Creators: Zoya Akhtar, Reema Kagti
Cast: Sobhita Dhulipalia, Arjun Mathur, Jim Sarbh, Kalki Koechlin, Shashank Arora, Shivani Raghuvanshi
The opening credits of Made In Heaven, Amazon Prime's new 9-episode web series, shows us what heaven looks like. Smiling faces, blushing brides, awkward grooms, enthusiastic friends, good-natured bloopers, genuine emotions. A neatly assembled montage of what I presume are images from real-life weddings. Big, fat Indian weddings. The love here is palpable, the music dreamy, as if it were composed precisely to score memories that will be revisited in older, nostalgic times. If co-creator Zoya Akhtar's timeless Luck By Chance montage was a tribute to the invisible workers of the quintessential movie set, this is a collection of candid, in-between moments that offset the scaled formality of marriage ceremonies. It also hints at how this show might not be as concerned with the wedding-planning business as with the cultural subtext of the weddings themselves.
The significance of these credits is two-fold. First, in context of the series itself, this serves an elaborate "expectation" panel to the narrative's behind-the-scenes reality. Once the credits end, viewers are plunged into the slow-burning hell of those who sell the concept of heaven. We meet Tara (Sobhita Dhulipalia) and Karan (Arjun Mathur), friends and Delhi-based co-founders of the eponymous wedding planning agency, whose professional adventures double up as the lens that magnifies their personal misadventures. They work on a different wedding every episode – preparations of which intertwine, psychologically and figuratively, with the dysfunctionality of their own homes.
Secondly, the edited footage also passes off as a brochure, a dazzling CV of sorts, for their company. It is edited to resemble the idealistic work of a young videographer – the kind of moonlighting filmmaker who perhaps pours his refined sensibilities into the mundanity of this day job. Which is why it makes sense that Kabir (Shashank Arora), the agency's in-house videographer, is the defacto narrator, the one who rounds up most episodes with a philosophical voiceover: a la Imraan's poetry in Zindagi Na Milegi Dobara or Pluto's canine reflections in Dil Dhadakne Do. Each of them are natural spectators, and therefore front-row candidates to privately dissect the hypocrisies and hues of the world for the audience.
The only grouse here is that not every nuptial theme informs the overall narrative and at times, the farfetched office and rooted home threads are somewhat unsyncable
Kabir's demeanor, especially when he goes about recording testimonies and staging moments, is sardonic like Imraan's. But his final words are wise: a reminder that what he lacks in life experience, he probably gains in insight from the intimate, all-access peeks into different universes – social strata, minds, relationships – every month. Each wedding is essentially a book he must examine. His fascination with Jazz (Titli co-star Shivani Raghuvanshi), a lower-middle-class South Delhi intern with an inferiority complex, is the millennial version of Monsoon Wedding planner P.K. Dubey's old-school infatuation with housemaid Alice. Amidst all the posturing, both men find truth in the unpretentious meekness of those at the bottom rung of their ecosystem.
It's these finer details that make Made In Heaven a sharply observed and largely entertaining – if slightly overlong – critique of society through the perspective of inherent outsiders. Outsiders who are best placed to bridge the gap between disparate cultures, between expectations and reality, between the public perception of "first-world problems" and rags-to-riches stories. Tara and Karan are ambitious wedding planners, a field that requires them to indulge in the nakedness of people behind closed doors. Tara is new to wealth; her marriage with industrialist Adil (Jim Sarbh) is beset by his extramarital affair. Karan is gay, and troubled by the repercussions of his sexual identity. Like broken artists who excel at painting family portraits, they look like two individuals who are painfully aware of the irony of specializing in the business of designing happiness. This explains why they are unusually empathetic and intrusive, often going beyond their job description to land big-ticket weddings. They fix their clients' problems and rescue the downtrodden, precisely because creating an opening-credits montage for grateful strangers delays the hovering inevitability of their own closing-credits sequence. Not all firefighters wear helmets after all.
The only grouse here is that not every nuptial theme informs the overall narrative – be it the patriarch molesting a mehndi girl, a superstar-kissing-bride controversy, the septuagenarian romance or the murderous-politician family. At times, the farfetched office and rooted home threads are somewhat unsyncable. On the flip side, one can sense the accumulation of these episodes on Karan and Tara's psyche, primarily when they begin to use work as a medium to channel their untapped humanity and pent-up anxieties.
Arjun Mathur's performance here – that of such palpable torture and tenderness – is perhaps the last word in same-sex representation on the Indian screen
But the mature writing truly comes to light in how their characters arcs are structured. Past combines with present to unpack the protagonists over time, like a photographic film strip slowly revealing its full image in a dark room. Tara's crumbling marriage is interspersed with the circumstances of its beginning; the flashbacks are timed in a way that allows us to understand her tolerance, her conflicted conscience. Karan's one-night stands are juxtaposed with bouts of childhood trauma. His battle is internal, triggered by the stigma of his ways. But there's something to be said about the monumental manner in which homosexuality is normalized, especially in the bedroom, by this show. I don't remember when sex or affection between two men, or in fact two humans in general, was last shot with such disarming sensitivity.
I've always believed that Arjun Mathur has been underutilized, misused even, by mainstream Hindi cinema. His performance here – that of such palpable torture and tenderness – is perhaps the last word in same-sex representation on the Indian screen. This isn't the first time Mathur has played a gay man; apart from Onir's I Am, his role as a theater actor in Luck By Chance bore suppressed, angsty shades of a parallel minority. His strength, which can be attributed to an all-female writing team here, lies in how he is rarely ever a "gay character".
The series may hinge on the outsiders, but it's the compassionate gaze of the insiders that sets it apart. It's easy to judge rich people. The wedding setups do consist of borderline stereotypes, but Tara's philandering husband, Adil, is a layered character. His affair is humanized; there is depth, affinity, to the way he behaves. The makers resist the temptation to caricature Jim Sarbh's unorthodox accent; he is arrogant, yes, but also strangely sincere about the women in his life. As a result, Adil isn't presented as a bad man; he is almost a closet romantic who is simply unable to do the right thing.
Which is to say that Made In Heaven consistently aims beyond the superficiality of the surface it is built upon. It isn't perfect, some cameos (Neena Gupta, Lalit Behl, Deepti Naval) aren't exploited enough, but the series sets the bar in terms of the misunderstood trope of urban existentialism. In the end, it had to be Zoya Akhtar and Reema Kagti. There is perhaps nobody more adept at proving that, for all its pearly gates and silver spoons, heaven is a place on earth.