“Made in Heaven” Injects Feminism into India’s Big Wedding Industry

Sobhita Dhulipala as Tara Khanna in Made In Heaven (Photo credit: Amazon Video)

In the winter of 1999, my father’s sister married a man she chose for herself. Up until the moment she changed her surname and moved in with her in-laws, she’d lived with me, my brother, my parents, and her parents. As the full mania of my aunt’s wedding descended upon us like bejeweled locusts, I was crying every few hours at the thought of losing my first friend. What I remember most clearly in the months before her Hindu ceremony, which combined elements from her Bengali background and her fiancé’s Punjabi roots, are the endless harried trips to vendors: sari shops, the jeweler, the tent man, the sweet shop, the caterer, the bank, the card printer. Every list was written, cross- and triple-checked by the bride’s father and sister-in-law.

Traditionally, a girl’s wedding is organized by her male relatives, but my father was then living in Washington D.C., so my mother and grandfather took charge. They didn’t have assistants, cell phones, or an online registry, but they got it done beautifully, together. At the ceremony’s end, as my aunt slipped into a car with her new husband, my mother broke down weeping as she bid goodbye to a young woman she’d helped raise. I recall thinking that at least some of her tears must be ones of sheer relief, for few things in India are as stressful, time-consuming, and costly as a daughter’s wedding. And India remains a place where women are defined by their relationships to men, rather than as human beings whose lives neither begin nor end with marriage.

There is, fortunately, a TV show that wants to end these expectations. Made In Heaven, Amazon Prime’s new original series, focuses on an eponymous wedding-planning company founded by Tara Khanna (Sobhita Dhulipala) and her friend Karan Mehra (Arjun Mathur). Each of the nine episodes follows a different wedding, but the common denominator is money—inheritances, down payments, business deals, joint ventures—and how it affects every aspect of weddings, from attire to speech patterns to long-term expectations. And though the show is purportedly about the lives of the wedding planners themselves, its goal is in fact to not just challenge the patriarchy but to crush it under a designer heel whenever possible.

The show’s seemingly robust production budget and design accomplish two related goals: First, to illustrate the astonishing wealth and associated pretension of modern metropolitan India; and second, to directly challenge the institutions that such wealth bolsters and protects. One groom, Angad Roshan (Pavail Gulati), is the sole heir to a $50 billion bicycle fortune—guests to his wedding receive miniature gold bicycles encased in glass cubes—and his family has regressive expectations of his chosen bride, a middle-class writer. After the planners report the results of a background check that turns up an abortion, the Roshans chastise their son for not selecting someone “pure.” “Like ghee?” he retorts, to which his mother (played with pitch-perfect pomposity by the legendary Neena Gupta) states, “She is not a virgin.”

“Nor am I.”

“So?” she scoffs. “That’s different.”

Then there’s civil servant Vishal (Ravish Desai), who objects when his wealthy fiancée, Priyanka (Shwetha Tripathi), wants to give expensive gifts to his cousins. (Gift-giving is a common tradition at Indian weddings, but is usually limited to saris, shirts, and watches, instead of, say, ivory goblets.) Her family wants to send their only daughter off in style, but defers to Vishal’s family being more invested in public service. And yet it’s the groom’s parents who refuse to let the wedding party enter the bride’s house unless a dowry is paid: “Do you know what the going rate is for an IAS officer in Uttar Pradesh or Bihar?” Vishal’s father asks a stunned Karan. (Dowry was first made illegal in India in 1961, but the practice continues.)

Series creators Zoya Akhtar and Reema Kagti (known for their collaborations on blockbuster Hindi films Dil Dhadakne Do and Gully Boy) have blessed the show with a radically inclusive spectrum of female characters. Among them is wealthy divorcee Faiza Naqvi (the ever-reliable Kalki Koechlin), who returned to live with her parents after her ex-husband became physically abusive; she passes the time by sleeping with Tara’s husband, Adil (Jim Sarbh), and avoiding accountability for her actions at therapy sessions. MIH senior staffer Shibani (Natasha Singh) is a Delhi everywoman: a divorced, overworked, underpaid, and devoted single mother whose job allows for neither financial security nor a healthy work-life balance. Mitali (Yashawini Dayama), the teenage daughter of Karan’s landlord, is New India: She loves jazz, reads Geoff Dyer, and has never once thought less of anyone for who they love. And Shibani’s preteen daughter, Nayan (Aditi Rawat), is India’s future: Her private-school education costs the Earth, and she rejects outright the sort of fairy tales her mother draws on at work every day, preferring Wonder Woman to any Disney princess.

But it’s Jaspreet (Shivani Raghuvanshi) who truly captivates. We meet her on the first day of her new job as MIH production assistant when she asks to be called Jazz—a nickname she hopes will distance her from her addict brother and low-income suburban home. Jazz’s hopeful idealism provides a fair bit of the show’s heart. In 2019 India, wedding-planning duties extend to stemming social-media crises, digging up medical records, and convincing brides and grooms to act in their own best interests. Jazz’s proposed fixes for, say, a bride-to-be who sleeps with the Bollywood star who performs at a pre-wedding party, or a widow who wants her judgmental adult children to attend her second wedding, are initially derided by her colleagues. But Karan and Tara see their value—Jazz’s ideas may be straight out of Bollywood, but Bollywood is effective.

