When it was released in 2003, A Married Woman, Manju Kapur’s novel about two women falling in love against the backdrop of communal violence in India, attracted critical reviews. “In depicting the inner subtlety of a woman’s mind, Kapur displays a mature understanding of the female psyche,” wrote The Guardian in its review. “Most of all, Kapur manages to blend the personal with the external.” However, unlike her bestselling novel Difficult Daughters, A Married Woman got buried in the sands of time. Now, thanks to the world of OTT content, this tender saga is getting its well-deserved recognition in the form of a web series on AltBalaji.
The Married Woman is the story of two women who, on the surface, seem happy with life but are trapped by aching loneliness. Astha (Ridhi Dogra) is an educated, middle-class housewife, married to her loving husband, happily running behind two children and obeying the wishes of her conservative-minded in-laws. Her exact opposite is Peeplikha Khan (Monica Dogra), a free-spirited, cigarette-smoking artist who deploys her boho-chic demeanour to shock the conservative Muslim society she lives in. Underneath their seemingly content lives, is an aching dissatisfaction that traps both women. Their paths cross against the backdrop of the Ram Janmabhoomi movement in the early ’90s, its flames setting ablaze communal harmony. Loneliness becomes the thread that ties their relationship – a union that gives expression to Astha’s and Peeplikha’s sexual desires.
Perhaps one reason why Kapur’s A Married Woman hasn’t got the recognition it deserved was because it dwelt on things that didn’t make for pleasant drawing room conversations. After all, does Astha deserve to have sexual desires after seven years of marriage? So what, if she is dissatisfied with her husband? She doesn’t have much choice but to live with him and accept reality. At the same time, a woman like Peeplikha who doesn’t conform to societal norms and lives life on her own terms is branded as loose. Almost two decades later, women still have to battle the challenges of misogyny and same-sex relations. The underlying reality of women bored in their marriages and their consequent extra-marital affairs wasn’t welcomed then and is frowned upon even now.
However, let’s not get tied down by the sexual elements of the novel and its OTT adaptation, directed by Sahir Raza. The Married Woman demonstrates that even within the binaries of middle-class values, lie complexities that merit attention. It shows how Peeplikha, a successful artist who is cynosure of all eyes, has to battle conservative values by herself and cope with the tragic death of equally bohemian husband Aijaz Khan (Imaad Shah), a theatre director. Similarly, Astha has to forego her own identity for the sake of her family – till Peeplikha comes along and mesmerises Astha with her liberated ways. In between, Astha is also attracted to Aijaz but their bond is broken after he gets killed in Hindu-Muslim riots.
In adapting A Married Woman, producer Ekta Kapoor has been extremely brave. To tell a story that challenges misogyny and long-held notions of a woman’s identity isn’t easy. Moreover, the plot is set amid the backdrop of the Ayodhya movement, which adds another acerbic lace to the series. Despite the presence of these provocative elements, The Married Woman doesn’t sit in judgment of who was right or wrong. It is a remarkable feat of storytelling that the series goes beyond the usual trope of bored-women-in-a-relationship – just like Deepa Mehta’s 2005 film Water did. Challenging subjects are not new to Kapoor anymore – something she’s demonstrated by producing movies like Udta Punjab and The Dirty Punjab. She now brings that sensibility to the OTT universe by sensitively portraying the complex story of two women, trying to fight societal norms.
The Married Woman is an important moment in India’s short history of OTT content. It shows that young filmmakers can adapt complex stories sensitively, for an audience that is willing to engage with such layered subjects. Ekta Kapoor’s contemporaries in the entertainment industry should follow in her footsteps and back such projects to the hilt. Only then will we see a new portrayal of women and their desires on screen.
(Vani Tripathi Tikoo is a member of CBFC and an Indian actor who has worked in films like Chalte Chalte and Dushman)