Cutty Snark: Made in Heaven

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An edited version of this was published in today’s Hindustan Times.

That up there is one of my favourite shots from Made in Heaven, a web series streaming on Amazon Prime, created by Zoya Akhtar and Reema Kagti. The show has no shortage of pretty shots and prettier people, but this one tells a story. The bejewelled woman reminds you of the ritual of sringara, which translates to dressing up or decoration and is an important element of depicting romantic, erotic love in classical Indian art — but here, it’s gone terribly awry. This is not a woman who has dressed for her lover. She’s dressed for herself and clearly, it’s done nothing to make her feel any better. A woman in a bathtub isn’t exactly indigenous as imagery goes, but a bathtub screams aspiration in an Indian context. It exists only in bathrooms that are aiming for ridiculous luxury or are remnants from a past when someone was trying for ridiculous luxury. In European art, the bathtub has been used to show naked women (usually unaware of being watched, unlike this Indian woman in the bathtub who is very much in performance mode) or as the site of a suicide. Except, even as she radiates melancholia, she’s alive and she’s smoking a cigarette.

Unfortunately, this is not the image that Amazon Prime decided to go with on the title cards for Made in Heaven. There’s one in its publicity material that shows the major characters seated at a long table, like a glossy, opulent version of The Last Supper. If you’re browsing through the Amazon Prime home page, you might chance upon a title card with actors Jim Sarbh and Kalki Koechlin. If that made you skip the show, here’s the good news: Sarbh and Koechlin are only the whitest people on the show, not the leads. Sarbh plays the role of Adil, a rich Delhi businessman’s son. The star of the show is his wife Tara (Sobhita Dhulipala), who runs a wedding planning service named Made in Heaven with her friend Karan (Arjun Mathur). The bad news is that if you want to follow Tara’s story, then you have to endure Sarbh’s ‘intensity’ and Koechlin playing yet another poor little rich girl who is lucky in sex and unlucky in love.

The first time I felt sorry for Tara was when in an early episode, Sarbh’s Adil kissed her. Usually, I’m a fan of seeing people kiss, particularly in Indian entertainment because we’ve spent decades behind bobbing dahlias that made kissing on the lips seem far more radioactive than it needs to be. However, there is no reason to commend the sight of Adil devouring Tara’s face. Sarbh’s attempt at communicating passion was remarkably similar to the reaction a starving dog would have to a bowl of kibble. Women in this country have enough problems without men taking a tip from Sarbh’s Adil ‘technique’.

Offering relief from and sharp contrast to Adil’s confused accent and ravenous sexuality was Mathur as Karan, who finds gorgeous men with unerring regularity and has one-night stands with them. His love scenes range from raw, mechanical to tender, showing how much can be communicated about a character’s emotional state through these moments. Karan’s supposed to be the one with the messed-up love life in comparison to Tara and Adil’s stable marriage (at least at the start of the show), but long before Adil’s missteps, Tara had all my sympathy. Those eyes, that clavicle, that grit and all she gets is Sarbh’s Adil?  There is clearly no justice even in this fictional world where people gate crash prayer meetings and wedding planners are a combination of event managers, counsellors and match makers.  

The standards aren’t particularly high, but as far as television and the web streaming world is concerned, Made in Heaven is possibly the best writing we’ve seen in an Indian show. Admittedly, the decision to set the show in Delhi is a curious one since the writers fail to capture the capital city’s deranged charm. The city in Made in Heaven is how sections of Mumbai imagine all of Delhi to be like. What the show does get right, however, is the fact that the real estate in Delhi is much nicer than in Mumbai.

Each episode of Made in Heaven shows Tara and Karan organising a different wedding while navigating the challenges of their personal lives. Very few of these situations are realistic and the resolutions are occasionally so pat that they’re laughable, but as devices, they mostly work. The show creates an artificial reality that is reminiscent of Bollywood that draws viewers in, dazzling them with gold and gloss. Embedded in this fantasy are real biases, prejudices and hypocrisy as well as characters who feel familiar.

Written by Akhtar, Kagti and Alankrita Shrivatsava, Made in Heaven boasts of a host of complex and charismatic roles, particularly for women, which is a refreshing change. The men in the show are less encouraging, but Mathur sinks his teeth (and other body parts. Insert eyebrow waggle here) into the role of Karan. Without resorting to melodrama or stereotypes, Made in Heaven presents perhaps the most well-observed depiction of homosexuality in urban, upper middle-class India that we’ve seen on screen.

