Hindi Film 101/Discussion Post: Incest/Not Incest in South Asian Culture

No real reason for this post, except that I suddenly remembered I had purchased a year long access to JSTOR (very expensive, thank you donors here for funding it!) and could probably find a useful ethnographic paper on this topic. Which I am guessing will interest you all, because who doesn’t find incest interesting? Oh, and I also know there are all kinds of regional variations I am missing, I really hope you add on in the comments. This is more of a discussion post than a 101 post.

General Incest Rules:

Sister-Brother: Not Okay! Not even “honorary”. If a boy and girl are friends and call each other “brother” and “sister” it means romance is totally off the table. If they are friends and don’t call each other “brother” and “sister” it means romance is potentially on the table.

Remember in Rab Ne Bana Di Jodi when Shahrukh was terrified Anushka would tie a raakhi on him and make him her “brother”? It’s a hard and fast rule in movies. Although not always in life, a common piece of advice given to young women when navigating India is to refer to strange men as “brother”. Sometimes it stops you being harassed/raped, sometimes not.

Mother-son: Not okay! Not even honorary, again.

Although it’s okay in movies, that is, Waheeda played both Amitabh’s mother and his wife in different films and we were all kind of okay with that.

Father-daughter: Not okay! It would be possible to call a young woman “child” (bachcha) and then retreat to a romance instead. But if you call her “daughter” (betee), that would be weird

Image result for salman alia
Speaking of, just confirmed that Alia-Salman will have a romance in their Bhansali movie. But, thank goodness, it will be a romance that addresses the age difference and makes it the conflict between them.

Aunt-nephew: Also not okay! Again, not even honorary. With the twist that “Auntie” doesn’t carry the same weight as the honorific Indian language names names. You might teasingly call an older woman “auntie” and still romance her later, but it would be very strange to do that if you called her “chachi” (paternal aunt in Hindi).

For instance, I wouldn’t be surprised if Ranbir called Aish “auntie” teasingly at some point here, but he wouldn’t have called her “chachi”

Uncle-niece: Sometimes okay. If it is your mother’s youngest brother, it is not unheard of in many places for a marriage to happen. From what I can find, it is not the preferred kind of marriage and would only occur of the uncle-niece are close in age and there are no other close age mates on the mother’s side of the family. Even if they are similarly close in age, Aunt-nephew marriages never occur and I am not sure why.

Genelia’s mother wanted her to break up with Sidharth and marry her uncle. I kept thinking I was misreading the subtitles, but no, that was it. But her uncle was also very young and handsome and a good match in every way besides being her uncle.

Man marries daughter of his mother’s brother: Very very common. Still not necessarily the norm or the default, but the most common kind of marriage within families. There are many reasons for it. First, among the land owning class, it is a way of keeping property disputes simple. Second, the mother-in-law will be the closest companion to the daughter-in-law in a traditional household, making them aunt and niece gives them a built in bond. And it also keeps in place the power dynamics between the families. The wife of your brother would be slightly below you in family stature, if your son marries his daughter than the pattern continues, your family is still the superior “Groom” family, while his side is the inferior “Bride” family all over again.

The conflict in this not-very-good movie comes from Mahesh refusing to marry the daughter of his maternal uncle. It is upsetting to the family plans, and also an insult, since Mahesh is doubly powerful (son of the groom of the previous generation, the groom in this generation), his scorn of his uncle’s daughter feels like punching down.

Man marries daughter of his father’s sister: The second most common type of marriage. It still has the advantages of keeping the family land and connections close, but it loses the advantage of a bond between mother-in-law and daughter-in-law. And it throws the power structure on end, the Bride and Groom side in the previous generation have now reversed for the current generation.

Some variation of this idea must be what is happening in Mirchi, since Anushka is definitely from his father’s side of the family. So it’s not impossible, just less common.

Man marries daughter of his father’s brother: In most places in India, this would be considered as bad as marriage to your own sister. Brothers share more genes than brother-sister, so genetically it is not as good. It also brings with it no alliance to a new family. While a sister is considered part of her in-law’s household after marriage, a brother would still be part of his original family, meaning the bride and groom in this case are from the same family. And they may have actually been raised as the same family, with the two brothers sharing a household and the children treated as a larger group of siblings.

