So when it comes to dealing with LGBTQ+ themes in mainstream media, India hasn’t had the best track record.
Sure, there have been movies that deal with these issues, but not well, if Bollywood films like Dostana and earlier films like Water are to considered. When I heard that India’s soap-opera doyenne Ekta Kapoor’s AltBalaji platform had a drama with a lesbian couple at the centre, I was hopeful, but only cautiously so, knowing the oeuvre that Kapoor’s work belongs to.
The caution was well founded. Married Woman, an adaptation of Manju Kapoor’s novel of the same name (that I have admittedly not read) is a cliché ridden, formulaic and ultimately flawed series.
The Married Woman is set in 1992, and is the story of Astha (Ridhi Dogra), a college lecturer who has been married into the stereotypical middle-class Hindu family for eleven years. Against the backdrop of the communal riots that racked Delhi following the Babri Masjid incident, Astha finds her worldview shifting as she meets Aijaz (Imaad Shah), the director of a student play at her institution. Aijaz is the worldly, open-minded, Urdu-poetry reciting opposite of everything Astha knows, and she falls in love with him in the time they spend together. However, following the unfortunate murder of Aijaz, it is with his wife Peeplika (Monica Dogra) that Astha develops a connection.
The problems I had with The Married woman arise when we look at the characterisation of the two women and their relationship. This is not the first time that Indian media has chosen to show a woman falling into a same-sex relationship because of dissatisifaction in her marriage. It is a cliché that has run its course and I wish it would go away. Astha’s life is not perfect, but it is far from miserable. She is the quintessential Indian housewife, living with a husband, Hemant (Suhaas Ahuja) who is more excited about his toilet-seat business than making love to his wife, two children and in-laws who still hold to staid and traditional values about a woman’s place and responsibilities. Been there, done that. Aijaz opened her mind, and spending time with Peeplika helps it grow and for her to understand and value her independence.
Peeplika, like Astha, is the stereotype of the ‘independent Indian woman’ in that she is the quintessential bohemian artist, free spirited and representing all the ‘progressive’ values one would expect. She is confident and bold, drinks nearly constantly, and has casual sexual relationships so that she can form the perfect counterpoint to Astha’s ‘traditional’ values of womanhood. Peeplika is also a self-proclaimed pansexual who ‘falls in love with the soul, not the gender’.
The series does not really show us why she and Astha are drawn to one another besides the fact that that they are both very attractive women and they are from opposite sides of the spectrum of womanhood; another cliché that we need to retire. Why can’t two women from ordinary middle-class families fall in love?
While Peeplika reveals that she has had both male and female lovers in the past, Astha’s attraction is left completely unexplored, save for a monologue where the character herself tells us that she cannot explain why it happened. Yes, Peeplika understands Astha more than anyone in her family has been able to, and helps her on a journey of self-discovery, but their chemistry never quite sizzles as much as the series makes us think it does. Even the most passionate scenes are framed in a way that’s just, for lack of a better word, meh.
There’s not a lot that’s new in the story. The debates about religion that are the backdrop of the series are tame and cliché as well, never quite delving too deep into the matter for obvious fear of upsetting viewers. There are inter-religious marriages that are presented as bastions of progressive thinking – and yes, while this might have been the case in 1992, this is a series that is being broadcast in 2021, and the Indian landscape is as precarious now.
The dialogues, while not melodramatic, are slightly overblown, and one does wish they’d get on with it at many points.
The high point of the show is probably the performances. The actors have done their best despite the obvious flaws in the script. Ridhi Dogra’s Astha is endearing, especially in the moments where she breaks the fourth wall and addresses the audience directly as to what she’s thinking or feeling. Monica Dogra is adequate as the unpredictable Peeplika, and Suhaas Ahuja’s Hemant succeeds in bringing the right balance between being casually cruel to his wife and being just plain annoying.
The series ends on a cliffhanger of sorts as Astha is forced into a position of choosing the path she must take going forward, but I’m only about 40% interested in finding out. The Married Woman had so much potential to open up conversations on sexuality and sexual liberation in an Indian context but, so far, seems to waste it.