Director: Sahir Razas
Writer: Jaya Misra, Surabhi Saral, Aparna Nadig
Producer: Juggernaut Productions,
Are you a bad person if you cheat on your husband? Are you a bad person if you cheat on your husband, given that he's awful? Are you a bad person if you cheat on your husband with a person of your same sex, given that he's awful? Are you a bad person if you cheat on your husband with a person of your same sex, given that he's awful, and given that you have young children emotionally dependent on you? If the answer to these questions is different, the conclusion will be the following —morality is relative. Its slippery nature is a great reason to think about infidelity with nuance (does penetrative sex have more at stake than non-penetrative sex?) , with more gaping questions than answers. ALT Balaji steps into this messy terrain with the pride flag to see if it can shift perspective, but it falls prey to its own formulaic feminism.
The Married Woman, based on Manju Kapoor's namesake book, is about two married women, Astha Kapoor (Ridhi Dogra), a lecturer, and Peeplika Khan (Monika Dogra), an America-returned artist, who find affection for one another that bleeds effortlessly into attraction—sensual, then sexual, and dare I say, spiritual. Peeplika is quickly widowed within a span of two episodes. Her to-be-dead husband and Astha work closely to produce a politicized re-telling of Romeo and Juliet at their college. It is the early 90s Delhi. There is a caterwauling backdrop of Hindu-Muslim tensions post the Babri Masjid demolition, but the entirety of this backdrop is in service of its Muslim characters—to frame their death, their grieving, and their involvement. There is narrative amnesia where this backdrop just comes and goes, suddenly a curfew, suddenly a world in which it didn't exist, much like Astha's two kids, who tread the periphery of the story without being involved in it unless summoned. Then there is Astha's breaking of the fourth wall, as inconsistent as the show's aspect ratio, which widens and contracts per will. The only thing that remains intact is the emotional core of the 10 part series—the love that blooms between Astha and Peeplika, and Astha's distaste for her husband, the king of toilet seats, Hemant Kapoor (Suhaas Ahuja). But even with Astha's love, the interest is not in their love as much as how their love is hidden from and transcends the shackles of society. It's a view of love that is predicated on external not internal barriers.
There is something very cookie-cutter about the first flush of same-sex love the way it is shown. The first time Astha and Peeplika kiss, Astha feels a guilt that she's only able to wash over by having mediocre sex with her husband. Even in Bombay Begums, the lesbian love sub-plot goes through the same motions, where homosexual guilt is drowned in heterosexual sex. In both cases, the stain of guilt washes out eventually, yielding to it entirely.
With same-sex love, we are thus where we were with heterosexual love in the 90s, where the story was about how they got together. When the barriers of family, caste and class soon became cliche, life post love became the next heterosexual bastion. Same-sex love, or even queer love however is still stuck in the cliche of societal opposition. This is not to say that societal opposition no longer exists; it does. But art must find a way to stay ahead of society, or even if it wants to stay with it, then it must be embroiled in it, and muddy the waters. Here, neither happens. Astha and Peeplika's being together is entirely about the society's opposition to them. Both Astha and Peeplika become flat characterizations—one is caged with baggage and dependents, and one is free with no parents to worry about or a living spouse to be cuckolded. This also explains why the series, like the book, ends where it does, an openness where we know what happens to each character, but we are not sure if the character will survive their decisions. This is because we don't know who these characters are bereft of the conflict.
Both Ridhi Dogra and Monika Dogra embody this flatness with deep feeling, the long gazes, while tiring, are infused with a sense of passion. Monika Dogra's inconsistent American accent can be forgiven like the narrative randomness of the series, where an episode ends with a confrontation, and the beginning of the next episode has the same confrontation in a different context and lighting. The fabrics and the paintings that adorn their lives help. It is almost annoying to see how much they constantly want to tear at each other's clothes, but of course the carnal part of the desire is not the centerpiece here, it is the "spiritual" aspect of their love, which is also, unfortunately, the most tiring to sit through. This explains the fatigue that the latter half of the series imbues, once the conflict runs on a stuck loop of fear-fun-fortitude.
There is a strange conviction at the center of The Married Women—where it is the soul and not the body that loves, and it is another soul and not another body that is loved, where people need to be saved, and where people offer one another freedom like advice. This, of course, has all the trappings of popular culture, because everyone loves to talk like this, like the lyrics of a popular Mithoon song. Who doesn't love some Faiz to be thrown at their faces for pillow talk? But if only they would listen to themselves, how infantile they sound, maybe they would back-track. If only Astha, herself a lecturer of literature who constantly asks for rewrites from her students, would have thought through the banality of the stuff she hears and says. It would have made for a story that is not just deeply felt, but also deeply effective.