In the opening episode of the 2021 miniseries Scenes From a Marriage, a research scholar poses the question to the couple on screen: “What is the primary factor in contributing to the success of the marriage?”
The couple cross-questions the scholar to define “success”. The young scholar explains being “together” could be gauged as an indicator of success. Mira and Jonathan, the onscreen couple played by Jessica Chastain and Oscar Issac, express surprise on this marker of success in marriage and claim it to be a “low-bar”.
Closer home, counselling psychologist Paras Sharma joins the couple in their mutual disagreement. “Culturally that may be the pay-off that people want to see, but personally one wonders if someone would be happy in a set-up where the marriage continues for the sake of it staying intact,” says Sharma, who is also director of programmes and services at The Alternative Story, a provider of “well-being services”.
His observations are reflective of a pan-cultural phenomenon now – Hagai Levi’s Scenes from a Marriage may be an American show based on the 1973 Swedish original by the legendary filmmaker Ingmar Bergman, but the issues in both these versions are as real to an urban Indian couple with a certain societal privilege, as they are, and were, to both of these shows’ immediate cultural contexts.
Disintegration of marriages in reel vs real life
Bergman’s 1973 version traverses 10 years over just six episodes. It explores the gradual collapse of a marriage over this time. Inspired by the shortcomings of his own marriage with Liv Ullman, Bergman drew on experiences of the relationships that conditioned him, including that of his parents.
When this miniseries was released in 1973, it was alleged to be responsible for the spike in the divorce rates across Europe. Specifically in Sweden, the series was held responsible for encouraging married couples to communicate openly and share their grouses with each other. This led to widespread criticism against Bergman too, despite the fact that the women’s liberation movement in Europe was taking place around the same time, between the '60s and the '70s. “TV and films usually can act as a factor and create an impact but don’t necessarily serve a causal relationship. If someone is in an unhappy marriage, then this can then act as a spark,” Sharma says, putting the influence of the show, and of Bergman’s work, into perspective. Indeed, media and works of art derive inspiration from society and in turn hold a mirror back for reflection.
Similarly, with the new American version of the miniseries, one of the questions that nags and continues to haunt viewers, is the one triggered by the last episode. After their divorce, Mira and Jonathan find themselves returning together as friends and occasional lovers in secrecy. Despite Jonathan remarrying, the show’s protagonist-couple finds a semblance of peace and acceptance from each other.
Arushi Singh, a counselling psychologist in Delhi, says that this is more common – even in India – than we think. She lists a combination of factors that lead up to such a situation, including a traumatic life event, death of a parent or close family member, grief, job loss as well as losing out on friends over time. “We are socially rooted people and when we feel our social circle is depleting, we tend to fall back on options we had once discarded. This may include [a tendency to] romanticize toxic relationships and return to them,” she says. The idea is that if certain people have seen each other at their worst, then, in moments of weakness, it is easier and comforting to reach out to them, since they’re already familiar with that. This is true in Mira and Jonathan’s world too – we see Jonathan returning from his father's funeral earlier than his family expects him to, to spend a night talking to Mira, in the comfort of the old home they’d shared together.
Singh and Sharma both confirm that they have seen clients return to each other after divorce – as responsible co-parents, platonic friends, and casual partners. They sometimes find that many couples deal better with each other in these new capacities, than they ever did when they were married. “As professionals we understand that this actually may be better for them. My objective definition of a healthy [relationship] is not everyone’s subjective perception or understanding of healthy [relationship]” Singh adds.
Changing equations: expectations and realities
The sense is, as we’ve heard many times already, that there is no manual on the right way to navigate an institution as complex as marriage. This becomes even more nuanced as time, and an understanding of gender, progress.
This evolution is reflected in the reversal of gender roles in the 2021 version. In addition to this and the questions on divorce, infidelity, family planning and abortion, there are now also conversations surrounding ethical non-monogamy between married couples. With these, the 2021 reprisal of the show ensures its relevance to the socio-cultural contexts we inhabit today.
Mira is successful in her career in tech, and is the primary breadwinner for the family. Her husband Jonathan is the caregiver for their child Ava, and has a career in academia that doesn’t pay enough. Right up front, we see the surmounting tension between the couple as they discuss their identities and roles in their marriage with the research scholar, making the audience acutely aware of the frustrations trapped in the marriage.
It is critical, however, to note that even if the couples may work out their internal family system to enable the wife to be the primary earning partner, society at large does not subscribe to that. “A couple may privately root for each other in their personal relationship, but the society input doesn’t go unnoticed and it often affects their relationship,” says Singh.
The “society inputs” come in the form of opinions, comments and judgements offered by in-laws, family, friends, colleagues and superiors at work, and even acquaintances including other parents and teachers at educational institutions their children attend. This leads to marital discord. “There is a deep rooted idea of patriarchy and conservatism that is hard to shake off,” Sharma explains.
Also Read: How gender-equal is a marriage?
A build-up of frustrations from such issues can end up in problematic situations, including a resort to infidelity.
In the 2021 show, this is evident when Mira confesses to Jonathan about her affair with Poli, a client from work. Her explanation is that Poli seemingly understands the sacrifices she has to make to maintain her work-life balance, implying her frustration that Jonathan possibly doesn’t.
“A lot of times these things don’t come up as often when the couple is dating. But marriage tends to change that equation – there is a shift in expectations between both the husband and the wife, leading to eventual disintegration of marriages,” Sharma explains, as we see the breakdown between Mira and Jonathan, and later also between Mira and Poli due to their respective ambitions and work-life imbalance.
The series also briefly highlights a kiss between Mira and her friend Kate, who is in an open marriage with Peter, a friend of Jonathan’s. While there is no other reference to these individuals being in gender fluid relationships, there is a can of worms about just the sheer diversity in the kinds of marriages that can exist. The issues primarily discussed are “still a complex conversation around the cis-het couples within our society,” Singh notes. Perhaps the next step in a future remake of this show would do well to include a progression towards such difficult conversations in bisexual and homosexual relationships.
‘Scenes from a Marriage’ is streaming in India on Hotstar
Anisha Saigal is an entertainment and culture writer and researcher from New Delhi.