Prabhas and Rana in Bahubali considered each other brothers, not cousins.

Man marries daughter of his mother’s sister: Slightly less shocking than marrying the daughter of your father’s brother. The couple is from two different “families” in that each of their mothers would be considered part of their married homes, not their natal homes. However, there is still a taboo related to the shared genomes and general sense of added closeness, versus a relationship between cousins raised by opposite gender parents.

Image result for ranveer sonam
Ranveer and Sonam are maternal 2nd cousins, children of two female cousins who were raised together. Arjun and Sonam are paternal 1st cousins, children of two brothers. Arjun and Sonam treat each other as almost as close as siblings, Ranveer and Sonam are far more distant.

Man marries brother’s widow: This issue came up in the comments on this blog and I find it FASCINATING, because there is a completely opposite attitude depending on whether you are in the north or south of India. In the north, it is considered expected to marry your brother’s widow. It is a way of keeping her within the same marital family, giving her children a respectable name, and formalizing an informal relationship, since once her husband died it would be assumed that the young men of his family would take responsibility for her and her children anyway. But in the south, this would be considered sibling incest. Because your age-mate in-laws, that is the parents of your child’s spouse, or the spouse of your sibling, are considered to also become your siblings upon marriage. You refer to your son’s wife’s mother as your “sister”, or your wife’s brother as your “brother”.

Image result for light in the piazza olivia de havilland
So my remake of Light in the Piazza with the slight flirtation between the mother of the bride and the father of the groom would not work in the south.

Man marries woman raised in the same household as He: Good, normal, almost preferable. A daughter-in-law is considered the daughter of her new married house. If she is already living there as a daughter, that makes it easy. If you take in a young girl for whatever reason (orphan you raise, studying in the school near your house), and you get along well with her, once she and your son are grown up it just makes sense you would want to make this relationship permanent.

Maine Pyar Kiya, for instance, a big part of the love story is them being in the same house all the time, his mother loving her and wanting to keep her there, her loving the household, and so on. There’s also movies like Dil To Pagal Hai, Dil Chahta Hai, Kabhi Alvida Na Kehna, where the bride and groom are raised together but the marriage doesn’t work out as well.

Now, here’s the challenge. None of these rules are universal through out South Asia. It is an amazingly diverse place, I usually tell people to think of it less like America with regions and accents and more like Europe, with completely different language groups, ancient histories, religious traditions, and so on and so forth. So, basically, don’t get cocky. When you are watching a movie and the subtitles say “cousin”, don’t relax and think “okay, they will never get together then”. But also don’t think “okay, the family is expecting them to marry”. You just don’t know!

Cousin marriage is generally more common in southern films, almost the default in family style romances, but far from unheard of in northern films. Although they will occasionally soften the relationships in translation, a couple who were direct cousins in the southern film become children of best friends or the respected caretaker of the house or whatever in the northern remake. The one kind of cousin that, universally in Indian films, is unacceptable as a love interest is the father’s brother cousin. Often they will be referred to simply as “brother” or “sister” in the subtitles, but if you catch a “cousin”, make sure you pay attention to whether they are the children of brothers or not.

One of my favorite bits in Manmarziyaan is Taapsee’s cousin-brother who is always just kind of around and given jobs in the household and so on. But there would never be a thought of him as a potential love interest for Taapsee.

For example, in the movie Janatha Garage, our hero is taken as a baby to be raised by his maternal uncle after his parents die. He is raised in the same house as his female cousin, a flashback shows them together since her birth. And yet once they reach maturity, they are of course in love and planning to marry. They are first cousins, which is a taboo in the West and in some parts of India. And they were raised in the same household like siblings, which is a taboo almost everywhere. But because their parents were of reverse genders, and they fit the established Bride-Groom family pattern from the previous generation, it is expected for them to fall in love once they reach maturity instead of see each other as siblings.

Jyothika and Arvind have a cousin marriage of this type in Chekka Chivantha Vaanam. You can see their closeness, and her closeness with his mother, that comes from being raised together and married at a young age. However, notice that none of his brothers married within the family. This is not uncommon, for only one sibling to marry a cousin. Or only one of a group of paternal cousins to marry a cousin. Brings along a nice healthy diversity.

