Made in Heaven and the Politics of Negotiation

When there are women like Zoya Akhtar, Reema Kagti, and Alankrita Shrivastava associated with a project, the chances of it going wrong are pretty bleak; Made in Heaven is a testimony to that. The web drama that premiered on Amazon Prime last month revolves around Tara (played by Sobhita Dhulipala) and Karan (played by Arjun Mathur) who run a wedding planning company. Each episode of the web-drama deals with complex issues varying from impotence to premarital sex to violence in a way that provokes one to think and question their own social conditioning. While there is a lot that has been written about the way Akhtar and Kagti have layered their male and female characters, this article talks about the female characters who are constantly negotiating with the situations that they are presented. Be it special appearances or recurring characters (Tara, Faiza played by Kalki Kochelin, Jazz played by Shivani Raghuvanshi), these women are complex and varied.

Women in popular culture are often portrayed in stereotypical binaries of good and bad, the virgin and the slut, and as silent victims or triumphant survivors, amongst many others. The sexuality and woman-ness of women have always been fitted within male-constructed stereotypes and their projections and appropriations have successfully kept the "second sex‟ as the domesticated subaltern. These notions are then upheld and propagated through the content produced by various media platforms in the form of advertisements, TV serials, films furthering the lack of emancipation and socio-cultural upliftment of women. This where Made in Heaven fills the gap by going beyond binaries and portraying women individuals having their own agency, who are making do with the limited resources available within the context of patriarchal social norms. Addressing the constant pressures faced by women to subscribe to  stereotypes, either in terms of traditional societal expectations, or in terms of subversive feminist ideals, Akhtar and Kagti beautifully capture the idea of women as flawed beings, who make ‘questionable’ choices, that are geared towards their personal agenda, and best suited to their individual contexts. 

The protagonist Tara is the quintessential trophy wife and she unapologetically uses this identity derived from her marital status in furthering her business and personal goals. It is also by virtue of this identity that she becomes the decision maker in her company. Flashbacks into Tara’s past adequately capture her transformation, where, by her own admission, no one would be able to guess her background as she has carved a new identity for herself. It is this very identity that is threatened when she catches her husband having an affair with her close friend. Apart from the obvious emotional pain that this act of betrayal causes her, she also struggles with the typical dilemma of condoning her husband’s transgressions. In fact, both her mother and mother-in-law, who come from radically different contexts advise her to accept the circumstances, as this is normal in the lives of women, and the practical benefits of continuing her marriage outweigh the loss of dignity that women in such circumstances are subjected to. Even in Faiza’s case, her experience of spousal violence is trivialized by her parents who persuade her to uphold the sanctity of her marriage. This is reflective of the universality of gender roles of women, who as wives are not only expected to overlook the shortcomings of their husbands but also bear the burden of limiting the possibilities of such transgressions by faithfully fulfilling their roles.

Women are often the flag bearers of family (and community) honour, and their conformity to these traditional roles maintain the sanctity of marriage and family. This is a manifestation of the concept of pativrata or wifely duties, which are tied to prescriptive textual models, which remain sacred.  Pativrata is the total devotion of a wife to her husband. Women are schooled to aspire for living up to the idealized notions of a wife that is supposedly the highest expression of selfhood and salvation. Thus, the concept of Pativrata in a patriarchal system becomes the mechanism and institution of control over women’s sexuality. Patriarchy is thus established as an ideology as a result of it’s ‘naturalization.’

Throughout the series, one can see the societal hypocrisy in the form of having different standards for men and women. While an Adil is forgiven for his affair with Faiza, Faiza ends up becoming the ‘other woman’ for their extended friend circle. Similarly, in the first episode when an ‘outsider’ Aliya Saxena is set to be married to Angad Roshan, the sole heir to a business empire, his parents secretly get her investigated that ends up revealing her past relationships. This is a deal breaker for the groom’s parents who expect the bride to be ‘pure’ and virginal while not having similar expectations from their son. This leads to the wedding almost getting cancelled, when Tara reasons with Aliya that society, in-laws, and their deeply patriarchal mindset are just small problems in the way of her happy life with Angad and the multi-billion rupee empire that comes along with it. So despite not being a gold digger as claimed by Angad’s parents, Aliya understands the practicality of going through with the marriage.

Coming from very different backgrounds, both Sukhmani (Episode 5) and Bubbles (Episode 3) face the dilemma of having to deal with their potential husbands’ sexuality. While Sukhmani finds out about her husband’s Erectile Dysfunction on her wedding night, it is Karan who reveals to Bubbles about her fiance being gay. There is a common thread that ties Sukhmani and Bubbles who despite coming from two extremely different backgrounds, choose to go ahead with their marriages. While for Sukhmani, her marriage is the only way to escape her current life, Bubbles makes that choice out of societal expectations that urge women to get married by a certain age. These choices that the women make reflect their agency in prioritizing their individual goals are quite a contrarian to commonly understood mainstream feminist ideals.

On opposite ends of the spectrum of negotiations lie Pooja (Episode 7), Priyanka (Episode 4) and Nutan (Episode 9). Pooja, a Mehndi girl, is molested by the royal patriarch during the wedding of his son, and after many dilemmas, decides to file a police complaint. However, she agrees to accept hush money, as she realizes that she will never be able to earn so much money in her lifetime. While Karan, as a man is unable to understand the morality behind this act, it is Tara as a woman who acknowledges the practicality and refuses to judge Pooja for her choice. On the other side, Priyanka walks out of the mandap during wedding rituals when she comes to know that her fiance is complicit in asking for a dowry from her parents, and she finds it unacceptable to ‘pay’ someone to marry her. Nutan decides to run away from home to get married to the love of her life despite knowing that such a step might pose serious threats to both of them. By transgressing traditional ideas of family, honour and shame, she uses the media to highlight her own oppression and suffering at the hands of her family, thus effectively neutralizing potential threats to the stability of her married life.

Premised on Indian weddings, Made in Heaven reflects upon the positionality of the institution of marriage in the construction of women’s identities, and it being a site of contestations. The series showcases a broad spectrum of negotiations that women constantly engage in, and their respective privileges determine the kind of choices that they end up making. This is where we see their politics with respect to sex, sexuality, gender, and violence which then intersects with their social locations resulting in different experiences. While the portrayal of ultra-rich women is shown through Faiza and the ilk, the opposite end of the spectrum is portrayed by Pooja’s character. In post #MeToo times while there has been a lot of talk about sexual harassment at the workplace, there is a very little understanding of how power differential between the aggrieved woman and the accused play out. This then brings the audience to think about women’s self-determination and the ambiguity pertaining to that. For instance, Karan who by the virtue of his privilege picks up the battle of fighting for LGBTIQ+ rights fails to understand Pooja’s action of withdrawing her complaint by taking hush money. It is his gendered and class location due to which he is unable to do so. 

With the advent of digital content in India, there has been a significant shift in the nature and quality of content that is being produced. While the concept of marriage and family has been a constant in the Indian entertainment industry, Made in Heaven can be looked at as the beginning of a postmodern dialogue between the way these were portrayed earlier as opposed to now. It is neither prescriptive in nature nor does it restricts itself from exploring the ambiguous spaces. It doesn’t entail taking a clear-cut break from how women and their location in the family and community were portrayed but rather reflects the evolution of our social consciousness as a society.

-       Dipannita Bhattacharjee and Sumati Thusoo