This is #CriticalMargin, where Ishita Sengupta gets contemplative over new Hindi films and shows. Today: Made In Heaven S2.
This column was originally published as part of our newsletter The Daily Show on August 10, 2023. Subscribe here. (We're awesome about not spamming your inbox!)
A show like Made In Heaven rides on novelty. The outing, created by Zoya Akhtar and Reema Kagti, is an intimate look at the opulent weddings in North India through the biting gaze of two outsiders: the wedding planners. This shift in slant proved to be revelatory for the precision with which it underlined the cracks in an inherently broken system. But what contributed most to the allure of the series was its reckoning with the moral ambiguity of human nature; the neatly-timed flashbacks which revealed characters as flesh and blood people, none holier than the other. The second season, which comes four years later, is free from the burden of exposition. The principal characters are familiar, their backstories are known. On paper, this should lend the narrative more agency but it translates into convenient storytelling where sensible politics becomes a shorthand for craft.
Back in 2019 when the first season dropped, the merits stood out with ease. The makers (Akhtar, Kagti and Alankrita Shrivastava were credited as writers) used the premise of weddings, often relegated as harmless celebration in Indian storytelling discourse, to gently investigate prejudices, norms and the many transactions that take place behind, and because of, the glossy exterior. If the idea of marital union signified a sense of belonging, Made In Heaven unfolded as an examination of what it means to belong in a country like India, rife as it is with social inequality, through the two planners: Tara Khanna (Sobhita Dhulipala), a lower-middle class woman who broke her way into the upper echelons of the society through marriage but still finds herself displaced, and Karan Mehra (Arjun Mathur), an upper middle-class queer man who is never allowed to fit in. This might sound like needless repetition but it is crucial to remember why the first season worked the way it did, the extent to which it maintained a lightness of touch, the voyeuristic gaze it adopted which felt touchingly warm in its empathy, and the space it made for the interplay of the personal and the private within the ambit of the professional.
This time around, the intimacy is replaced by cold detachment as the new season prioritises messaging over storytelling. Every episode comes with a hint of unconventionality or what is regarded as a problem, preempting an issue. In a way it is not too dissimilar to the first season where themes like dowry, abuse found their way and justifiably so. But what does not add up here is the makers’ persistence in following a set format. There could be a list: a dusky bride who feels insecure about her skin tone, a queer couple who want to exchange vows against the wishes of one side of the family, a Muslim woman who is forced to witness her husband get married for the second time (because he is ‘allowed’), a US-based Dalit academic who faces micro agressions from the groom’s family because of her caste, an older couple who reunite after years and refuses to sacrifice their love at the altar of social decorum. This inclination for social drama is so overwhelming that two episodes, among the seven, include four weddings that seem to have been hastily coralled in to cover as much ground as possible.
Granted, the intent is good and the politics is correct. But season two of Made In Heaven unfolds with the moral high-handedness of a white man’s burden. It is always too aware and always too guilty. If four years back, the makers had highlighted social blindspots through the premise of weddings, they use it now to make the broadest of broad statements. The writing falters more than once. Characters resemble the pointedness of a Twitter thread. In the course of one episode, the “problem” is not just depicted but also solved. When Pallavi Menke (Radhika Apte) is told by her future in-laws that they want a traditional wedding after the court marriage, Pallavi insists that it should be followed by a Dalit ceremony. Her decision, however, compels her younger brother to come out, which makes him furious because his reality in India is starkly different from Pallavi’s in the US. They have an altercation and in a season of seven long episodes, this is one of the rarer moments of authentic emotional acuity. But when the wedding happens, he arrives with a change of heart.
This arc, or the lack of it, is not specific to one instance. By the time the season comes to a midpoint (Nitya Mehra has directed one episode, Neeraj Ghaywan and Shrivastava have helmed two each, so have Akhtar and Kagti jointly), this pattern gets repeated, reeking of exhaustion. What makes it worse is the entitlement that comes through. This season marks the acting debut of Trinetra Haldar Gummaraju, the transgender artist, who features as the production manager called Meher. As the season unfolds, the purpose of her character’s inclusion is revealed to be only to educate us. There are multiple moments where a scene is contorted with the intent of letting her “teach us”. For instance, out of nowhere (with no context or subtext), we see her meeting a group of male friends. What happens next can be anticipated from a distance. She tells them things like, “Don’t use my dead name”, “I was always a full and total girl”. Or take that scene where Tara does not address the Dalit wedding as the “main wedding” and Meher calls her out in the middle of a work conversation only for another character, a man, to make an off-hand comment about ‘too much equality’. I get the intent but the way this comes together is so synthetic that it is dishonest.
No less dishonest is the depiction of the other moment when Meher meets a man she had matched with on a dating app only for him to express rude shock at Meher not having a dick. He throws her from the car as she lies in the midst of a deserted Delhi road. We do not know what happens next, the bruises she carried, the humiliation she felt. Like the purpose of the scene concluded with showing us the pathos of the transgender community without depicting her pathos. Like a group of South Bombay filmmakers are telling us the problems of the world without realising that they are so cushioned in privilege that from their standpoint, these deep-rooted issues seem almost trivial in their inability to affect them.
This propensity to make statements lends no space for the new season to breathe. Tara is written as a more likable character. She is undergoing a divorce and there are some nicer moments of her adjusting to a life of lesser comfort. Like the time she runs her hand over a rough seat cover or steals her own expensive bag from her marital house. But they are quickly pushed to the background in the pursuit of moral high ground. Karan’s track is one of the few instances of compelling writing. As his mother is diagnosed with cancer, his already volatile inner life falls apart. There is a gut-wrenching brokenness with which Mathur depicts this character that never fails to be affecting.
His mother’s refusal to accept him even on her deathbed and his refusal to forgive her for it add to one of the larger themes of Made In Heaven: the well-meaning toxicity of Indian parents. It is also one of the fewer times the new season gives a glimpse of what it could have been when not pressured with messaging.
The other instance is episode four (directed by Kagti and Akhtar) where Sarfaraz Khan (Pulkit Samrat), the Hindi film superstar from season one, is reprised. Of course it takes place in France, of course there is a yacht but the episode is so incredible that if anything, it stands as proof that filmmakers sticking to their strengths is not a bad thing. Akhtar and Kagti mine a pop culture staple like celebrity weddings to lay out sexism, insecurity, hypocrisy and negotiation with crackling humour. The writing is top-notch, the cameos are a hoot. When a cameraman clicks her pictures from a low angle, she tells him off saying “This is not a horror film”. Almost poetically, the director duo is also responsible for one of the weaker episodes which towards the end becomes so woke that it culminates into a Women’s Day advertisement.
There is precious little to like about the new iteration even as you continue loving it. Of course there is nothing wrong in what the series stands for but filmmaking cannot be about just dispensing an opinion. It also needs to be about the way it is conveyed. Besides, for a show that seeks inclusion, Made In Heaven reveals itself to be equally guilty in viewing its characters for what they stand for and not for who they are. Thus, a victim of abuse, comes to be defined only by her victimhood. A woman shown to be akin to a ‘gold digger’ in the first season remains one. In this crowd stands Mr Jauhari (Vijay Raaz), a scruffy, middle-aged man with more surprises up his sleeve than all the seven episodes could muster. He makes the show even when the show unmakes itself.