Yet, just as you start falling in love with the show, the show starts revealing its own biases. It begins with the condescension that’s directed at Jazz (Shivani Raghuvanshi) for being gauche and unanglicised. Raghuvanshi is charming as the determined girl from lower middle-class Delhi, but the writing clearly seeks to first have fun at her expense and then belittle her for being naïve. In contrast is the mansplaining videographer Kabir (Shashank Vora), who not only gets to be the cool rebel, but is also given a monologue at the end of each episode. God forbid we ever understand what people (particularly women) are going through if a man doesn’t explain it to us using his words and assumptions. Then there’s the landlord (Vinay Pathak), who installs a hidden camera so that he can watch his tenant have sex. We’re supposed to feel sorry for him because he’s repressed. So what if he’s a creepy stalker who is ok with having an innocent person thrown in jail? At least he knows what he did was wrong and apologised. Right? (Ans: Wrong. If in the real world people can choose to not be creepy stalkers despite troubled and traumatic histories, then it’s possible in fiction too.)

The deepest of disappointments, though, is what Akhtar, Kagti and Shrivastava do to Tara. She begins as the epitome of elegance, but quickly, cracks appear in her façade. We realise that behind that sculpted poise are anxieties about fitting in because Tara grew up with a single mother, in a tiny apartment, with little exposure or access to the world of privilege and wealth into which she has married. She’s hyper aware that as the woman who was once Adil’s secretary, she may be seen as a gold digger who lacks class. For the better part of the show, Tara’s anxieties seem paranoid.

Until, in an effort to add a final twist to the tale, the show reveals its misogynist, elitist heart.

(For those who haven’t seen Made in Heaven, SPOILERS AHEAD.)

After building up sympathy for Tara as the wife who silently suffers the pain and indignity of being cheated on, the writers thrust a meltdown upon her. Then she confesses that in addition to ‘stealing’ Adil from his then-fiancée, Tara broke into the office, went through security camera archives, found footage of her and Adil having sex in his office, copied this onto a CD, snuck out and shared it anonymously. All this to guilt Adil into marrying her.

The most immediate problem with this setup is that it creates a situation in which the audience is expected to feel sorry for Adil – the guy who has lied to his wife, cheated on her and criticised her for her “low class” background. Even though he’s played by Sarbh, one is likely to feel sorry for him because he’s being shown as the fly caught in Tara’s web.   

More importantly, three women wrote this chauvinist male fantasy of how women callously manipulate men, unfazed by dishonesty and untraumatised by the prospect of being reduced to a sex object. I’m sorry, did I say “women”? I meant middle-class women. That is, women who aren’t rich enough to afford progressive thinking and behaviour. The only thing missing was Tara saying she loves Ayn Rand while reading out the bit from The Fountainhead in which Howard Roark rapes Dominique Francon.

Tara could have been shown as manipulative and ambitious to a fault using a variety of means, yet the writers chose to go with a plot device that strengthens ill-informed stereotypes about women faking trauma and the poor coveting privilege with unscrupulous intensity. Not only is this elitist, it’s also criminally insensitive considering the reality of how vulnerable women have become with the easy access to smartphones with video capacity, internet and social media.

While India does have laws that target those who have violated someone’s privacy online, these don’t appear to be working as deterrents as the Pollachi case of sexual assault and extortion shows. In February, the Tamil Nadu police uncovered a racket in which a gang of four men set up an extortion racket that profited from our willingness to think the worst of women. One of the four would lure women to a secluded house or hotel, have sex with her (with or without her consent) while the others (hidden from view) filmed the act. This footage was then used to blackmail the woman into either handing over cash and valuables or performing sexual favours. The threat was that the videos would be circulated using Whatsapp or social media. There is no confirmation of the number of women who may have been victimised by this gang, but it could be anywhere between 50 and 200 according to media reports. The racket was exposed when one victim came forward and filed a police complaint. Guess how the police returned the favour? By revealing the name of the complainant without her consent. The accused, you ask? Oh, they’re out on bail.

The Pollachi gang are not outliers. Over the past few years, there’s growing incidence of violating women’s privacy and blackmailing them. In 2016, Banda Rupesh, 27, was arrested for posting intimate videos of his ex-girlfriend online and sending a CD with the videos to her in-laws. In 2017, Animesh Bakshi, 23, was arrested for uploading a nude video of his girlfriend on a pornography website after she broke up with him for blackmailing her. The same year, there were at least two cases of husbands secretly taping and sharing videos of their wives without the women’s consent. There’s actually an industry of selling “rape videos” in Uttar Pradesh, and these are reportedly more popular than regular pornography. There are no reported cases of women either blackmailing men with their sex videos or graphic photographs, or uploading them as pornographic content without the subject’s consent.

This is the reality that makes the fiction in Made in Heaven insensitive, irresponsible and ultimately repulsive — it pretends to hold up a (crazy) mirror to our society while being either uninformed about or disconnected from reality. These are writers who should know better and as the way they’ve written Karan shows, they can do better if they choose to do so. However, what Made in Heaven gets right doesn’t make it acceptable for them to turn a blind eye to a deeply-gendered problem that’s taking on monstrous proportions in our society. Especially since the show clearly wants brownie points for its sensitivity and progressive attitudes.

Let’s hope they do better in season 2.