The closest approximation of an outsider is an amphibian. She can live on land and in water – in essence, inhabit two different worlds – but there’s a small twist: humans prioritise homes, one set of people and surroundings always feel more natural. The trick then is to figure out the unfamiliar – understand its coded language, social customs, behavioural tics – because feeling left out is a sorry embarrassment, like lip synching a song in a party you have not heard before.
Made in Heaven, an Amazon series conceptualised by Zoya Akhtar and Reema Kagti (and directed by Akhtar, Nitya Mehra, Prashant Nair and Alankrita Shrivastava), tells a story of amphibians who have learnt to swim but are still anxious of water. Set in Delhi, spread across nine episodes, Made in Heaven revolves around Tara (Sobhita Dhulipala) and Karan (Arjun Mathur), and their eponymous wedding planning company, targeting the city’s uber-rich. Each episode introduces a new family and a story, with a set of recurring characters – the leads’ families and friends and the employees of Made in Heaven – who complete the series.
As Karan and Tara navigate the competitive wedding planning market, we slowly understand their backstories through smart, taut flashbacks, rendering them complex and compelling. Karan, the son of a wealthy businessman, has to his credit a recent failed company, debts to his father and a loan shark, and a life shrouded in secrecy and shame: he’s a homosexual. Tara, on the other hand, belongs to an impoverished part of Delhi. After first working as a support staff in the company of a business tycoon, she climbs the ladder of social mobility by marrying its heir, Adil (Jim Sarbh).
There’s a constant underlying dread as the series opens, as if legitimising our voyeurism. The first two episodes, directed by Akhtar, set the mood – the slow, languorous shots, especially, do a clever flip, gifting its mainstream premise an art-house robe – but, at the same, also slips up: the expository dialogues jar; the longish voiceovers by the detached photographer Kabir (Shashank Arora) spout tired truisms; some crucial plot turns, made predictable by on-the-nose foreshadowing, seem unconvincing.
But something else is underway, too: the characters eschews labels and remain true to themselves; the mood is consistent; the power differential, subtly and smoothly materialised, underlines the central tension; and the story unfolds on its own terms, occasionally handing you signages, through flashbacks and terse dialogues, that demystify this maze. Moreover, these portions feel ‘true’, presumably because Akhtar (besides Kagti and her, the third writer is Shrivastava) is on a familiar turf: seeing this world from a tower so tall that the rest of the world shrinks dot-like, magnifying the hypocrisies, prejudices and retrograde mindsets of the affluent.
This kind of storytelling has taken its time. The gilded north-Indian class, dominating mainstream filmmaking, has depicted its own world, and people, in self-congratulating terms. They have always been inherently virtuous, and their central conflicts – failed romances or familial misunderstandings – generic and hollow. None of those movies cared for contemplation or self-interrogation; the healing powers of the Hindu happy families ultimately prevailed.
Most audience members, much poorer than the characters on screen, embraced those stories with alarming enthusiasm – the aspirations tied to wealth and class, and the moral pedestals of the privileged, remained unquestioned.
It took an art-house Monsoon Wedding (2001) to fashion a counter-narrative. But even nearly two decades later, its true successors are hard to find (some sublime moments in Akhtar’s previous works, such as Luck By Chance (2008) and Dil Dhadakne Do (2015), do come close). A longer format – the cumulative runtime of the series clocks around 450 minutes (the length of three Hindi films) – prods the makers to be more ambitious, placing them on firmer, freer grounds, allowing them to tell a story in its true expanse.
This slow unravelling, introducing new subplots and themes, spotlights some crucial truths, especially those considered commonplace for mainstream fiction. Take, for instance, Jaspreet Kaur (Shivani Raghuvanshi), or “Jazz”, a girl from Dwarka working amid South-Delhi elites. She’s an ‘enthu cutlet’ of sorts – one of the many subtle markers of class divide – who craves social acceptance. She is easy to please, asks a lot of questions, and accepts things on face value.
Then there are other giveaways. She wears a bling dress to a casual get together. She is embarrassed by her modest locality, lying to a colleague who is dropping her off to conceal its location. She doesn’t fully get the vocabulary of casual relationships – the different ways in which intimacy is treated as an elastic band.
How should she fit in, where should she begin? By revamping her playlist first, replacing Mohit Chauhan with Prateek Kuhad, Jagjit Singh with Thelonious Monk? What films should she watch? When should she speak, when should she not? What kind of humour is most appropriate? The grooming classes of West Delhi, which Tara attended regularly, can teach her table manners and amiable gestures (“no elbows on the table”, “smile after sipping wine – even if you don’t like the taste”), but there are no verbal manuals for the schools of cool whose indifference and rejections are silent.
Tara and Karan are, similarly, trying to find their own niche. She finds impressive initial success, by gaming the system, but that system – a closed, unforgiving loop – eventually catches her off-guard, destroying her well-laid plans. Karan, harassed due to his sexual orientation, desires a more literal home. These characters, the series hints, can upturn their woes if they erase their identities. This demand, unfair and perpetual, outsizes them at all times. On such a road, replete with dead ends and false exits, a happy end looks like a ludicrous oxymoron.
And yet, the moment you think you’ve characterised an individual, the show cuts to a segment that either damns or redeems them. (Even the least likeable character, Adil, keeps you confused for a long time.)
These artistic flourishes materialise through ‘vintage Akhtar-Kagti moments’ – usually few lines of dialogue or a silent scene – which, unfolding life-like and without calling attention to itself, is a melange of contradictions, accommodating irony, misfortune, and humour. The opening credits of Luck By Chance, for example, where a female junior artist, dressed as an angel, is about to enter a run-down loo on a film set. Or a sex worker, in Talaash (2011), applying make-up on her bruised face. Or a dejected housewife, in Dil Dhadakne Do, telling her philandering husband, looking concerned in a hospital ward, “There’s no one around. Why are you acting?”
Made in Heaven is informed by several similar scenes. It’s easy to dismiss Karan’s landlord, Ramesh Gupta (Vinay Pathak), another misfit in this series, as a shady, nosy figure. But he gets one scene to defend himself, where he admires Karan for his courage, and that’s enough. Ramesh hasn’t become a better person all of a sudden, but it’s easier to understand him now – this moment of recognition (present elsewhere in the series, too) feels like relief, for we know that, in a different circumstance, the same oppressor can be, or could have been, the oppressed.
Or, for that matter, when we see Tara’s best friend, Faiza (Kalki Koechlin), justifying her twisted life choices in front of her therapist. What do we feel for her in that instant: sympathy, disgust, pity? One thing is for certain either way: Faiza, in her most vulnerable state, isn’t too different from us.
But a sordid truth hangs over these characters at all times – the ultimate trick perpetuating inequality – that one day things would be better, that they would be on the other side. So the hopeful amphibian, true to her compulsion, slips into the water again, and just when the negotiations seem bearable, it begins to rain.