Love is the ultimate emotion and marriage is seen as its fulfillment. However, most social practices are woven around everyday vices of fear, competition and prejudice that disallows love to function freely. We display our inhibitions and anxiety when we see a gay couple holding hands in public or when we witness an unmarried mother. Popular TV shows are often shy to engage with the emotional conundrums of queer groups, Dalits and other vulnerable sections and overtly celebrate heterosexual relations/marriages among social and class elites. The new season of Made in Heaven challenges this convention as it sensitively introduces the sexual and emotional quests of the people that are often considered as outsiders or queer by mainstream society.
The first season of Made in Heaven, was appreciated for its beautifully woven storylines, courageous narratives and good performances. The second season repeats the set standards and adds more political correctness to the narratives. It presents cases that are often considered as unconventional (same sex marriage), exposes the patriarchal hegemony that governs the institution of marriage and narrates how vulnerable groups (like the Dalit person in an inter-caste marriage) are struggling to make marriage more humane and egalitarian.
In western scholarship, marriage is not treated as a divine bond but examined as a contract between two equals. Indian marriages in contrast are often about the union of families, religious rituals and grand opulence. Interestingly, in Made in Heaven, the marriage ceremonies are not only about the expensive attire, group dances and exquisite venues but also display the conflicting situations in which the bride and groom are strained and struggling. Further, we see controversial cases like sex change and bigamy that are curated with extreme caution and compassion, endorsing the claims made by the victimised communities.
The first episode ‘Beauty and the Beast’ discusses the infatuation of Indians for the white skinned bride and how even the women are active participants in justifying such objectification of human bodies. In another part, we see the harassment and abuse of the bride, with the woman appearing emotionally vulnerable, failing to resist the man-made patriarchal order. The episode ‘Warrior Princess’ displays the overt powerlessness and humiliation of Shehnaz (Dia Mirza) in an elite Muslim family, to escape which, she attempts suicide.
Agency of women
Women’s powerlessness and dependency is the product of a patriarchal social structure, against which she has little agency and power. The second season shows us stories of intimate relations where the male characters are sometimes sordid manipulators and emotionally corrupt. They are unapologetic about their social and class privileges and therefore, ‘love’ appears like a forbidden expression. What makes this season deeply radical then, is the struggle of vulnerable female characters to find love and respect in their marriages.
In other episodes, we witness stories that showcase women’s heroism and their powerful agency to disturb conventional patriarchal norms. For example, the protagonist, Tara (Sobhita Dhulipala) is dynamic, but in a complex way. She is a deeply emotional person, but she also wants professional success and class mobility. To achieve it, she is even capable of adopting cunning methods. While such Machiavellian prudence brings flaws to her character, it is justifiable as she is contesting more powerful and aggressive adversaries. Reema Kagti and Zoya Akhtar showed their creative masterclass by presenting a woman hero that is free, intellectual, aspirational and readily flaunts her power. Similarly, in the episode ‘Love Story’, Leila Shirazi (Elnaaz Norouzi) is a Bollywood actress who displays typical feminine stereotypes in the beginning. However, towards the end she showcases her rational agency to protect her professional life and self-respect against the groom (Pulkit Sharma). Such female characters disturb the conventional portrayals of women as docile, beautiful, and dependent on male mercies.
Endorsing this philosophical texture of the series, Neeraj Ghywan’s story ‘the Heart Skipped a Beat’ is an impressive addition. We see Pallavi Manke (Radhika Apte) as a proud Dalit professor, working in an Ivy league university with no hesitation to flag her ‘ex-untouchable’ identity. Though she is marrying a sensitive and progressive Indian-American lawyer, she faces social burdens and anxieties when she offers to add a Buddhist ritual to commemorate her marriage. Ghaywan creatively contrasts Manke’s story with the parallel tale of Sheetal Menon’s (Vidya Iyer) marriage to showcase the privileges and power of the Brahmin identity. Menon is a divorcee with a ten year old son; however, we see no social hurdles or psychological anxieties as she confidently executes her plans for a second marriage. The Menon-Manke binary beautifully showcases the complex intersectionality of caste, class and gender in contemporary times and how middle-class privileges and power are often unavailable to Dalits.
The conventional institutions of marriage in India are unwelcoming towards modern reforms and unhesitatingly prioritise social and class statuses over the idea of love. Marriages operate under patriarchal guidelines and conservative cultural values. Women, queer groups and the socially marginalised communities bear the brutal burden of such an arrangement. Made in Heaven provides an assertive critical voice to the victim groups and allows them to act with heroic beliefs.
The episodes are crafted meticulously and retain the texture of ‘good intellectual drama’. On the flip side, the narratives often slip into certain elitist cliches or fall for unnecessary repetition of scenes showcasing sexual intimacy and drug abuse. However, this is a minor criticism as the merit of this series lies in its courage to reflect upon marriage institutions through a subaltern perspective, allowing vulnerable communities to take centre stage.