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A feminist takedown of marriage

Relationships, respectability, and marriages that are not made in heaven. A dialogue on the recently released web series that has everyone in India and Pakistan talking

A feminist takedown of marriage

NATASHA: I haven’t been able to get Made in Heaven out of my mind since I binge-watched all 9 episodes in a single sitting. The following night, I tucked myself in early just to rewatch the first few episodes. I wanted to be within the world of the series again, or if I wasn’t there then I wanted to discuss it ad nauseum with the people in my own life. Some context: Made in Heaven is a web series that premiered on Amazon Prime last month. Created by Zoya Akhtar and Reema Kagti it chronicles the lives of Tara Khanna and Karan Mehra, wedding planners who run a startup agency in Delhi. But it’s about so much more than the stressful, superficial world of society weddings. It’s about marriage in modern India and all its discontents

SADIA: It’s such an instruction in storytelling and also in subverting within the mainstream. Every project by Zoya-Reema has been about shaking things up, both creatively and politically. Here, they lure us in with the glittering world of sexy rich people and their love triangles, only for us to realise, oh wait, they’re taking on the patriarchy through its biggest institution: heterosexual marriage. And they’ve used it to talk about class, queerness, monogamy, custom, pleasure, friendship! They’ve built a world primarily operating within privilege to critique privilege itself. As with Gully Boy, I think this duo is really committed to levelling up Indian cinema: offering all the usual drama and explosive narrative that we associate and expect from the mainstream, except replete with not-so-subtle, incredibly self-aware social commentary.

NATASHA: And I think the secret behind how they manage to jam so much social commentary into their work is the way they pay attention to every character. When I ask myself why I can’t stop thinking about the series, one scene comes to mind. When Jazz (a production assistant at the Made in Heaven agency) comes home, a world away from the dazzling world of elite weddings, she kicks a syringe beneath her bed before flopping onto it, exhausted. As the camera zooms out, giving the audience an aerial view of the tiny room with chipped walls, we see her brother, passed out facedown on the adjoining bed. In that instant, we understand both why Jazz messes up so often at work, but also just what her job means to her. It’s a small moment, away from the high-stakes world of the protagonists, but this is what makes the show so incredible: the lives of each and every one of its characters, even the peripheral ones, are fleshed out. They are all human, and they are all fallible, which gives you an endless reserve of heartbreak and hope. They can all disappoint you and they can all make up for it, and whenever you step away from their screen you will look at the most fleeting of strangers with an outsized generosity. This is a show about stories: the wealth of stories, the depth of stories. And once you know someone’s story, you can’t judge them or hate them. You’re there for them all, invested in myriad, multiple ways.

SADIA: I feel you. And I think our investment in these characters has to do with them feeling real because they are complex and inconsistent. Remember the scene where Jazz uses the company’s credit card to buy herself clothes? She is so committed to doing well otherwise, to climbing up, securing her job. How can she not know she’s destroying it all by buying those clothes? She justifies it by telling herself she will return them. And we forgive her, because we know her to be more than this single moment, because we know how much pleasure this small purchase brings to her, we know what’s at stake in her life otherwise, and because we, like all real people, also justify our own questionable choices. And because, this show keeps reminding us, real people are contradictory. I’m thinking of Tara and Karan now. On the one hand, they miss no chance to chip away at patriarchal norms — they actively involve themselves in their clients’ lives, and step in to set things ‘right’— helping a bride run away, informing another about the dowry decided without her consent — but then, some of their interventions are morally questionable. Should they have organised one bride’s marriage to a tree without the groom’s knowledge, at the cost of perpetuating regressive customs? Or run a background check on another bride, and reported her abortion to her future in-laws? Sometimes they do these things because they can’t afford to lose the client, but other times they really seem to believe that secrecy and backhandedness are necessary — like when Karan tells a 22-year-old bride who has a one-night stand before her wedding that she will have to hide the truth from her husband-to-be for the rest of her life. We could ask how Tara and Karan are so blind to their hypocrisy, or we could read their moral inconsistency as evidence that they, like Jazz, are real people who will slip up. It doesn’t stop us from caring for them.

NATASHA: The one character that we do perhaps judge is Faiza, our mistress. To sleep with your best friend’s husband is girl code’s greatest sin. And yet, we don’t hate her. Why? You have your set of facts: she’s healing from an abusive marriage and she’s perpetually frustrated by her controlling father. But you also see her in moments that make her more human, that give her dimensions beyond the inevitably harsh lines within which victims and mistresses must fall. She is tearing up with anxiety in her therapist’s office; she is lost in the shadows of her bedroom, painting a portrait of the friend she is deceiving. We see her inner turmoil. When we see her, in Jaipur, when her serial-cheater lover pulls her into his arms to say, “Doesn’t this feel right to you?” we’re allowed to wonder: well, what if it really is love?