On the other hand, in the TV show Humsafar made in Pakistan, our hero is torn between two potential cousin love interests, the daughter of his mother’s sister and the daughter of his father’s sister. In some places in India, these would both be unacceptable, a cousin with a shared relative of the same gender (sister-sister) is not okay. And marrying the daughter of your father’s sister reverses the power dynamic, making the bride side in one generation into the groom side in the next. However, in the Pakistani culture the show is presenting, any first cousin marriage at all is the norm, with only perhaps brother-brother cousins being slightly frowned upon.

Image result for humsafar
And then of course there is the other cousin love triangle when the evil woman’s paternal cousin falls in love with her not knowing she is in love with her maternal cousin. Basically, all of the romances in this show are between cousins to the point that it appears to be the only people you are actually capable of falling in love with.

A little additional research reveals that genetically speaking, first cousin marriage is not quite as bad as the taboo’s paint it. There is a higher likelihood of birth defects due to the possibility of shared recessive genes. However, if you are tested before marriage and are careful, it will most likely not cause problems.

I’ve written “Tabu” so many times, I just have to play this song

The possibilities increase the more recessed genes you share, however. If the couple are first cousins with no other connection, it is probably fine. But if they are children of children of children of first cousins, the risk increases. There are beginning to be some studies of the British-Pakistani population, for instance, which has an extremely high rate of cousin marriage and has for generations and is also beginning to possibly see some genetic issues related to that. In general, however, the taboo is far greater than it needs to be genetically speaking. Marrying your cousin doesn’t mean your children will come out colored green or something. Marrying your uncle is slightly riskier, but still not a major problem.

And through out most of human history in most places, these kind of relationships took place. The upper classes because there was a power and land to protect (this is why hemophilia raced through the royal families of Europe. And the lower classes because they were less transient with fewer opportunities to find spouses outside of the community. Today’s urban world with people all thrown together has changed that, but in rural communities, and communities still tied to rural traditions, it still happens.

Oh, I almost forgot! One more type of incest, the unique Bombai Ka Babu incest-but-not-but-yes relationship. Dev Anand is a conman who tricks his way into a household by pretending to be their long lost son, only to fall in love with the daughter of household. It’s not technically incest, especially because she suspects he is a fraud. But on the other hand, he has come to love his fake parents and household and take on the role of their son more and more. In the end, he acts as a brother and helps arrange his sister’s marriage, even though he is in love with her himself and she with him.

And just to end, here is what the official Indian laws say about marriage between relatives:

(iv) the parties are not within the degrees of prohibited relationship unless the custom or usage governing each of them permits of a marriage between the two;

(v) the parties are not sapindas of each other, unless the custom or usage governing each of them permits of a marriage between the two;

So essentially “it’s not okay, unless it’s what you usually do, in which case it is okay”.

23 thoughts on “Hindi Film 101/Discussion Post: Incest/Not Incest in South Asian Culture

  1. In short – in South, marriages are allowed only if the relationship is not brother-sister (real or honorary). Children of same gender siblings (kids of father’s brother or mother’s sister) treat each other as siblings and call by sibling relation name (brother/bhayya/anna and sister/didi/akka-chelli-tangachi,etc.). In South, children of opposite gender siblings (father’s sister or mother’s brother) call by in-law relation name (brother-in-law/bava/maccha and sister-in-law/ babhi/vadina(elder) or maradalu (younger).
    In most Northern states, all first-cousin marriages are incest.

    The in-laws too call each other by brother-sister relationship. That is, my mother will call my father-in-law as brother and my father will treat my sister-in-law as sister. This extends to their siblings too. My father-in-law’s brother is also a brother for my mother.

    In the same practice, my wife calls and treats my friends as brothers and they treat her as sister. This is different from the North, where they call as babhi (sister-in-law or brother’s wife). In South, only hero’s assistants call heroine as vadina/babhi as hero is their Anna.


    • Same reason for the “Man marries woman raised in the same household as He”, they are very careful in South movies – whether the girl calls/treats the guy as brother (Janata Garage, Anari) or not (Salman’s Judwaa).


