Watching a new production of the Mohan Rakesh classic Aadhe Adhure, one is struck by the timelessness of the play. Considered among the most important modern Indian plays, it was written fifty years ago, when a character like Savitri was unthinkable — an unconventional woman, who spoke her mind. It is startling how the play remains as pertinent today as it was then; maybe just a little less shocking.
In the interim half century, a lot has changed for Indian women, but for many nothing has changed. Even today, a wife and a mother is supposed to be satisfied with her lot, because that about as much as society demands of her. Even women who have successful careers are expected to look after the home and be happy that they are “allowed” by their husbands and in-laws to work outside the home. But for a woman, who needs to work for financial reasons, life can be a double burden of earning to feed the family, and doing the household chores, too.
When Rakesh wrote Aadhe Adhure, women were not “allowed” to complain about their condition. Films and popular literature idolised the woman who made sacrifices for her family, and punished the woman who stepped out of the protective circle of the marital home. But, Savitri (played brilliantly by Komal Chhabria in the new play directed by Ashok Pandey), does not want to be put on a domestic goddess pedestal. She wants to escape the stifling marriage to a weak, unemployed and abusive husband, Mahendra, but her feet are bound by the shackles of duty towards her three children. But even while she is with Mahendra, she looks for an ideal relationship; for a man who will free her from the sordid helplessness of her dead marriage.
It would be easy to blame Savitri for her dysfunctional family — the son, Ashok, is a wastrel, who dropped out of college and won’t look for a job; the older daughter Binni eloped with her mother’s lover, Manoj, and keeps coming back home, because she is unable to find happiness in a marriage of compromise. She is unable to articulate the cause of her malaise, but that her husband has said there is something unsavoury in the house that she has carried with her, and she does not know what it is. The younger daughter, the adolescent Kinni, is constantly irritable because when she needs love and guidance, she is neglected by her parents and brother. As she tearfully says, she is expected to be a child or a grown-up according to what is convenient at the moment.
However, it is the lack of mutual respect and consideration for one another that seems to be the cause of the trouble in the household. Savitri, who works at an underpaid job with a sleazy boss, Singhania, returns home tired and frustrated to find the house a mess, and she is expected to solve everyone’s problems. In the opening scene, she frantically cleans the living room, because she has invited the boss home for tea, so that she can plead with him for a job for Ashok. What will be expected of her in return is unsaid, but her husband leaves the house before Singhania arrives and Ashok bristles with rage.
The visit and its unpleasant consequences lead Savitri to conclude that she has done enough for her family and it is time she lived for herself. She contacts a former boyfriend Jagmohan, who comes in all smiles and glibness, but is not the knight she wants him to be. Her husband’s friend, Juneja, who Savitri blames for Mahendra’s downfall, comes to tell her to release her husband from her grip, to which Savitri’s bitter rejoinder explains just what went wrong with her life, and perhaps, why.
Interestingly, Rakesh wrote all the men in Savitri’s life to be played by the same actor — two of them, Manoj and, Shivjeet, the intellectual, are referred to but not seen on stage. Like a modern-day Draupadi, Savitri seeks different things from different men, because one man cannot have every quality she desires in a husband.
When the play ends, in spite of her efforts, Savitri is still not out of her hell, but at least, she is aware that she is in one, and perhaps one day, she will be able to get out of it.
Like Savitri, there are millions of women in loveless marriages, who prefer the security of social approbation, to the uncertainty of life outside the home. They make the excuse of duty and family and ‘what will people say’ to avoid the search for their personal goals.
Mohan Rakesh was perceptive enough to capture the desperation of Savitri (ironically given the name of the woman from mythology, who saved her husband from the jaws of death), fifty years ago. But, half a century later, the wife in a recent film Angrezi Mein Kehte Hain does not take the escape route she has been offered and returns to a surly husband, who has presumably learnt to express love. In the new Madhuri Dixit starrer, Bucket List, a devoted housewife is told she can have her limited independence “given” by her husband provided she looks after the home. And unlike Savitri, she dances with joy and does not even realise that she is in a gilded cage, the key of which is within her reach.
Deepa Gahlot is a Mumbai based columnist, critic and author.