SADIA: I was confused about how to react to Faiza. I moved between anger and pity. And while I wanted to hate her, I have been thinking that perhaps Faiza’s character is a commentary on love/monogamy/cheating. Cheating — considered to be morally disgraceful — is inextricable from monogamy, and the obvious outlet for queer men forced into heterosexual marriage. In Made in Heaven, every other monogamous character, heterosexual or queer, is cheating. I think the show is asking us to consider cheating as a norm (and in some ways, the way everyone overlooks Adil’s behaviour, it is!) so perhaps the real question is: can we incorporate cheating, which can be a consequence of love too, into the fabric of long-term relationships, as an actual possibility that will break monogamous relationships no matter how deep the original commitment? It is easier, I feel the show is suggesting, to dismiss cheating as the province of ‘bad people.’ Perhaps we need to think of it as something we are all capable of, instead.

NATASHA: I think you are right, I think too often we do see cheating as this morally disgraceful act… when it’s a profoundly human thing to do. But in this series and in life, it is men who more often do the cheating, and the women who more often hurt. If cheating — where you sleep with someone other than your partner, without telling them and seeking their consent — is something so human, why don’t women do it more often? Faiza betrays Tara; and Tara betrays Natasha. But none of them betray the man they love, whereas he betrays them all.

SADIA: What a fantastic point, I didn’t think of that. Cheating as gendered. Or, how men and women might navigate cheating differently. We see Faiza troubled by what she’s doing to Tara, but we never see Adil bothered the same way. As much as this show is about the depth of stories, I think it is also about the stories we tell ourselves in order to reconcile our contradictory worldviews and moral codes. How we live and choose selectively; how we put on our blinders where necessary for survival and weave our own narratives of self-justification. We see everyone doing this: Faiza cheats with Adil because it’s love; Jazz is OK with buying the clothes because she will return them; but what about Adil? How is his behaviour so convoluted and guilt-free?

NATASHA: Adil is the one core character in the show who is not fleshed out at all. He has clearly been left blank intentionally. The other characters are afforded a lot of room — we see them alone, in their most vulnerable moments. But Adil never introspects, which I’ll chalk up to entitlement and laziness, the combination of which leave him free of doing the emotional work we see all the other characters do.

SADIA: What about Tara? Part of me judged her for staying with Adil, when she’s the one championing others to take hard stances, but as we see her miserable and confused in front of the mirror feeling distant from her husband, who is pretending like nothing is happening, it dawns upon us: this is how the patriarchy undoes you, no matter what you’ve achieved in life. Tara is no different from the girl who takes 5 lac rupees to stay mum about the powerful man who abused her. The series is about the workings of patriarchy, but also about the patriarchal bargains women make in order to survive. There is no win-win within this system, and it’s about time that our celebration of strong, ethical women who we categorise as torchbearers of feminist politics also takes into account the compromises we make, which are not at all symbolic of our weaknesses and shortcomings but of patriarchy’s perniciousness. Even the best among us, I am trying to say, fail at ‘feminism.’ It is this which made Tara so relatable to me, so honest.

NATASHA: What we may never understand about Tara is why she really married Adil. It seems clear that she did it for money — but in the flashback scenes, it’s also clear that she was in love with him in the beginning. And the two are not mutually exclusive: she could easily, necessarily even, love both in a way that her desire for one enriches her desire for the other. She loves Adil so she wants his money, so that she can live the lifestyle he does and in so doing be more palatable to him. She wants the lifestyle Adil has, so she loves him so that she can have it. Neither we nor she can separate the two; and maybe that’s where so much of her confusion lies towards the end: what was it that she even wanted in the beginning? Perhaps, she has lost track of it herself. I think Tara’s character, despite her external sheen, struggles profoundly with questions of self-worth, because of how society forces her to locate her own worth in her husband’s material wealth. But I just can’t figure out what she considered her own worth was before she ever laid eyes on Adil. The bigger question, then, is what worth does society afford women, especially in South Asia? I’m thinking here of all those flashback scenes where Tara’s mother is lecturing her and her sister on the importance of their appearance, telling them to take care of their complexion, because their youth is all they have. Despite the fact that Tara has built a successful business for herself, she’s still made to feel like it’s not a huge accomplishment. Her mother-in-law dismisses her success in the very first episode: “You’re crazy. By God’s grace you have everything, just enjoy it.” Instead, her in-laws constantly pepper her with questions about when she’s having a baby. Tara has two big pressures outside of her marriage — making her business (which her husband has invested in) successful and getting pregnant. Interestingly, both these goals are pegged to her marriage itself, bringing us back to our initial question: why does she stay in this marriage? Her self-worth is tied to it, in several ways. Right? Here’s a thought: doesn’t the show use Karan’s character to subvert the patriarchy in a way that Tara’s character can’t? I think it uses queerness to show possibilities outside the stifling framework of heterosexuality (and in the subcontinent heterosexuality is almost inextricable from marriage).