    • One thing I ran across in my deep dive into journal articles is that, while cousin marriage was mostly found and studied in the south, it is a practice in other places in India as well. But very very specific places, particular castes and communities, usually lower class, existing within a larger society that did not accept cousin marriage (unlike in the south where it seems to be accepted and expected through all strata of society). But I think that is true everywhere? Communities that are isolated for some reason from the outside world (whether it is geographic isolation, or prejudice based isolation like in the lowest caste communities in India) tend to create these complex inter-marriage practices.

      I wish I could find more history on the Pakistani cousin-marriage tradition. There is a lot written on it from the modern perspective, especially among diaspora communities, but Pakistan is made up of distinct ethnic groups and I don’t know which group had that practice originally. It’s also (from what I can find) extremely common in some Arab ethnicities, beyond the “isolated from the world and a necessity” level.

      Liked by 1 person

      • That Pakistani cousin-marriage might have come from Muslim (though I don’t have proofs and I might be wrong) – I have seen couple of instances in Muslim families in my state.


        • Trying to read through some of your older posts. . . as soon as I was reading what you had to say about “Humsafar” my ears pricked up because this is something I’ve wondered about in my own community! Like yjbasu proposed, I suspect the comfort with cousin marriage in Pakistani media is a matter (partially) of Muslim influence.

          First-cousin marriages are pretty common in Egyptian communities and wherever it’s legal in the diaspora, as is also true throughout the Levant/North Africa/Gulf. But religion seems to make a difference. My own family is Karaite (ethnic/religious minority, culturally Arabized in a lot of ways but not Muslim). And I can’t remember a single first-cousin marriage in my extended family, even though the pool of marriageable Karaite kids is wayyyyy tinier than the pool of marriageable Egyptian Muslim kids! Our religion doesn’t forbid first-cousin marriage–I expect that if I had really wanted to marry one of my cousins, nobody would have stopped me–but neither is there anything in particular to encourage it. Zaynab (a wife of Muhammad) was his cousin, though, so in Islam there’s a scriptural, presumably meritorious example to imitate. Wish I knew more.

          All this stuff is fascinating. The Egyptian Jewish community is partly patrilineal, partly matrilineal, so that already adds some really weird power dynamics when you were marry across sects, which is rare but does happen. And now I want to ask some Coptic friends how Egyptian Christians feel about it all!


          • Oh, and marrying your brother’s widow is an actual religious duty in Karaism, presuming they didn’t have children! The only way you can get out of it (which these days is the norm) is for your sister-in-law to shame you by spitting at you and taking one of your shoes. It’s this entire ceremony called “hhalitzah.” Humans are just wild.


          • Wait, you marry the widow if they DIDN’T have children? I would have thought the other way around, that you are responsible for the children so you have to marry her. Or is it that it is your family’s responsibility to give her the children she didn’t get from your brother?

            On Thu, Sep 26, 2019 at 8:39 PM dontcallitbollywood wrote:



          • This is all fascinating too! I wish there was a deeper Egyptian connection in Indian films to point to, but all I can think of is the series of love songs in the pyramids, not really culturally relevant or anything.

            On Thu, Sep 26, 2019 at 8:33 PM dontcallitbollywood wrote:



          • The political situation for Karaites has been really bad since the ’50s so I’ve never gotten to visit Egypt –but I’ve “traveled” there courtesy of many Hindi songs, lol!

            So yeah. . . if you’re Karaite and your brother dies, leaving a widow but no children, you HAVE to marry the sister-in-law unless you do the whole shoe-and-spitting public shaming thing. And the widow also CAN’T marry anybody else unless shoes, spitting, etc. The idea is that the kids you have with her get “counted” as your dead brother’s kids, or minimally that the first kid does.

