Directed by Sahir Raza, ‘The Married Woman’ was released on Alt Balaji and Zee5 on International Women’s Day celebrating two queer woman. Based on Manju Kapur’s novel of the same name, the show tells the story of an unfulfilled housewife Aastha (Riddhi Dogra) who comes to terms with her sexuality when she interacts with an artist named Peeplika (Monica Dogra). It is set in Delhi, against the backdrop of the Babri Masjid riots of the 90s. Aastha is an overburdened house-wife and an English professor at a college in Delhi. Coming from a quintessential Balaji Telefilms family, Aastha realises being the Tulsi of the house is not enough for her.
Aijaz (Imaad Shah) – who rewrites and directs Aastha’s college-play-take on ‘Romeo and Juliet’- is central in bringing this awakening. He is a vocal liberal who hopes to break boundaries that propagate the ‘us vs them’ mentality. Aastha starts falling for him; through him she tastes freedom. After his untimely death, she interacts with Aijaz’s widow, Peeplika – an artist with an equally liberal mindset who sees through Aastha’s discontent with her marriage. Peeplika identifies as pansexual, and believes in connecting with the soul: “Main ruh se mohabbat karti hu… gender se nahi.” By being herself, Peeplika shows Aastha an alternative to the dictates of heteronormativity.
Aastha questions the purpose of her relationship with her husband, Hemant (Suhaas Ahuja). She is struggling with the monotony that a settled married life brings only after a few years. Their lives have become so unvarying that they’ve even set a designated day for sex. She feels that her husband is disinterested in knowing her and doesn’t value her as a person who has something to contribute. By becoming a daughter, wife, mother, daughter-in-law she has lost herself along the way. When she starts falling for Peeplika, she goes through a period of self-introspection. It’s almost as if Peeplika holds a mirror in front of Aastha, and she finally relieves herself of familial relationships and expectations.
‘The Married Woman’ depicts the journey of Aastha’s emancipation through queer love. Although she doesn’t take the complete flight of freedom, there are many small empowering moments. For instance, in the initial few episodes, her hair is tied in a tight bun, but as the season progresses she starts wearing her hair down, reflecting her journey from restriction to liberation.
The show breaks the fourth wall – however, compared to other shows that use this narrative technique, it is used less frequently and becomes unnecessary. Aastha wears her heart on her sleeve, so the audience doesn’t need her to spell out her exact feelings. The message of acceptance and breaking societal shackles, although well-intended, comes off as preachy occasionally. It is written in an extremely straightforward way, with simplified dialogues, in an attempt to constantly spoon-feed viewers what the characters are feeling. In the words of Aijaz, “Script kharab nahi hai, bas aur achi ho sakti hai.”
Although it is set in the early 90s, the set design and the costumes tell a different story. Peeplika’s palazzos and changing hairstyles make her look like she is a South Delhi girl of todays’ times. The colour palette tries to give a retro look but fails to do so, as they mismatch with the contemporary interiors of the houses.
While Ridhi Dogra does a decent job filling Aastha’s shoes, Monica Dogra’s character unfortunately becomes the cliched ‘modern woman’ who is outspoken, drinks alcohol and breaks rules. But, that is less Monica Dogra’s fault than it is TV-writers who only have one idea of the ‘modern woman’. Her accented Hindi does take the intention out of most dialogues, though. The supporting cast – mostly characters in Aastha’s family – is exceedingly dramatic and replicates the patriarchal family of Ekta Kapoor’s K-series.
The show walks a thin line between breaking boundaries and propagating communal and gendered prejudices. Although it tries to show us that romance is political and love will bring about revolution, we don’t see it reach its full potential. The one Hindu-Muslim wedding becomes a statement of the show’s liberal sensibilities but, the stereotypical associations tied to Muslims in the show reveal the misrepresentation. Even the backdrop of communal riots is never fully moulded in the show; it merely becomes a plot-furthering event and loses its purpose.
Peeplika and Aastha’s relationship doesn’t get enough build up; one moment, they are bonding over their love for Aijaz and the next, Peeplika starts flirting with Aastha. A longer build-up would’ve perhaps helped the audience feel connected to their relationship. The trajectory of their affair lacks real chemistry, which is disappointing, given the limited number of Indian, queer stories. It attempts to bridge the gap between homophobia and acceptance, but doesn’t really accomplish it in a way that’s fulfilling.
Season Two is set to release some time next year, where we will hopefully see Aastha take on her emancipation fully and resolve some lingering conflicts. Although the women-love-women story on an Indian OTT platform like Alt Balaji and Zee5 is a step in the right direction, ‘The Married Woman’ is just a start and definitely not an exemplary representation of queer stories.