Perhaps most interesting is that Made In Heaven does not hesitate to portray women as complicated humans whose motivations can shock those who know them. The episode where the MIH crew plans the wedding of a Rajput prince and a pilot starts out promisingly: Here’s an independent, working woman joining a royal family! So when the groom’s father, an erstwhile king, sexually assaults the teenage henna artist at the wedding, we’re set up to be sure that this feminist bride and her husband will not let this crime go unpunished. Instead, she looks the young woman, Pooja (Mallika Singh), in the eye and says, “I can give you Rs. 2 lakhs.” (That’s about $2,860.) The girl is silent for a moment before countering with “5 lakhs, cash.” The bride agrees to the larger payoff, already earning her keep as the newest janitor of the patriarchy; but equally illuminating is the fight between Tara and Karan when the transaction is over.

Karan is furious that Pooja let her silence be bought, and outraged that Tara stood by and let it happen. “What the hell happened to you?” he bursts out. Tara explains that she can’t condemn a young, poor woman for a practical decision, but he continues: “Do you realize on how many levels this is wrong? You’re a woman, for god’s sake!” “Which is why I will not judge her!” Tara snaps back.

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But my favorite of the show’s women might be Asma (Trisha Kale), the accountant daughter of MIH’s elderly office peon, Khalil (Vijay Gupta). Tara and Karan, blanching at Khalil’s plans to take out a massive loan to fund his daughter’s wedding, decide to pick up the tab. The groom is a Bengali Hindu, and in the average Hindi film, a Muslim girl marrying a Hindu boy would be where the entire plot begins and ends. But when you’re dirt poor, your faith doesn’t matter; when you have nothing, what’s there to fight about? The couple’s simple rooftop wedding, lit by happiness and the low winter sun, is one of the sweetest sights in the entire show. If only every wedding could be this drama-free.

This is not to shortchange well-written male characters. Made In Heaven would be better off investing more of its time in the transformative powers of Vijay Raaz, who plays a dangerous, intelligent moneylender named Jauhari. Best known for his 2001 star-making role (as a wedding planner, incidentally) in Mira Nair’s Monsoon Wedding, he’s the rare performer who’s both the best part of whatever he’s in, plus his presence improves the quality of the work tenfold (the only other actors capable of these tasks are Walton Goggins or the late Philip Seymour Hoffman). Watching Raaz underplay Jauhari and still manage to captivate each frame he’s in makes the show unmissable.

Over the course of my life in India as an avid TV viewer, I do not recall seeing a single queer character onscreen, which makes it even more gratifying that any Indian with an Amazon Prime subscription now has access to a complex, honest portrayal of homosexuality in Karan Mehra. From the homophobia of his schoolmates to the heterosexual paradigms of the wedding industry, Karan is never far from the brute force of intolerance. But Arjun Mathur’s work on Made In Heaven is entrenched in the unequivocal need for self-possession. The audience feels every slur that Karan must not acknowledge, every bribe he must dole out, every joyful burst of pleasure that almost instantly sublimates itself to fear. I wept seeing that prejudice infect the lives of people in Karan’s orbit, in a storyline that finds him jailed for his sexual orientation.

His closeted landlord Ramesh Gupta (an extraordinary Vinay Pathak, whom I’ve waited all my life to see in such a role), caught red-handed by his wife with footage from a camera he hid in Karan’s apartment, turns the film over to the police because not doing so says more about him than he’s willing to acknowledge. Every cell in my body rose in fury when the police deem that the violation of his privacy as a violation of Article 377. After he’s bailed out by Tara’s family, Karan decides to publicly speak out for LGBTQ rights, and Made in Heaven takes time to establish Karan’s familial, emotional, and physical isolation as a gay man. The camera pauses to respect his empathy, revels in his newfound confidence, and captures his glowering, conservative father declaring to the press that his son has done nothing wrong.

Made In Heaven does not hesitate to portray women as complicated humans whose motivations can shock those who know them.

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It’s ultimately his father’s unhesitating support that causes Karan to cry out—not so much in anger but in exhaustion—that he cannot continue living like this. The fact that his yells are aimed at his out-of-frame family but spoken directly into the camera helps the message land with a profundity I’ve never felt in Indian pop culture. Furthermore, we find out in the episode’s pre-credits statement that, in the months since Made In Heaven finished filming, Article 377 has been found unconstitutional and overturned by the Indian Supreme Court.

The Indian wedding—generally four to seven days long, with daily events featuring song, dance, rituals, and games—is a tradition that dates back thousands of years. In ancient times, since you weren’t going to educate your daughter or leave her property or money, a grand wedding was your biggest obligation in her lifetime. Made In Heaven understands the hold of this sacrament over the collective Indian imagination, and simply yet forcefully asks its audience to rethink priorities. What if a gay man could expect the same joyful pomp at his wedding that any cishet couple enjoys at theirs? What if life was not measured by a nuptial price tag but by the self-actualization and agency of young women, no matter what they decide to do with their lives?

Made in Heaven’s dialogue is almost completely conducted in English—according to my aunt, who now has two high-school–age boys of her own, Delhites really do speak mostly in English and say “fuck” as often as Delhi drivers use the car horn—and while that makes it eminently watchable for viewers all over the world, it’s my one quibble with the show. Like Tara, Karan, and their colleagues, I believe that India should thoroughly overhaul its patriarchal customs, commit to respecting women, and wholeheartedly embrace queer representation. But it shouldn’t forget the wonders of native languages: Hindi is marvelously flexible, and both Punjabi and Bengali are witty and rhythmic. I watch Indian cinema and TV as a way to lessen the distance between myself and my home country, and I wish the show would do the same. Either way, I await Season 2 with high hopes and expectations—much like a bride.

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by Nandini Balial
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Born and raised in New Delhi, India, Nandini emigrated to Texas with her family in 2000. She graduated from NYU in 2014. Her work has appeared in The Week, Lit Hub, AV ClubMen’s Journal, Vice, LA Review of Books, The New Republic, and Pacific Standard, among others. She lives and works in Fort Worth, Texas.