Ms Representation: A binge-worthy bauble
This weekly column is a rumination on how women are portrayed in cinema and this week the author writes about the Amazon Prime series, Made in Heaven
Zoya Akhtar’s Made in Heaven is eminently binge-worthy. It is designed specifically for the streaming audience and moves seamlessly across episodes with the ease of someone flush with cash navigating urban India. It tackles the kind of first world problems we have come to associate Zoya with, and does that with spunk. A lot has already been written about Arjun Mathur who plays Karan Mehra with great poise and brings the role the kind of gravitas it needs without ever taking itself too seriously. Arjun, who was bizarrely enough cast as a less than believable Rahul Gandhi in The Accidental Prime Minister just before this, takes on saffron goons as Karan in Made in Heaven. He plays a gay person who gets caught with the police while making out in a car, in a throwback to a similar scene in the 2010 Onir film I Am (which is also currently streaming on Netflix). While Arjun’s Omar in I Am is in on it with the police and ends up devastating Rahul Bose’s Jai, who is abused by the policeman, here Karan eventually ends up in jail and is abused by a policeman. Almost all of the weight for this show comes from Karan and his life’s trajectory.
The series also stars a gorgeous Sobhita Dhulipala (last seen in a great role in the Telugu film Goodachari), who plays Tara Khanna a social climber who’s ‘made’ her way up from the middle class to the world of the super-rich by marrying Jim Sarbh’s Adil. Her anxieties and insecurities about being judged, about not being born into riches, make her extremely accessible despite her ice-cold demeanour. The chemistry between Tara and Karan, who run a wedding planning firm together, is well written and never falls into the western TV clichés of the gay best friend. Karan, in many ways, is a far superiorly-written role than Tara’s. Kalki Koechlin, Zoya’s own Meena Kumari is lovelorn and is also from this mega-rich world. She is also apparently Tara’s best friend... and has an affair with Adil behind Tara’s back.
What I liked about Made in Heaven was the fact that it made no effort to make its women characters likable. Not to the men on screen. Not to the audience. They are as they are – complex, hiding their cards and with slightly questionable ethics. No one is a saint all the time and we all make mistakes, sometimes knowingly too. Their clients are also all interesting and anybody who’s been in the vicinity of planning an actual wedding, especially in our country will tell you how close most weddings do come to being called off. Tempers fly, caste, class, and patriarchy, that are all seemingly invisible in urban elite India, dance stark naked exposed to all and sundry. The irony that two people who seem to never really believe that love is sacred, and marriages are made in heaven and all is pure in love, are organising these weddings.
What I didn’t really like was how clueless the writers were when it came to navigating the arcs for characters who are ‘low class’ as Adil refers to his wife in one scene. In their bid to show how Shivani Raghuvanshi’s Jazz comes from a different milieu, they end up showing the lower middle class as a class of people you have to pity. Tara too comes from a somewhat similar household. The show's gaze is both sickly patronising (faux wonder at the ingenious jugaad skills of the ‘poor’) and obnoxiously sneering. I cannot imagine the contempt they may have had if god forbid a spunky graduate from the real ‘gullies’ had arrogated their space? In these scenes, I pictured the creators as being those rich annoying kids from K3G that snigger at little ‘Poo’ calling her oily and laughing at her accent. Both Jazz and Tara are shown as social climbers whose ambition leads them down the ‘wrong’ side of morality and they end up losing a chance at romantic bliss with people outside their class. In contrast, is Tara’s sister who’s happily married. It’s as if the authors are punishing the characters for daring to think they can marry outside their class. The light falls too harshly on the middle-class women who are consumed by guilt and avarice, whereas the rich men and women are let go with a slap on the wrist for their misadventures.
For a production that is so slick, the gyaan given out by Shashank Arora’s Kabir is extremely grating and annoying at the end of each episode. It ruins the illusion of the show. Things like “Only time will tell if she will be accepted, until then welcome to Delhi”, “That’s all it took to shatter centuries of patriarchy,” and “In India, however crazy your families are, in the end they are all that matter,” are so tailor-made for some western audience. And that the makers didn’t trust the audience enough to ‘get’ the point. This “India” line literally ruins a beautiful moment in the episode where Deepti Naval reunites with her kids on her wedding day on stage.
That despite all this, I liked the show and definitely recommend it is a testament to how strong the pull of many of these characters are, how good Zoya’s sensibilities and ability to tell stories are, how much we too love being voyeurs watching the super-rich swish around in their beautiful clothes and their homes, as they complain about the things they can't have.
Is Made in Heaven high art? No. Is it highly watchable? Yes.