Ijaazat: Bollywood’s Finest Take on Love, Marriage, and Adultery


Ijaazat: Bollywood’s Finest Take on Love, Marriage, and Adultery

Illustration: Akshita Monga

One of the biggest fights I’ve ever had with my best friend was over a movie dialogue. “Pyaar ek baar hota hai,” she, a newly minted SRKKuch Kuch Hota Hai fan insisted with dreamy eyes, and a dreamier outlook. I disagreed. That anyone believed there was any control or some sort of a cap they could attach to the idea of falling in love was, for me, ridiculous and laughable.

“So, you’d forgive him if he cheats on you?” she had shot back, wounded by my attack on her beloved movie.

“Maybe,” I had said, without missing a beat, “if he is honest about it.”

I was 12.

That I had a rather disturbingly adult outlook about love and relationships back when kids my age were taking boyfriend notes from Aladdin was no coincidence. Thanks to my mother’s complex system of things she deemed appropriate for me to watch as a kid, I was brought up on a steady diet of professedly adult stories like Silsila, Aaina and, of course Ijaazat.

Decades later, Ijaazat continues to be the one story that, consciously and subconsciously, defined my fundamental understanding of a man-woman relationship. It is therefore hardly surprising that my ideas about loyalty and love have always been more than a little radical. I meant what I had said about cheating when I was 12, when it was a hypothetical proposition. And I meant it when I got into my first relationship and we had a long discussion about what cheating implied. Because really, if one can look past the haze of betrayal and rage and other bullshit, cheating is never about sex. It is almost always about the emotions. And I owe it to Ijaazat, one of the finest love triangles of our times, to have taught me this long before contemporary popular culture, and all its glorification of ownership in love got to me.

The idea of being the “other woman” in Gulzar’s world is fluid, which perhaps explains why the interplay between Maya and Sudha remains dignified and never devolves into a “catfight”.

When I revisited Ijaazat as an adult, it was because I was driven by a genuine curiosity to check if this seemingly simple tale about a man unable to reconcile his past love affair with his present commitment to a marriage was really as complex as the impression it had left on my mind. Ijaazat did not disappoint.

If anything, it cemented its place in my life as the one story that can tell you almost everything you need to know about love and marriage. The one story that remembers that love is a complex idea irrespective of what Karan Johar wants you to believe. That falling in love is an instinct that is beyond our wilful control and artificial morality. That “extramarital affair” is often a reductive way to define what might be an inescapable maze of emotions and sense of responsibility. That in life there are no villains but just ordinary people struggling with their choices and circumstances. But most importantly, it teaches you that to create a rich, feminist narrative about relationships, you don’t always need a woman’s POV but a POV that is willing to look at women as who they are – living, breathing, thriving, flawed humans with a range of outlooks and choices that no stereotypes can ever embody.

ijaazat love

This is a world where men inhabit what is essentially a women’s world, and are not defined by their macho heroics but by their vulnerabilities and mistakes.

Ijaazat is not a love story, but rather a story about falling out of love and the carnage it leaves in its wake. Between Naseeruddin Shah’s helpless but honest Mahender; Anuradha Patel’s radical, volatile, but poetic Maya; and Rekha’s quiet, sensible but headstrong Sudha, Gulzar’s deft narrative weaves a story around characters that are unique and yet painfully relatable. In a world of moviescapes where even bold and experimental films like Mahesh Bhatt’s Arth chose to paint the other woman in the harsh light of unforgivable insanity and failed to examine the psyche of the philandering husband, Ijaazat dares to ask questions about love and marriage that nobody wants to ask: Not in art, and certainly not in life.

Gulzar crafts Maya’s crackling and complex character with finesse: Her volatility and unpredictability is deftly juxtaposed with her romance and poetry, creating a character that is so well-rounded, you never get to brush off her motivations as mere insanity. Maya is a rare woman-child in a world that is replete with man-children (aka Ranbir Kapoor’s entire filmography) but expects its women to be always mature and sorted – so they can be the catalyst to their men’s journeys.

Maya is flawed and deeply problematic, but that does not stop us from falling in love with her, just like Mahender. It helps that Maya gets the on-screen privilege of mouthing some of the finest Gulzar poetry (if there ever were a song that captures the seductive, romantic, exquisite agony of a relationship, it will have to be Mera Kuch Saamaan). She is a shooting star that lures everyone with her self-destructive charm. That a character like her is allowed to find her place in a narrative minus any judgment or misogynistic stereotypes is perhaps one of the biggest wins of Ijaazat.

In stark contrast with Maya, is Rekha’s Sudha, the conventional wife who is anything but. Sudha absorbs the blow of her husband’s past with a maturity that might have seemed vacuous like most patriarchal myths about women’s supposed strength and sacrifice. But Gulzar subverts that trope in a masterstroke that begins with her walking out of a dysfunctional marriage and concludes with her second husband, played by Shashi Kapoor, bursting into the waiting room. Despite Ijaazat’s deliberate positioning of Maya as a feminist firebrand, it is Sudha’s quiet strength and silent defiance that defines what feminism essentially stands for – an ability to refuse to tolerate bullshit, no matter how well-meaning and to make choices that are grounded in self-love and indomitable strength, whether it is to quit a marriage or walk into a second one.

The idea of being the “other woman” in Gulzar’s world is fluid, which perhaps explains why the interplay between Maya and Sudha remains dignified and never devolves into a “catfight”. They are women caught in an impossible situation who remain aware and sympathetic to the other’s fate despite the odds. Gulzar’s women stand on their own. And that is exactly what sets Ijaazat apart from similar storylines like Silsila that bear the burden of problematic generalisations and internalised misogyny.

The winners of this feminist tale are, however, its men.

Shah’s Mahender is not your run-of-the mill cheat. He is honest with Sudha about Maya from the very beginning and remains so until the end. Baffled by the weirdness of Maya, it seems natural to watch him slowly fall for the sensible Sudha while he is still in love with Maya – a dichotomy that is hard to process, but makes profound sense. His love for both the women in his life remained unquantifiable and undefined, a dilemma that eventually spells his doom.

In a lot of ways, the flawed, flailing, tragedy-struck Mahender is an unlikely hero from a feminist fantasy. This is a world where men inhabit what is essentially a women’s world, and are not defined by their macho heroics but by their vulnerabilities and mistakes, and their willingness to let the women in their life be who they are, sometimes even to their own deterrence.

And then, there is Shashi Kapoor, who makes you fall in love with him in a few seconds worth of appearance. He infuses his cameo with the sensitivity of a man who is aware and accepting of his wife’s past and chooses to respond with grace, sympathy, and utter lack of judgment when confronted with it. In him, Gulzar finds a happy ending this story doesn’t have and celebrates the spirit of a tale that is as much about strong women as it is about men who stand by them — as husbands, friends, lovers and exes.