            You become responsible for the your sister-in-law/wife’s welfare, so that’s a benefit to her. The kids are her “own” children whom she can trust to look after without worrying about conflicting loyalties among the nieces/nephews elsewhere in the husbands’ family. Since nobody involved is actually switching households, the widow’s family doesn’t have to worry about negotiating a dowry to somebody else, while the brothers’ family is spared the hassle of paying a monetary brideprice to the widow (which is something that you DO have to do with hhalitzah, on top of the brideprice they already paid at the time of the first wedding). The kids get something out of it by receiving the dead brother’s inheritance, which–if you assume that older brother marries first, dies first, younger and therefore lower-status brother marries widow–may well be cushier than if they “counted” as younger brother’s own kids. And it’s considered a kind of belated benefit to the dead brother, because the kids get to use his patronymic and some other ceremonial-ish identity things (the “line doesn’t die out,” hooray).

            So you can see that this is really an elegant social solution which perfectly rational twentieth-century people spit at each other (and pay double brideprices) to escape ; p


    • I was talking about this article with a friend of mine whose family is from Kolkatta and she said the same. That in the South a first-cousin marriage is common but that it is not looked at quite as fondly in the East.


  2. >>Man marries brother’s widow – partially true

    Man cannot marry elder brother’s widow, but sometimes allowed to marry younger brother’s wife (widow or not). The former is not allowed in South Hindu families because a man treats his elder brother’s wife as mother (coming from Ramayana where Laxman calls/treats Ram’s wife Sita as mother) irrespective of her age. My brother’s wife is 6 years younger to me, I call her as Vadina/Babhi and treat as mother only.

    The latter is allowed (again from Ramayana, Vali claims/tries to claim Sugriva’s wife – story used excellently in Ajith’s Vaali (Tamil) movie – have you watched this move? Same reason can be applied to Bahubali: Bhallala eyeing Devasena even after her marriage with Amarendra – from the view of Bhallala, this is Acceptable, as it would be age-wise younger brother’s wife.

    Man marrying sister of wife is allowed – remember Hum Aapke Hai Kaun

    >> your wife’s brother as your “brother”. – incorrect
    Wife’s brother is brother-in-law and his wife is sister to me.

    My parents are first cousins and I have seen at least 5 such marriages in my grandfather’s family (he has 8 siblings).


      • No.
        Part 1:
        My brother’s wife is my sister-in-law and sister to my wife. Her sister (as well as my wife’s sister) will also be sister-in-law, whom I can marry if she’s younger to me (Hum Aapke Hai Kaun – Madhuri is Salman’s brother’s wife’s sister). Her sister’s husband (as well as my wife’s sister’s husband ) will be my brother (called co-brother). Her brother will be my brother-in-law (like my wife’s brother) and vice-versa too (your question)

        Part 2:
        My sister’s husband is my brother-in-law and I am brother-in-law to him. We have 2 different words for this in Telugu – bava (Jeeja) and bava-maridi (Saala) – no Bhai. Arjuna in Mahabharata is Krishna’s sister’s husband – Arjuna and Krishna are not brothers – they treat each other as brother-in-laws.


  3. It’s interesting to see that Bombay Ka Babu was adapted from this O.Henry’s short story ‘Double-dyed deceiver’ which did not have the sister’s character at all.The implied (not actual) incenst was one of the reasons it was not accepted by the audience.So when they remade Bombay ka babu as Amitabh’s Zameer, they tried to make the romantic relationship ‘acceptable’ by introducing the ‘real’ brother Vinod Khanna at the last minute.He was kidnapped by the dacoits of course! (Vinod Khanna’s back story in many of his dacoit films).Amitabh did not kill the real heir as Dev Anand did in the original.With the real brother appearing there was no implication of incest. All our hero’s sins are washed away.But all the masala somehow took away the conflict and the sincerity in the original. Dev was a tormented soul in search of redemption.By forsaking his love he was atoning for his sins and at the same time finding his salvation.

    Tying the rakhi is considered sacred and not something which can be wished away easily.Vinod Khanna in Kachhe Dhaage (Slender thread = Rakhi) tries to give back Maushumi Chatterjee’s reputation by tying rakhi on her hand publicly.Thus forsaking his love for her forever and ultimately sacrificing his life fulfilling his brotherly duty. Rajkummar Rao in Behan hogi teri (She’s your sister, not mine) rebels against the custom of coercing the boys of the neighbourhood to tie the rakhi.Of course,he was able to romance the heroine easily because her family considered him as her brother.Plus he was too much of a coward and a softy that they didn’t even consider him as a threat.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Have you seen Athadu? It’s a Mahesh Babu Telugu film take on Bombay Ka Babu, only because the incest rules are different in the south, it’s a whole different tension. He falls in love with his “cousin” who everyone expects him to marry. He knows he can’t have her because he is not related to her, not because he is. And therefore there is the possibility of a happy ending if the rest of the family chooses to accept him and make the “fake” identity real. Fascinating way the north-south rules for incest flipped the script when it moved south.

