On Tuesday April 12, Zindagi channel’s serial Aadhe Adhoore came to an end. It lasted barely five months. Zindagi primarily shows Pakistani TV serials; Aadhe Adhoore was one of the few that had been made by Indian content producers. Since Zindagi had marked a paradigmatic and refreshing shift from the highly stylised and theatrical style made popular by the extravaganzas shown on other Hindi general entertainment channels, it was hoped that the newly emerging shows on the channel would map a different trajectory.
When Aadhe Adhoore debuted in December 2015, it raised expectations because the director Ajai Sinha was known to have directed serials like Shanti (1994, DD), Tara (1994, Zee TV) and the avidly watched Hasratein (1995), all of them featuring strong women characters. One of the female protagonists of Hasratein leaves her husband and child for a relationship that she has with her boss. In a judgmental and heteronormative society, these women held their own. The TV serials of the early nineties were similar in tone and pitch to those being aired on Zindagi. This was before the Ekta Kapoor juggernaut hit satellite television. Therefore, when Aadhe Adhoore arrived, there was hope that a space for a more complex female protagonist would be created. Such a hope was certainly kindled by the first two months of the show.
The storyline of Aadhe Adhoore revolved around Jassi (Sonali Nikam), the elder daughter-in-law of a family in Kapurthala, Punjab. Two months after Jassi got married, her husband Narender (Arpit Kapoor), the main earning member of the family, takes up a job in Sharjah. The money that Narender sent allows the family, comprising his wife, mother and brother, to live comfortably in a lovely two-storey house. When the show opened it has been five years since Narender has left, and the family has become a content and self-contained unit of one man and two women. Jassi, who devoted her days and nights to managing the house and caring for its inhabitants, had a secret that is revealed, most elegantly, in the very first episode. She was in a relationship with her brother-in-law, Virender (Rohit Bharadwaj).
No moral judgement
What made the early episodes of the show distinct were primarily two striking features: the unapologetic depiction of this controversial relationship and a refusal to pass a moral judgement on it. The early episodes sought to locate its characters within a morally complex universe whose contours where shaped by a non-predictable matrix of feelings and emotions. Notwithstanding her relationship with Virender, Jassi genuinely loved her husband and missed him. Despite their sexual attraction for each other, Virender and Jassi also cared for each other in ways friends and siblings would.
Yet, Jassi is not above manipulating situations. When Virender’s engagement broke up because a relative from the girl’s side accused him of visiting the abortion clinic with another woman, Jassi (who indeed was the woman in question) was quick to arrange his marriage with her unsuspecting cousin Channi (Priyanka Khera). These self-serving manoeuvres, however, did not stop her from loving Channi or wanting the newlyweds to have a happy life. But what she found impossible to deal with was Virender’s opportunistic vacillation after his marriage. He stayed away from her for long periods only to return and resume the relationship. In one scene, Jassi went to his room demanding an explanation for his unpredictable behaviour. “If you were not interested in me, then why did you come to my bedroom the other night?” she asks, “I was led astray” said Virender. Jassi looked him in the eye and asked: “Is the right to be led astray only yours?”
Despite the dramatic twists and turns, the show managed to retain for the most part an unhurried pace where narrative moments were sculpted from inner dilemmas and conflicts faced by the characters without resorting to the tired tropes of “exposure” and “revelation”. Sexual transgression with all its complexities came to be enmeshed in the daily rhythms of everyday life.
But by now, the viewers had started to agitate. They started posting comments on the website demanding that a “characterless” women like Jassi had to be punished for the show to set the right moral example. While many viewers wrote in to support the unconventional show, an overwhelming number bayed for Jassi’s blood. Interestingly, Virender was rarely the target of hostility from the viewers. It was the woman’s non-conforming sexual behaviour that became more and more unacceptable to the viewers and also perhaps to the producers of the show.
Therefore, in deference perhaps to the “collective conscience” of the viewers, the show did a rapid turn-around, falling back on a predictable bag of tricks around exposure and revelation and the rhetoric of family “izzat” and “maryada”. Aadhe Adhoore contrived to introduce a cascading set of plot-twists that went against the very grain of the show. It was as though the original makers had been sacked and a new bunch recruited from elsewhere.
During a confrontation with Jassi, whose “dirty secret’ she had uncovered, Beeji falls to her death from the stairway thereby adding one more to the list of Jassi’s crimes and misdemeanours. Soon, the secret is revealed to Channi, who, filled with vengeance and hatred for Jassi, catalyses another set of cascading events. The last straw for Jassi is Virender’s uncharacteristic admission that he doesn’t care whether she lives or dies. It would seem as though the inhabitants of the Kapurthala residence had been suddenly possessed by alien spirits. As the show hurtled towards a hasty finish, Jassi found herself alone, abandoned by everyone except Sonali Nikam, who till the end tried to play the role with an admirable degree of dignity and self-worth.
Accidental honour killings
In the last episode, Channi who was pregnant with Virender’s child, almost slipped and fell off the terrace ledge, but Jassi pulled her to safety. But in the process she falls to her death. In the very last shot, a remorseless and chillingly calm Channi stands on the terrace, praying with her head covered, as the prabhat pheri passes by. Were she to look down, she would see Jassi lying dead in the courtyard suffering an extraordinary punishment for daring to love a man against the diktat of conventional society. No price is high enough, the show seemed to suggest, when it came to preserving the fragile foundations of marriage and monogamy. Honour killings by accident are convenient and acceptable.
When the show started to bend under (what appeared to be) the majoritarian will of the viewers, I began to wish that the makers of Aadhe Adhoore had gifted Jassi the habit of reading. She may then have come across a translation of Rabindranath Tagore’s Streer Patra (`The Letter from the Wife’) written in the early decades of the twentieth century. Mrinalini, the central protagonist and author of the wife’s letter, is forced to confront her own oppressive situation when Bindu, a young and indigent woman takes shelter in their house. Mrinalini loves and nurtures Bindu while the rest of the household treats her with utmost neglect and cruelty. At the end of the story when Bindu is driven to kill herself, Mrinalini leaves the house in protest and writes the valedictory letter that constitutes the short story. In an essay on the short-story, historian Tanika Sarkar writes that Steer Patra may frustrate the contemporary feminist reader because neither Mrinalini nor Bindu fight for sexual freedom but Tagore has quite unmistakably suggested a transgressive relationship between the two women; one whose homoeroticism is acknowledged in Purnendu Patreas’s 1976 cinematic adaptation of the story.
At the end of the letter to her husband, Mrinalini writes (and I quote from Professor Supriya Chaudhuri’s translation):
Do you think I am going to kill myself? Have no fear, I shan’t indulge in such a stale jest with you. Mirabai too was a woman like me. Her fetters were not light either but she did not need to die in order to live. Mirabai said in her song, “let father, mother, everyone abandon her, O Lord but Mira will never let you go, whatever befalls her!”
It is this holding on, which is life. I too shall live. At last, I live.”
When Streer Patra was published in 1914, Tagore was at the receiving end of scathing attacks for dishonouring the institution of marriage. Tagore was undeterred. I wish the makers of Aadhe Adhoore had also remained undeterred.
Jassi should have lived.
Shohini Ghosh is Professor at the AJK Mass Communication Centre, Jamia Millia Islamia.