One of the best-known Hindi movies about adultery makes the potent observation that husbands are never lovers.

Many Indian men and some women might disagree, but the line makes perfect sense in the context of Silsila, directed by Yash Chopra, with dialogue by Sagar Sarhadi. The 1981 production is best known for its “casting coup”: it features real-life couple Amitabh and Jaya Bachchan as husband and wife and Rekha as the married woman with whom Amitabh Bachchan’s character has an extra-marital relationship. Rumours of an off-screen affair between Bachchan and Rekha in the 1980s lent immense frisson to Silsila’s scenes of amour fou. Was Bachchan really acting when he stared deep into Rekha’s eyes and buried his nose in her lustrous locks? Was Jaya Bachchan only putting it on when she confronted Rekha in the famous sequence in which both women stand with their backs to each other? The movie is clever enough to let the ambiguity linger.

Silsila has lovely songs, glamorous settings, a top-notch cast, and crackling scenes of passion between the characters played by Bachchan and Rekha. Though the movie didn’t work with audiences, it has earned its place in popular film history as the high point in the Bachchan-Rekha pairing and for its controversial theme of adultery. Every time a movie featuring a wandering spouse surfaces, memories of Silsila resurface to remind us of how to, and not to, depict unhappy husbands and wives seeking solace in the arms of others.

The film ends with the lovers limping back to their respective marriages, but it at least leaves them on a deceptively happy-ever-after note. Mohit Suri’s Hamari Adhuri Kahani , on the other hand, allows a single mother whose husband has disappeared to briefly experience happiness with another man, while also ensuring that the lover conveniently disappears from the scene at the appropriate moment. A series of contrivances ensures that Vidya Balan’s character, Vasudha, retains the sanctity of her mangal sutra. Vasudha doesn’t initiate the romance and appears more relieved than aroused when Emraan Hashmi’s hotelier proposes to her. Hashmi has played a more lascivious version of the man who snatches another’s wife in Murder, Anurag Basu’s copy of the Hollywood movie Unfaithful. At least Mallika Sherawat’s character had some fun between the sheets in Murder before the chips collapsed, unlike Vasudha, who weeps as she breaks her vows, like countless screen adulteresses before her.

There’s the conventional romance between man and woman, there’s the love triangle, and then there is the adulterous affair, considered the most grown-up and therefore the most dangerous of romantic states. A subset of the challenges to marital fidelity is the bigamy comedy. Films such as Pati Patni Aur Woh, Saajan Chale Sasural and Gharwali Baharwali  mine one-sided comedy out of the putative plight of the man who has to clandestinely satisfy the desires of two different women. Errant husbands who stray or remarry are usually left off the hook, their transgressions explained as acts of charity or the quirks of fate, such as in Yash Chopra’s Daag, in which the hero gets married for the second time to a woman to save her honour without realising that his first wife is still alive, or Shekhar Kapur’s Masoom, in which Naseeruddin Shah has a child by a lonely woman he befriends.

When women breach the boundaries of a socially sanctioned union, the consequences include fears, tears, and punishment ranging from insanity to death. Karan Johar’s Kabhi Alvida Naa Kehna allows Shah Rukh Khan and Rani Mukherji, who leave their spouses (Preity Zinta and Abhishek Bachchan, respectively), to finally unite only after they have irrigated a dry riverbed with their suffering.

Adultery was an especially fashionable theme in the 1980s, when the women’s movement took wing and urbane Indians were growing anxious about the prevailing gender equations. Kalpana Lajmi’s Ek Pal, from 1986, explores the permissiveness that supposedly flourishes in Assam’s tea estates through a love triangle between an unhappy wife, her workaholic husband, and a former boyfriend who irresponsibly impregnates her. Ek Pal is bolder in description than in treatment, but it does includes scenes of heavy breathing and demands of kisses and more by Shabana Azmi’s character.

Fourteen years later, Ek Pal was echoed in Mahesh Manjrekar’s Astitva, in which Tabu has a child from a former lover and faces her husband’s understandable wrath when he finds out. The husband who’s wedded to his desk as an excuse for wandering wives recurs, whether it’s in Ek Pal or Astitva.

Maya Memsaab, Ketan Mehta’s glossy and magic realism-tinged adaptation of Gustave Flaubert’s French classic Madame Bovary, follows the novel’s outline, marrying Deepa Sahi’s Maya to Farooque Shaikh’s decent but boring doctor. The stage is set for soft-focus dalliances with characters played by Raj Babbar and Shah Rukh Khan – the latter’s workouts with Sahi were dropped from the truncated Indian version.

Lyricist and filmmaker Gulzar, who wrote the dialogue for Ek Pal, also tackled adultery in Ijaazat (1987) and Libaas (1988) with his customary combination of sensitivity and conservatism. Ijaazat is based on a story by Bengali writer Subodh Ghosh and tells of a married man’s inability to forget his former girlfriend. In a lovely casting twist, Rekha, who has played her share of seductresses, is the long-suffering wife, while the gentle-faced and graceful Anuradha Patel plays the inamorata Maya, memorably described on the movie’s Wikipedia page as “one of the most radical representations of feminism in a girl”. Maya is certainly a girl – dreamy, childish, self-centred and incapable of making the right choices. She meets an Isadora Duncan fate, the result of a final moment of impetuousness.

Gulzar revisited adultery in his unreleased Libaas, but that movie didn’t have Ijaazat’s finesse or well-developed characters. Its wandering woman, played once again by Azmi, is most unsympathetic and selfish, and all sympathies rest with Naseeruddin Shah’s idealistic theatre director.

Even Mahesh Bhatt’s Arth, one of the best-known explorations of a marriage torn apart by infidelity, has an adulteress who needs a psychiatrist rather than a lover. Smita Patil has played her share of “bold” women in arthouse and populist cinema. In Arth, her Kavita, modelled on Parveen Babi, clings to Kulbhushan Kharbanda’s character out of a mixture of physical desire and psychological need. Patil also starred in a more conventional exploration of straying spouses in Aakhir Kyon?, in which she leaves her unfaithful husband and has a relationship with Rajesh Khanna’s character. She finally remarries, but only after Khanna’s prodding. Feminist speeches do sound best when they are delivered by men, allowing wanton wives to overcome their guilt and audiences to reconcile to the fact ladies too need to occasionally change beds.