Bollywood’s new affair: the film bringing complexity to screen infidelity

“I think it’s pretty fresh for an Indian audience,” says Deepika Padukone of her new movie, Gehraiyaan (“Depths”). “The way this story has been told, and the way in which it explores infidelity is certainly very new.” Gehraiyaan’s promotional material isn’t hiding anything, with clips showing Padukone’s character Alisha losing herself in clinches with her illicit lover Zain (Siddhant Chaturvedi), her cousin’s fiance. If that wasn’t messy enough, Alisha also has a perfectly nice boyfriend of six years, Karan (Dhairya Karwa), who’s done nothing to deserve this betrayal.

“She feels stuck,” is how Padukone explains her behaviour. A 30-year-old yoga teacher in Mumbai, Alisha seems like an otherwise likable and pleasant human being, and the film dwells closely on how conflicted she is. “She feels like she’s been with this one person for so many years. And now, you know, she is at a stage in her life where she feels stuck.”

Given how deeply traditional India’s reverence for marriage and fidelity is, Gehraiyaan represents something of a departure from how Bollywood typically deals with the subject, by treating infidelity as a private matter rather than a social and moral one. “It deals with complex relationships,” says Padukone, “and views these complex characters through a non-judgmental lens. It’s like peeling an onion: there’s so many layers to all of these characters and everything they’re experiencing.”

“We’ve always seen characters in Indian films as very black and white,” she adds. “Maybe a couple are together and one realises that their soulmate is outside of this. But that’s not always the case; sometimes people just drift. They want different things for their life. And I think the way we view them in this movie is a little more grey. By the end of it, you feel that everyone has a story, everyone has a journey that is far more complex and deeper.”

“Infidelity is not a new topic in Hindi cinema,” says Anupama Chopra, editor of the website Film Companion, “but the treatment has changed vastly in the last 10 to 15 years.” Of films that tackled the issue in the recent past, probably the best known is Kabhi Alvida Naa Kehna (Never Say Goodbye) from 2006. Starring a galaxy of big names, including Shah Rukh Khan, Rani Mukherjee, Preity Zinta and Abhishek Bachchan, its writer and director Karan Johar set the movie in New York, making it more a parodic tale of overly westernised Indians than an exploration of human desire.

“I remember Karan Johar telling me that he couldn’t actually show the actors in a hotel room together,” says Chopra. “We see them walking into the hotel, but we don’t see them in the room. There were these boundaries that you couldn’t cross because Shah Rukh and Rani were such massive stars.”

On the whole, the theme has been “not very popular”, says Chopra. “Cinema was very invested in the idea of the wholesome Indian film heroine, who is presumably a virgin until she gets married and then stays in the marriage and lives happily ever after. Those films prescribed a notion of epic love that could not deal with infidelity. Writers and film-makers didn’t know how to make it into mainstream commercial cinema that would be palatable to audiences who they assumed were very conservative.”

Gehraiyaan marks a radical shift, not least because its star, Padukone, says Chopra, “is a massive A-lister, and these very limited ideas of what actors can or can’t be on screen are clearly now becoming outdated”. It’s also revolutionary for exploring the female motivation for straying, rather than abiding by the nudge-nudge, wink-wink humour that usually accompanies the portrayal of male infidelity. “The whole idea that it’s fine, boys will be boys,” says Chopra. Female infidelity, on the other hand, “has always been seen as a graver error of judgment than a man having an affair.”

While largely ignored by Bollywood, “complexity in relationships goes back to Adam and Eve. It’s not a concept that we do not understand or aren’t aware of,” says Gehraiyaan’s director, Shakun Batra. “It’s a more modern take on infidelity and relationships. Intimacy is something we shied away from in the past. I wanted to make sure we did it in a new way. I like to believe that there is an audience for a more mature story today.” He knows his film is taking a risk. “Thankfully, the movie is on Amazon,” he says. “There is no box office collection.”

Gehraiyaan certainly achieves an on-screen intensity between its protagonist Alisha and her lover that is rare in mainstream Indian cinema. “We had an intimacy coordinator on-set,” says Padukone. “I don’t think any Indian film has had that before. We knew exactly what we were getting into. The boundaries had been explored, and we knew who was comfortable with what … It was an extremely safe and comfortable environment to work in. And when it’s true to the story, that in itself makes the actor feel comfortable.”

Batra says the film is not pro- or anti-monogamy, but it would be hypocritical to ignore the complexities of relationships. “We often couch the story of infidelity as the search for the soulmate or the search for the one,” says Batra, “and I felt it was time to try to tell a more authentic, more nuanced story, without taking sides or making any judgments. The idea is to provide a space to observe a relationship and be able to ask ourselves what we think of these things.”

• Gehraiyaan is released on 11 February on Amazon Prime Video.