If there’s one thing Indians know how to do, it’s weddings.
In Bollywood and real-life, the pomp of upper-class ceremonies — including the age-old traditions, battling egos and patriarchal powers at play — has captivated audiences across the globe. And yet India, on pace to be the youngest nation in the world by population, is also grappling with feminism and freedoms of a new age. Activism has brought the #MeToo movement to the subcontinent and toppled archaic colonial-era laws like Section 377, an article under the Indian constitution that outlawed gay sex. It’s this paradox that Amazon Prime India has taken on in its newest original series, “Made in Heaven.”
Centered on Karan (Arjun Mathur) and Tara (Sobhita Dhulipala), two friends who run a wedding-planning business, the show takes on a wide array of issues that a burgeoning generation of South Asians is facing, including class, homophobia and sexual harassment. At the helm are three acclaimed Bollywood directors and screenwriters, who also happen to be women: Zoya Akhtar (“Zindagi Na Milegi Dobara”), Reema Kagti (“Gold”), and Alankrita Shrivastava (“Lipstick Under My Burkha”). The show, fueled by their acumen for strong storytelling and creating multidimensional characters, wrestles with its matters in a way that is sobering and — despite its subjects — isn’t dressed up with sequins and melodrama.
In one episode, a couple in their 60s marries against their children’s wishes; in another, an Indian man based in America holds a pageant to find an Indian wife. The show sets up relatable pairings and attempts to underscore the country’s shifting social awareness.
It’s this directness that makes “Made in Heaven” so appealing — whereas Bollywood might gloss over these uncomfortable truths, a streaming medium, and its freedoms from a censor board and stifling box office numbers, unshackles the creators.
The conflicts between tradition and cultural change also play out in the protagonists’ personal lives, and the show is not afraid to make its audience uncomfortable, especially when it forces characters to toe the line between being an insider or outsider. Though aware of the need to stand up for the powerless and voiceless, Tara and Karan also end up becoming complicit in their own silencing.
Tara, for instance, regularly advocates for the rights of her employees, as well as her women clients to give them the weddings they desire, even when it goes against their families’ demands.
Yet at home, she plays second fiddle to her husband, Adil (Jim Sarbh), a privileged, wealthy man dismissive of her middle-class roots. Through their relationship, the show makes several points about classism — such as the social exclusivity among elites and how other classes may perceive their lifestyle. For example, while rumors of being a golddigger trail Tara, her desire for upward mobility is neither about her husband’s money nor true love. She grapples with her desire to fit in among the elite, her finishing school education and her traditional values. And in her marriage, she realizes it’s not as fulfilling as she thought it would be.
In Karan’s journey, the creators of the show finally bring to mainstream Indian media a depiction of a cisgender gay man that isn’t a bundle of stereotypes. Karan’s internalized homophobia is portrayed realistically and with nuance — in a flashback, he outs a fellow classmate as a teenager to keep his own truth a secret and is pushed further into the closet by his mother when she catches him getting intimate with another man and beats him. As an adult, he is outed and jailed under Section 377. The police harassment he endures while in prison forces him to reckon with his past; it gives him the strength to apologize to the classmate years later and stand up to his family.
Tired of being ashamed of his identity for so long, Karan decides to file a public lawsuit against the law. Karan is then hailed as both a hero by power-hungry politicians eager to use him as a pawn and a disgrace by his mother. Armed with acceptance from his father and brother, Karan begins a long-awaited journey toward self-acceptance and fights for others like him. This duality — a sense of pride in activism alongside the fear of retribution from family and loved ones — has long played out for L.G.B.T. Indians.
Even while “Made in Heaven” breaks barriers for streaming originals, it also occasionally falters. The show falls into its own traps — it’s suggested that because Tara’s marriage began as a workplace affair that her husband’s current affair is justified; Karan’s bullying of his gay classmate may or may not justify the egregious acts of brutality he faces from a repressed gay landlord. At times the show seems to use its main characters only to make a point about the cyclical nature of trauma and karma.
Still, the series is part of a small but growing contingent of progressive and daring shows tapping into a corner of the Indian market that has largely been ignored. Many of them are from global streaming services: Netflix has committed to a wide range of original content from the subcontinent, including “Sacred Games,” its first big budget, polylingual original series out of India. And Amazon announced six new originals in the pipeline from India at TCA in February. (Not all of it hits the mark: “Four More Shots,” another recent series that preceded “Made in Heaven,” tries, but fails, to comment smartly on feminist tropes.)
Some domestic services seem to be taking note. The Indian entertainment conglomerate Hotstar (which is owned by 21st Century Fox) has pulled the plug on its on-air channels (such as Star Plus) in the United States, making its on-air shows from India streaming-only in a prime global market. It has announced its first slate of original shows, including an adaptation of BBC’s “The Office” and “Criminal Justice.”
Other local big-name production houses, like Zee and Eros, are also stepping up their originals on their streaming platforms — while Zee5 has yet to launch globally, ErosNow recently launched its own shows (such as “Metro Park,” based on an Indian family living in New Jersey) in recent months to little fanfare. (They perhaps have not yet figured out how to balance a lack of production value with the ability to make the kinds of compelling stories that global audiences are finding on Netflix and Amazon.)
“Made in Heaven” and its writers depict an increased consciousness of India’s social dilemmas, and give us glimpses of what it might look like to face them. The response to the show — in its first season, it has received critical acclaim (some reviews called it possibly the country’s, or at least Amazon’s, best original series ever, while fans hailed its progressive nature on Twitter) — suggests that perhaps more shows like it can continue to push the boundaries even further.