so many men. Don’t you dare say anything. Just get lost!” she snarls at him.

George also creates another fantastic scene for Alice—the husband and lover are in the same room when the latter breaks up with her. It’s empowering to watch her calmly wear her glares and exit without a backward glance at either man. But eventually, Alice kills herself as a result of her broken love affair. If Alice is a victim of circumstances, Anyamma (Sreevidya) in Irakal (1985) is unremorseful about her sexual needs. She opts to step out of the marital boundaries to find it. But the film at no point questions or moralises her; nor is she placed on a pedestal. In a film where all characters lack a moral stand, she is just one of them.

Mattoral is yet another George masterpiece. Released in 1988, the film had a married woman (Seema) who has an affair and chooses to walk out of her marriage. But even there, she doesn’t find happiness. She is never judged. Having said that, the director perhaps plays it safe with an open-ended climax. At a point, after much cajoling from their common friend (Mammootty), the husband (Karamana Janardhanan) and wife decide to meet at the beach, but they find that he has killed himself.

In Bharathan’s Kattathe Kilikoodu (1983), we are tuned to empathise with Sharada’s (Sreevidya) trauma—the poor, suffering homemaker with kids who is lost without her husband. When he gets back to her, she welcomes him with an overwhelming sense of relief. But no sympathies are reserved for the other immature woman—Asha, (Revathy) who loved with fervour, who was humiliated and snubbed by her lover (Mohanlal). Is that facet even once raked up? Sure, there is no justification to what she did, but it’s not entirely her doing. What of the academically brilliant Professor Krishna Pillai? (Bharath Gopi). Wasn’t it clear that he had fallen for her charms and was ready to start life afresh, if not for Unni’s timely intervention? Shows how discriminating our society is when the same sin is committed by different genders.

The Thulasidas directorial Chanchattam (1991) is about a woman (Urvashi) who walks out on her husband (Jayaram) when he confesses to a one-night stand. She single-handedly brings up their son, till a reunion with her former husband diffuses her sense of self. In the end, not only is she made to feel remorseful about her choices, she ends up uniting with the “only man” who can provide her security—the husband. Regressive, yes, considering it is the remake of an old K Bhagyaraj film. It also reinstates another theory about extramarital affairs in Malayalam cinema—the duration of a woman to be angry when she finds out about the affairs is always predetermined. She can be angry only for a certain period.

Paavakoothu (1990) written by Ranjith endorses polygamy with undertones of comedy. A married man (Jayaram) gets into an affair, impregnates both wife (Parvathy) and girlfriend (Renjini) at the same time and choses to play it out like a comedy of errors. Then of course all’s well that ends well when the girlfriend hands over the baby to the wife who lost hers. And all’s forgiven.

Rajasenan’s Ayalathe Adheham (1992) is a smart commentary on the two-facedness in society—a wife (Gowthami) who is unable to see through the saccharine sweetness of her neighbour’s husband, who is having an affair with another neighbour. It mocks our eagerness to probe other people’s lives.

Shyamaprasad’s Ore Kadal (2007) based on Sunil Gangopadhyay’s Bengali novel, Hirak Deepthi, is a sublime commentary on man-woman relationship—an interesting attempt at exploring the depth and meaning in love and marriage, beyond the margins of the societal definition of right and wrong. The married Deepthy (Meera Jasmine) falls in love with the economics-obsessed Nathan (Mammootty) “who can only see bodies, wants woman as a physical need and not their emotions.” Here Deepthy is also someone who, while not neglected, is often taken for granted by her husband. Therefore when Nathan approaches her, he is also subconsciously evoking the desires in her that she didn’t know existed. Eventually, when she leaves the husband, it is Nathan who finds himself at a loss. The husband (Naren) is often an onlooker—but there are no attempts to paint him as a victim nor judge the wronged woman.

Megha Malhar (2001) has two childhood sweethearts (Samyuktha Varma and Biju Menon) who meet after years—both married but somewhere they manage to reignite the spark and get into an affair. Director Kamal choses to lend a divinity to their relationship, keeping us in the dark regarding the intimacy of their bond. It’s a romanticised, idealistic take on an affair out of marriage.

There have been several comic, distasteful takes on extramarital affairs like the ones shown in Happy Husbands and Husbands in Goa—which have been chiefly made with the purpose of preaching to women about their rightful place in the marriages and how lazy, overbearing wives often result in straying husbands and how getting their act together and forgiving them is the way to go. Nadan (2013) has Jayaram playing a theatre director who forcefully begins an extramarital affair with an actor (Remya Nambeesan) but expects his wife to forgive and live with him. That eventually leads to a path of self-destruction, leaving us in no doubt regarding the aftermath of such a grave mistake.

Traffic (2000) looks at the heightened sense of emotions following such acts of betrayal. A young doctor (Kunchako Boban), on discovering that his wife (Remya Nambeesan) is cavorting with his best friend, rams his car into her. But then soon, love overpowers all other emotions.

In Siddharth Bharatan’s Chandrettan Evideya, we are first introduced to an overbearing wife (Anushree) who constantly calls her husband (Dileep), who lives in another city, several times a day. Despite that, he gets drawn towards a classical dancer (Namitha Pramod) and we are told a cock-and-bull story about how he was in love with a court dancer in his past life. The wife discovers the affair, but instead of confronting him, she meets the other woman and the affair soon ends in a bizarrely romanticised manner. And he goes back to her. Again, we are cornered by that nagging gender inequality issue—what if the roles were reversed? To think that this film was released in 2014!

While Malayalam cinema has mostly had narratives around sexual infidelity in marriages, director Ranjith Sankar addresses the aftermaths of an emotional affair in marriage in Ramante Edenthottam (2017). Slighted and taken for granted by her husband (Joju George) who also indulges in his share of affairs outside marriage, Malini (Anu Sithara) finds herself being drawn to a sensitive widower (Kunchako Boban). Though their relationship is safely kept platonic, the affair gives her the courage to stand up for herself and also step out of it. And most importantly the film lets her win in the end, without apologies.

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