A ground­break­ing look be­hind big fat In­dian wed­dings

The Buffalo News - - WEDDINGS - By Bi­lal Qureshi

South Asians, it can eas­ily be ar­gued, are global lead­ers of the wed­ding in­dus­trial com­plex. Win­ter marks the height of the re­gion’s an­nual wed­ding sea­son. As tem­per­a­tures cool, clos­ets swell, and Tech­ni­color tents un­furl. With the boom­ing ranks of mil­lion­aires and billionaires across India, th­ese spec­ta­cles have grown grander than ever. For ev­i­dence, look no fur­ther than Bey­oncé’s pri­vate con­cert in Ra­jasthan in De­cem­ber for the nup­tials of Isha Am­bani, the daugh­ter of the richest man in India.

For the un­for­tu­nate masses whose diamond-en­crusted in­vi­ta­tions to this year’s wed­ding sea­son were some­how lost in the mail, there’s Ama­zon Prime’s new se­ries, “Made in Heaven,” a ground­break­ing In­dian drama made for global au­di­ences.

“Made in Heaven” is about two wed­ding plan­ners serv­ing New Delhi’s elite and all their wed­ding spec­ta­cle needs. It’s Ama­zon Prime’s fourth orig­i­nal se­ries for the In­dian mar­ket, and in the four weeks since its re­lease, the show has mor­phed into a bona fide cul­tural phe­nom­e­non among South Asians at home and abroad. The cast is stylish, the col­ors are ex­quis­ite, and the wed­dings them­selves are noth­ing short of cin­e­matic ex­trav­a­gan­zas.

The se­ries, de­liv­ered in a blend of English and subtitled Hindi, has al­ready launched countless think-pieces and earned rave re­views from In­dian crit­ics. While se­duc­ing au­di­ences with the undeniable ex­u­ber­ance of the par­ties, it re­veals the bro­ken and vul­ner­a­ble men and women hid­ing be­hind all the gilded en­sem­bles. It dares to look in­side mod­ern India’s many clos­ets, of­fer­ing a pierc­ing in­sider’s por­trait of a so­ci­ety very few jour­nal­is­tic books or ar­ti­cles on “new India” can cap­ture.

“Made in Heaven” is set in New Delhi, where the af­flu­ent and the po­lit­i­cally con­nected ex­pect noth­ing short of tulips flown in from Am­s­ter­dam and the finest Bordeaux wines for their grooms and brides. While the show of­fers the irresistible al­lure of that glam­orous world, there’s a bait-and-switch mid­way through: The fea­tured wed­ding in each episode is seen through the eyes of two cen­tral char­ac­ters, wed­ding plan­ner Karan Mehra (Ar­jun Mathur) and his busi­ness part­ner, Tara Khanna (Sob­hita Dhuli­pala).

Karan is an openly gay man in a so­ci­ety that still largely de­spises his ori­en­ta­tion, and Tara is an un­hap­pily mar­ried pil­lar of the Delhi elite. While Karan leads ne­go­ti­a­tions with their clients in what re­mains a largely pa­tri­ar­chal cul­ture, Tara is of­ten look­ing out at her wed­ding de­signs qui­etly, hid­den be­hind her de­signer sun­glasses and se­verely tai­lored dresses. In an el­e­gant se­ries of flash­backs, the back­sto­ries of Karan and Tara are re­vealed, and it be­comes clear the show is more in­ter­ested in us­ing the wed­dings to ex­plore th­ese char­ac­ters than in­dulge in breezy wish-ful­fill­ment entertainment.

The show is set against the back­drop of the cam­paign to de­crim­i­nal­ize ho­mo­sex­u­al­ity in India, and the writ­ers ex­plore the self-ha­tred and ho­mo­pho­bia that drives Karan’s seething rage and lone­li­ness. Tara has ar­rived at her perch among Delhi’s up­per class through mar­riage and de­cep­tion, leav­ing her low­er­mid­dle-class fam­ily far be­hind as she’s stuck in a per­pet­ual state of im­pos­tor syn­drome and buried shame. Tara gazes upon the empti­ness that’s now her re­al­ity. At var­i­ous junc­tures across the nine episodes, both Karan and Tara let their masks slip and re­veal the pain they’re con­ceal­ing from their clients and them­selves.

The show was cre­ated and mostly made by a team of fe­male film­mak­ers. The fe­male and queer gaze are at the heart of what makes the show so dar­ing and rev­e­la­tory. It is a provoca­tive ex­plo­ration of gen­der, mar­riage and love in a so­ci­ety still wrestling with how to blend pa­tri­ar­chal tra­di­tions with mod­ern ur­ban life. Tara and Karan of­ten leave their client meet­ings in a state of con­fu­sion, left to plan spec­tac­u­lar re­cep­tions while grap­pling with align­ments that are de­fined by dowries, dis­hon­esty and ma­nip­u­la­tive par­ents who use their daugh­ters as bar­gain­ing chips for busi­ness deals and po­lit­i­cal al­liances.

By cen­ter­ing its story on two friends who are not ro­man­ti­cally in­volved but proudly queer and un­apolo­get­i­cally fem­i­nist, the show is a far-cry from Bol­ly­wood’s fairy­tale ro­mances. It’s ul­ti­mately a se­ries about re­con­nect­ing with one­self, rather than liv­ing by so­ci­ety’s ex­pec­ta­tions of what hap­pi­ness looks like.

For­tu­nately, the nar­ra­tive arcs also make for binge­wor­thy tele­vi­sion.

Stream­ing ser­vices such as Net­flix and Ama­zon Prime rec­og­nize the sheer scale of the In­dian dig­i­tal mar­ket, and the in­sa­tiable ap­petite for sto­ry­telling in the movie-mad land of Bol­ly­wood. “Made in Heaven” suc­ceeds at mar­ry­ing the pol­ish, bravado and ex­per­i­men­tal na­ture of the “golden age of tele­vi­sion” with In­dian sto­ries.

For now, such pro­duc­tions are still op­er­at­ing out­side the purview of the con­ser­va­tive and un­pre­dictable In­dian cen­sor board, which would never al­low the ex­plicit gay sex, frank lan­guage and pol­i­tics of “Made in Heaven” to pass so eas­ily through its ten­ta­cles.

The real gift for view­ers of in-house pro­duc­tions from Net­flix and Ama­zon Prime is how they can be re­leased and ac­cessed around the world. Th­ese shows can be binged in high def­i­ni­tion at the same time in New Delhi and Wash­ing­ton, D.C., mark­ing a wel­come “di­ver­si­fy­ing” of what’s on of­fer to West­ern au­di­ences. On­go­ing de­bates over rep­re­sen­ta­tion in the United States have cen­tered on see­ing brown, black and queer faces in ex­ist­ing Amer­i­can gen­res. To now have ac­cess to sto­ries from else­where as dis­tinc­tive, well-told and re­lat­able as those fea­tured in “Made in Heaven” hints at the sheer pos­si­bil­i­ties of stream­ing’s mul­ti­cul­tural – and global – age.

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