Recalling Marital Mistrust in Bollywood: ‘Sangam’ to ‘Devdas’

As ‘Rustom’ gears up for release, we revisit films that addressed marital mistrust in Bollywood. 

5 min read

Adultery or betrayal in marriage has always been a subject of fascination for cinema. As Akshay Kumar’s Rustom gets ready for release, we revisit films that addressed marital mistrust and how it affected the partners.

It is said that when RK Nayyar decided to make Yeh Raaste Hai Pyaar Ke on the famous Nanavati murder case way back in 1963, the big challenge was who to cast in the role of the adulteress wife. No top heroine was willing to play a negative role and so Nayyar settled for the unconventional Leela Naidu to play the desolate and beautiful wife of naval commander Sunil Dutt.

Post interval when Dutt learns about the clandestine affair between his wife and his friend, he follows them and shoots his wife’s beloved point blank!

So does Vinod Khanna in Gulzar’s Achanak based on the same story intermingled with intriguing characters and sub plots.

In Dulal Guha’s Do Anjaane, Amitabh’s ambitious wife Rekha is lured by his friend Prem Chopra’s fancy car and lifestyle and Chopra takes advantage of her weakness. When he senses that Amitabh is disapproving of his growing friendship with the family, Chopra plots to get Amitabh drunk and pushes him from a moving train.  

All these films in retrospect were about gender perspectives. Balraj Sahni in Lajwanti, suspects his wife Nargis to be involved with his best friend and packs her home. It is a replay of Sita sent to vanvas by Lord Ram in Ramayan, except that while Sita gives birth to Luv and Kush in exile, Nargis is commanded to leave home without her baby (Naaz).


In Mahesh Manjrekar’s Astitva the husband chooses to confront his partner’s past in the presence of common friends. What ought to have been resolved in the bedroom becomes a drawing room drama. The husband wants answers and Tabu is willing to reveal all provided he answers her counter questions. The battle ensues all night and in the morning Tabu is ousted from a home she built and nurtured over the decades. 

Paro in Devdas is trapped in tradition. She is the matriarch only as long as she serves the family and remains within the boundary of the home. The day she follows her heart, her feudal lord orders the guards to shut the gates on her. It is acceptable to collapse and die but unacceptable to trespass because that will bring dishonour to the family.

Most of the time, the men called the shots and altered the rules as per their convenience. Amol Palekar enjoys the perks of his actor wife Smita Patil’s stardom in Shyam Benegal’s Bhumika and exploits her to fulfill his failed ambitions, but in the privacy of their home, he is violent and abusive. Smita is stifled and strays from one relationship to another in quest of pure and permanent love but never finds it.

A disabled Raj Babbar is bitter and unfairly suspicious of his working wife Rekha in Lekh Tandon’s Agar Tum Na Hote, but Rekha remains devoted to her marriage turning down a worthy Rajesh Khanna.

It is a reversal of role for Khanna in Aap Ki Kasam when he suspects wife Mumtaz to be interested in their bachelor neighbor Sanjeev Kumar and is consumed with envy beyond sanity.

An obsessive Khanna takes to stalking them and one night even hides in her wardrobe in hope of catching them red-handed. Mumtaz is disillusioned and walks out on what appeared a perfect marriage! Anand Bakshi’s song ‘Zindgi ke safar mein guzar jaate hai jo maqam…’ is about remorse over lost opportunities in relationships.

Basu Chatterjee’s Swami and Sanjay Leela Bhansali’s Hum Dil De Chuke Sanam were stories of women in love forced into arranged marriages by parental pressure. Shabana Azmi and Aishwarya Rai are unwilling to adjust into the new families and are irreverent towards their caring husbands. Girish Karnad and Ajay Devgan are willing to reunite their partners with their beloveds. Somewhere in the process, both Saudamini (Shabana) and Nandini (Aishwarya) discover the value of bonds and Saudamini while waiting at the railway station, does not board the train, and Nandini comes back after reaching her destination.

Two friends, Raj Kapoor, Rajendra Kumar love the same girl (Vayajanthimala), one marries her and the other withdraws. Post honeymoon, husband discovers a prem patra and sings ‘Dost dost na raha…’ In the climax of Sangam the men are willing to sacrifice the woman  for each other as if she is a commodity.

The plot was repeated in BR Chopra’s Nikaah where an angry Salma Agha lashes out at the triple Talaq tradition and opts to live alone.
Very seldom did the women who strayed also managed to retain their voice. Two special instances that come to my mind are Rosie (Waheeda Rehman) in Guide and Lakshmi (Shabana Azmi) in Ankur.

Rosie is dissatisfied in her marriage with archeologist Marco and defies social norms to live openly with a single man, Raju, who helps her become a famous dancing star.

In Ankur when Lakshmi’s husband (Sadhu Meher) disappears, she becomes insecure. However, when she realises that the landlord’s son is attracted to her, she submits to him for survival. The equations alter when Anant Naag’s nubile wife Priya Tendulkar arrives and later when Sadhu Meher returns just as mysteriously. Anant is worried that Sadhu will expose him and attacks him mercilessly. Lakshmi runs to her husband’s rescue and the little child pelting stones at the landlord in the last frame of the film was the beginning of breaking tradition.


Public outrage led to the judge change the verdict in favour of Commander KM Nanavati in the Prem Ahuja murder case. If I remember, Yeh Raaste Hai Pyaar Ke had an open end. I am therefore curious to watch how Rustom will conclude the story.

Will the couple live happily ever after or will the demons haunt them from time to time?

Some films I have deliberately left out on this theme are - Mahesh Bhatt’s Arth (1982), and Vinod Pandey’s Yeh Nazdikiyaan, Shekhar Kapoor’s Masoom (1983), Jagmohan Mundhra’s Kamala (1985) and Kalpana Lajmi’s Ek Pal (1986), because these are stories more about adultery than about mistrust.

Shabana Azmi is the common factor in all these marriages and she believes her life is fine till one fine day, Naseerudin Shah/ Masoom and Marc Zuber / Kamala spring a surprise (Master Jugal and Kamala) on her.

She is a loyal wife to both, Marc Zuber/ Yeh Nazdikiyaan and Kulbhushan Kharbanda/ Arth but the husbands leave her for stimulating relationships. When the excitement fades both want to come back, she refuses Kulbhushan/ Arth and accepts Marc/ Yeh Nazdikiyaan.

Ek Pal is Shabana Azmi’s answer to Naseerudin Shah in Masoom.  In Masoom, Naseer goes for a college union and has a one night stand with Supriya Pathak.  In Ek Pal, Shabana Azmi meets up with old friend Farooque Shaikh and becomes pregnant.

(Bhawana Somaaya has been writing on cinema for 30 years and is the author of 12 books. You can read her blog here and follow her on Twitter: @bhawanasomaaya)

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