      And for the raakhee thing, have you seen Bombay Talkies? With Shashi and Jennifer? It’s not that great of a movie, but there is an interaction about raakhi that is fascinating to consider. Jennifer, the foolish white woman, comes to meet Shashi, the movie star she flirted with the night before, at his house. It is on Raksha Bandhan and various women are there to tie the thread for him. Jennifer casually says she wants to join and offers him the gift of a watch. His wife is horrified at the cavalier way Jennifer is treating the ceremony and throws her out. Shashi follows her to her hotel to apologize for his wife’s behavior, and they end up sleeping together. If his wife had let her give her “raakhi”, would that have stopped the affair from happening? Would it have turned their relationship around? Or would it have had no effect since Jennifer did not grasp the meaning of what she was offering in that moment?

      On Fri, Apr 19, 2019 at 11:25 PM dontcallitbollywood wrote:



      • He was not able to marry her because he’s not related to her? That bit of logic really makes my head spin.As for Shashi and Jennifer, the rakhi becomes meaningless without both parties acknowledging the implied meaning.There’s an old tale of the Rajput Rani Karnavati sending a Rakhi to the Mughal Emperor Humayun for aid when she was besieged. Humayun responded but alas, arrived too late to save his “sister” since the rani had already committed jauhar. Who knows, that might perhaps be SLB’s plot for Inshallah 😉

        Liked by 1 person

        • There was a lot of angst around “oh, you think I am your cousin so it is okay that you are flirting with me and the family would approve of it, but actually I am a criminal in hiding who isn’t related to you at all and your family wouldn’t approve”. Just a lot of angst in general.

          On Sat, Apr 20, 2019 at 12:14 AM dontcallitbollywood wrote:


          Liked by 1 person

  4. You are right that these rules differ a lot between regions, especially between north and south India. In my North Indian community, there is a fairly strict rule that the husband and wife cannot have a common ancestor going back five generations. There are matchmakers who keep meticulous records of family trees to make sure this is maintained. On the other hand, marriages among same generation in laws are mostly fine. My mother’s uncle married his older brother’s widow in the 1930s. There is an 80s movie called Ek Chaadar Maili Si where this kind of marriage is a central plot point and Hema Malini’s character marries her much younger brother in law played by Rishi Kapoor.

    I also know a few couples where two siblings are married to another set of two siblings. It is more acceptable to have a brother and a sister marry a sister and a brother rather than two sisters marrying two brothers.


    • One of the articles I found mentioned a slight sibling marriage taboo, but I think in the south it was more an awareness that the next generation would be worse marital prospects because they would share more genetics, and more family land and alliances and so on, than regular cousins.

      Do you have any idea where the taboo comes from in the north? Is it just the idea that two sisters living with two brothers will lead to daughter-in-laws who are more rebellious or something?

      On Sun, Apr 21, 2019 at 9:02 AM dontcallitbollywood wrote:



      • I don’t think two sisters marrying two brothers is a taboo in the north, it is just more rare that opposite sex siblings marrying another pair of siblings, which itself is a rare thing. One theory I have about marriage between sets of siblings being rare is that it limits your family circle to one family in a society where family relationships are the main means of getting ahead. You don’t want to put all your in law connection eggs in one basket. As for discouraging two sisters marrying two brothers, my grandmother used to say that sisters-in-law are bound to have conflicts, especially in the joint family system, and you don’t want that to affect relationships in your parental home. Some people also feel like it makes the relationship between families too lopsided if one family is the bride’s side two times over. Having a brother-sister marry a sister-brother makes it more balanced.


        • That makes sense, all reasonable reasons to avoid it but not taboos exactly.

          On Sun, Apr 21, 2019 at 10:14 AM dontcallitbollywood wrote:



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