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It might be a series created by 2 women known for their sensitive handling of women characters, but Season 1 of Amazon Prime series ‘Made in Heaven’ lacks feminism.
Apart from being a story about two wedding-planners leading very busy lives, Zoya Akhtar and Reema Kagti’s debut web-series, Made in Heaven, aired on Amazon Prime, also comes across as a story of the rich, for the rich.
Made in Heaven opens up a window into the world of ignorant and regressive rich Indians and their obnoxiously grand weddings. So far so good but the question remains: is it a feminist show? The popular understanding of feminism — stripped of the historical struggles and movements — has its own definition and Made in Heaven capitalises on that: a socially upward mobile cis-heteronormative woman who smokes cigarettes, is a successful wedding-planner, married to a successful businessman, sexually active, has but one queer friend and is occasionally rattled by the issues of the day. What seems to be missing is the socio-political understanding of middle-class women and their non-glamorised struggles fought within the rubric of neoliberal, patriarchal Indian society.
The protagonist, Tara (Sobhita Dhulipala), is an ambitious woman. She has no ethical qualms about the way she gets to the glass-ceiling. In the course of the events we come to know that she had devised many plans, stalked, lied, manipulated and blackmailed her employer, Adil Khanna (Jim Sarbh), into marrying her.
The facade of a self-made woman comes undone and the sole responsibility of the success of this woman now rests on the shoulder of a man.
A middle-class woman can very well have a well-defined character, conflicting interests without being portrayed as an ahistorical object which was, quite honestly, disconcerting to witness.
In Hindi films and serials women like Tara are called a ‘gold-digger’. The good thing is that nobody mentions that in the show, but as a generation raised on an unhealthy dose of bad Bollywood films, the reference does come to mind.
‘Gold-digger’ is a classist, sexist slur meant for women of slender means who seduce rich men in order to realise their dreams of accruing social capital. It is a patriarchal myth. This myth has been conjured up and perpetrated by Indian mega-serials and Hindi films in an attempt to portray self-made, successful women as “bad” women, as the home-breaker.
This is also the reason why workplace harassment, even now, is seen as a ploy of a bad woman trying to tarnish the name of a good man. All of Bollywood is littered with instances of successful, independent and opinionated women being portrayed as negative characters.
Is Made in Heaven trying to reclaim these tropes? Is it reinforcing these tropes ironically? I am confused.
Tara’s mother is the titular character delineating the terrorising Indian mother egging her daughters to fulfil her dreams of upward mobility through any means necessary. She goes on to accept her son-in-law’s gift — a well-lit flat in a high-class South Delhi locality — despite being aware of her daughter’s strenuous relationship with him resultant of his infidelity. Instead, she asks Tara to settle the matter by bearing his child.
She is abusive towards her older daughter, constantly reminding her of her misfortune of not matching the mainstream beauty standards. The mother has also put in effort and invested in her younger, prettier daughter by sending her to a grooming school.
This brings to mind Andrea Dworkin’s feminist reassessment of the terrible mothers found in mythology and fairy-tales, in her book, Woman Hating. She analyses the psychological terrain of these mothers’ behaviour and concludes economic security through the maintenance of status quo to be the reason for their formidable actions.
India recently has had its own #MeToo movements across various fields of work. Its effect was hard to miss since the show, in an instance of trying to comment on the movement, portrays a female worker being sexually harassed by a politician at one of the big fat weddings planned by Tara’s company. Afterwards, she is offered money to keep her mouth shut by the ghar ki bahu who is also a trained pilot because the harasser, the father-in-law, is a powerful political figure. The survivor accepts the money in exchange of silence.
Now, one of the partners of the company, a queer rights activist, upper middle-class man from South Delhi, Karan (Arjun Mathur), bullies the woman for taking this decision. He goes on to school her in what is the ‘right thing’ to do.
This overlooks the history of how India’s law against sexual harassment in workplace came to be, which, by the way, came into existence because of a woman named Bhanwari Devi who was an anganwadi worker with an NGO and was raped by upper caste men for trying to stop a child marriage in a village as part of her job.
Mainstream media doesn’t allow much scope for invoking these feminist histories but the new media should be responsible for raising its viewers’ consciousness if they want a piece of the feminist cake. The series essentially made a hero out of the privileged, queer man, Karan, who later devised an exposé, along with the help of his journalist friend to call out the harasser in public, of course, without the consent of the survivor.
Every other female character in the series is an instance of a loophole woman trying to level it out with the powerful men or enabling them to gain some social reward.
She is either seen conforming to the norms of regressive rituals such as getting married to a tree, or lying to her partner about a one night stand in order not to hurt his sense of male entitlement, or silencing another woman in order to safeguard the honour of her own family, or having an affair with the best friend’s husband without a care about the female friendship. One wonders where is the political in the personal? The glass-celling has been raised so high above that although most of these female characters are successful, independent, educated, upper-class women, they will never be successful enough to even touch it.
Every episode in the series ends with the videographer, Kabir (Shashank Arora), commenting on the current societal situations punctuated with various moralistic views on life and feminism. Kabir provides a “god’s-eye view” into what’s going on in the lives of the other characters he sees through his camera.
One wonders why a man had to be the voice of wisdom in a show which had so many potentially powerful women strewn across episodes?
In the concluding scene we see Tara and Karan take refuge in their devastated office, desolate and resting in each other’s company — this is perhaps the only relieving moment in the entire series. It reveals and revels in the truth about the glass-ceiling: the glass-ceiling keeps moving up and stops at nothing.
Although the show set out to have strong female characters, the onus of seeing clarity and maintaining objectivity were invariably put on the shoulders of the men, re-iterating the binary of male/female, reason/emotion. One can only hope that the upcoming season will not just add female characters for the sake of it but actually provide them with the critical perspectives needed to examine their own lives and that of the others.
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Debarati is pursuing MPhil in Women's Studies.
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