SADIA: Karan is my favourite, especially because I’ve never seen queerness represented this way before. Gay characters in Bollywood typically tend to be effeminate, emasculated, and concerned with nothing outside of their sexuality. Karan’s life is not centred around his queerness, nor does his relationship with his sexuality exist in a vacuum. We see, on the one hand, how class allows him certain freedoms as a gay man, but we also see the silences he is forced to navigate because of external structures: his family and the state. This is not a character who has had closure with his queerness, and I love that we learn why. Through flashbacks, we find out that his mother beat him when she discovered him with another boy (Nawab), and we understand his retreat, his strained relationship with his family. This shifts only after his father accepts him for who he is. Karan undergoes another transformation after his neighbour Gupta reports him under Section 377; the case goes public and Karan spends two harrowing nights in jail. Following the days of confusion after, and perhaps bolstered by his father’s acceptance, we see Karan emerge, not a coming out, but a coming into himself: the same individual who never really thought of his queerness as a political act, files a petition against Sec 377 in light of everything he has survived. Through Karan, we see how someone’s experience of queerness is shaped and moulded by social and political structures, how institutions and personal histories shape our beliefs and ideas of what we want, and what we are allowed to demand.

NATASHA: I agree with everything you said about Karan— the film’s treatment of queerness is sublime. But I was just as touched by Gupta’s character as I was by Karan’s. While attitudes towards homosexuality are finally changing (the Indian Supreme Court declaring Section 377 unconstitutional last year), homophobia is still rampant, and it’s fair to say that most people who identify as queer keep their sexual identities from their families and are careful about how they present themselves in public for fear of repercussions. Made in Heaven really makes you think about where prejudice against queer-identifying people actually comes from. Karan is terrified of his father finding out that he is gay, but when he does he supports his son without blinking an eye. Gupta pretends to be disgusted by Karan’s behaviour in front of his wife, but we quickly learn that he is gay himself. There’s a web of fear around sexuality, which forces the show’s characters, time and time again, to behave in heartbreaking ways. Case in point: Karan himself, who throws his boyhood love Nawab under the bus in the boys’ locker room. Karan will never love anyone else again, and by the time he meets Nawab years later and apologises it’s just too late.

SADIA: Uff, that moment! That’s when I realised that Karan’s experience of queerness is also an experience of loneliness. And this is what makes his character/the depiction of queerness really remarkable; it is about his sexual identity as much as it is about his desire for love and companionship. That he is unable to commit because he was in love with his childhood sweetheart this whole time — spoiler alert, we learn this in the season finale — is a heartbreaking revelation of a loss we didn’t realise Karan had been carrying all this time. And he is complicit in his own loss; it was he who betrayed Nawab, who bullied him and ensured Nawab would want nothing to do with him anymore. Karan’s performance of homophobia towards Nawab is his response to his mother’s fury, but the greatest damage is to himself — not his mother, not Nawab. His character arc, I feel, is all a build-up to this point: where he admits to Nawab, where he says out loud: “I can’t believe I’ve loved only you.” We know when he says this that he hasn’t had the courage to say this out loud before, perhaps even admit it to himself. In that way, his is a love story too, the love that was unrequited by one’s own undoing.

NATASHA: The most passionate couples the show presents (arguably: Faiza and Adil; and Karan and Nawab) tend to be couples indulging in a forbidden kind of love. We’ve talked so much, you and I, about our complicated feelings towards marriage. This show seems to want to have this conversation with us, maybe that’s why I enjoyed it so much.

SADIA: Absolutely. This show is a total middle finger to the patriarchy. So many places where tradition, custom, and respectability is rejected to make way for a new feminist imagination: the older couple getting married, the girl saying “there will be no more pheras” and walking out the mandap, girls marrying for convenience and money and escape — there is some agency in choosing to ‘give in’ — all this opens up worlds of possibilities but specifically, opens up possibilities where women are not passive receivers of the gendered fate handed to them but are actively steering their lives. And even in places where conventions are upheld, where the status quo is maintained, the show is so self-aware of how wrong it all is, how regressive, but also how necessary: perhaps we cannot re-imagine everything, perhaps this is exactly what it takes to make patriarchal institutions work. Marriages are not made in heaven, this show suggests, they are made on lies, compromises, selective narratives. Episode from episode, we’re made to wonder whether an honest marriage even exists, or whether the social contract’s very success is contingent upon tolerance and acquiescence, secrecy and betrayal, upon keeping a part of yourself hidden, upon consenting to give up your agency to protect the façade of a happy marriage, despite all its cracks.

NATASHA: To me, there was only one happy couple in this series that was brimming with couples — and they were the unlikeliest couple of all. The one who met in their sixties. “You just meet a person for a second and you say that ‘I’ve known this one for ages and eternities’,” Bijoy Chatterjee says of his wife-to-be, mother-of-two, who has lived through decades of widowhood. Nobody else in this show is allowed to be happy like them and I’m not surprised… the ultimate point this show seems to underscore is: why are we, as a culture, obsessed with marriage, when again and again it’s an institution that makes people unhappy? The episodes highlight the flawed ways in which we tend to approach marriage in South Asia: the arranged marriage where both parties are too young to really know how to conduct their fidelities to one another; the mail-order-bride marriage where the bride knows she is signing up to misery but does so anyway; the marriage engineered to win the boy’s family a preposterous dowry sum; the marriage designed to be a political move. Again and again, marriage is used for ends that have everything to do with economics and expectation, used to prove points and win favour — they are almost never about what they’re supposed to be about: love.

This is the full version of the abridged piece in print

Natasha Japanwala - Sadia Khatri

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