In The Married Woman, one idea of India dies and the possibility of another one takes shape. The web series is set in Delhi in 1992, during the build-up to the destruction of the Babri Masjid in Ayodhya by Hindutva mobs. Even as inter-faith tolerance in India faces its greatest ever challenge, two women take tentative steps towards a world in which they may be together without opposition or recrimination.
The AltBalaji/Zee5 series has been directed by Sahir Raza and adapted by Jaya Misra and Surabhi Saral from Manju Kapur’s novel A Married Woman. The show self-consciously eschews theatrics and hysterics, opting for a low-key approach and bathing its taboo romance in bright colours and soft-focus light.
In the bargain, the momentousness of the ardour that develops between college lecture Astha (Ridhi Dogra) and artist Peeplika (Monica Dogra) is diluted.
Amidst rising communal tensions and bouts of violence, Astha tests the foundation of her 11-year-old marriage to businessman Hemant (Suhaas Ahuja). Astha has been a dutiful wife and mother, with a routine that revolves around her husband, two children, in-laws and her job. Her life is so ordered, even the days of the month on which she sleeps with Hemant are pre-arranged.
The first winds of change arrive in the form of stage director Aijaz (Imaad Shah). The epitome of the deracinated, urbanised and secular Indian, Ajiaz charms Astha with his dandiness, liberal views and knowledge of Urdu poetry.
But it is Aijaz’s wife Peeplika to whom Astha eventually loses her heart. The observations that we fall in love with souls rather than men or women and that attraction goes beyond gender means that The Married Woman avoids being categorised as a lesbian love story in the mould of Deepa Mehta’s Fire, Ligy J Pullappally’s Sancharam, and Abhishek Chaubey’s Dedh Ishqiya.
Among the other convenient choices are the affluent backgrounds of the characters and Peeplika’s permissive personality and fluid attitude towards sex and sexuality. In this cocoon, bigotry towards Muslims flourishes (chiefly among Astha’s in-laws) but doesn’t spill over and the communal divide serves as a mere backdrop.
The sparks that fly between Astha and Peeplika take an astonishingly short time to be set off, but the house doesn’t burn down, at least not in this season. The 10 episodes end on a cliffhanger and postpone the impact of Astha’s actions, especially on her children, for later.
The needlessly overstretched slow-burning approach works the best when exploring the curious triangle between Astha, Hemant and Peeplika. Astha’s marriage is neither terrible nor terrific. As she moves away from Hemant, first towards Aijaz and later more firmly towards Peeplika, the few strengths and many weaknesses of the socially sanctioned union float to the surface. Suhaas Ahuja does a fine job as the casually cruel and clueless spouse, who condescends to his wife and dismisses her feelings as a bout of temporary madness.
Monica Dogra is smartly cast as the free-thinking spirit. There are times when Peeplika appears too good to be true, a perfectly turned out messiah in boho-chic threads who occupies a mansion in the heart of Delhi and appears to have no fixed source of income. Dogra puts her limited acting skills to good use and relies on her camera-friendly presence and comfort with the character she plays.
The device of using Astha to deliver a running commentary on her predicament to the camera brings us closer both to the character and the actor who plays her. Ridhi Dogra is admirable as the proper and cautious woman who recklessly heads in the direction of scandal. If the reasons for Astha’s change of heart remain underexplored, and the scenes of her passion for Peeplika and their glamorously lensed assignations are unconvincing, it’s no fault of the actor.
Among the rest of the cast, Imaad Shah makes for a credible symbol of more tolerant and free-wheeling times, while Ayesha Raza stands out as a nosy relative who begins to suspect that there is more to the friendship between Astha and Peeplika.