Made In Heaven: A triumph for character development

When was the last time you saw an Indian series that portrayed relationships as deep and complex as they are? Made in Heaven is that series. After its success and the success of her last film Gully Boy, Zoya Akhtar, one of its creators, is on a roll. She is fast proving that she can explore relationships like few others can. I must admit I was sceptical about this series when I saw its poster. The poster shows the six lead characters (three men and three women) and I mistakenly got the sense it would be three one-boy-one-girl stories. Made in Heaven is quite the opposite. Set in New Delhi, it is the story of two wedding planners who run a company called Made in Heaven and plan grand weddings for the rich. But that is not all it is. Through this basic premise, the story explores societal biases and hypocrisy. It does a deep dive into human nature.

The biggest strength of the series is undoubtedly the development of its characters – not just the lead characters but also side characters. You understand why people behave the way they do. The choices they make and the hypocrisies they exhibit are not random. They help the viewer understand the character. These characters are not one-dimensional caricatures. The most obvious example of this is Karan Mehra, a character played by Arjun Mathur. At the very outset it is established that he is a gay man. But unlike conventional portrayals of homosexuality in Indian film (television has only just begun exploring the subject), where if a person is gay, that’s all they are, Made in Heaven shows that being gay is a part of Karan. He has a life in addition to that. His relationships with multiple men don’t just put forth the point that he likes men, but show his escapism, something that would have remained just the same had he been straight. He’s a man struggling to come to terms with himself, to create a successful business and repay the massive amounts of debt he’s taken on. These things aren’t told through contrived dialogue or on the nose scenes, but is shown seamlessly throughout the series.

A subtler example of character development is Shobita Dhulipala’s character, Tara. Tara undoubtedly has the most well-presented character arc. At the beginning of the series, we admire this woman who’s defied the trappings of class. She married rich, but she married for love even as the world misunderstands her as a gold-digger. Her husband (Adil, played brilliantly by Jim Sarbh) has invested in her company, but she is her own person. This façade unravels as the show progresses. As a clue about this is revealed towards the end of the first episode, when she convinces Aaliya, a middle-class woman, to get married to her rich fiancé despite his family violating her privacy. “Its five fucking thousand crores. Don’t be an idiot,” she tells her. As a viewer I stop taking Tara for granted and begin to pay closer attention to who she is.

Towards the end of the series, the writers make sure I have no clear answers. She has married her husband for money, but she also loves him. She craves her own identity but takes pride in calling herself Mrs. Tara Khanna, an indication that her past life is behind her and she is now a part of elite, even though she has no friends there. She can be sensitive to the injustices suffered by other women in the show, but she is routinely terrible to her mother and sister because they haven’t escaped the poverty trap. And that’s what makes Tara special. She is complicated, as human beings are. Her inner contradictions also explain the outrage she feels towards her best friend (Faiza, played by Kalki Koechlin) when Faiza has an affair with Adil, when she herself had once initiated a relationship with Adil while he was engaged to another woman. As with Karan, Tara’s past comes to the fore as organically throughout the series as the narrative moves forward. And the real win for Tara’s character, and a testament to the writing of the show, is that I empathised with the character throughout, even during her darker moments.

The show’s primary focus is on the institution of marriage. Many Hindi films can lead us to believe that marriage is the ultimate goal of a romantic relationship, that it is the beginning of ‘happily ever after’. Made in Heaven rejects this idea and instead goes on to demonstrate that marriages come in all shapes and sizes. Any psychological or material safety it provides can come at a cost. For instance, when Karan’s landlord’s wife (Ayesha Raza) finds out that her husband (Vinay Pathak) has been watching recordings of Karan having sex with a man, she chooses to believe the lie that her husband is gathering evidence to evict Karan than face the uncomfortable truth that could destroy her marriage – that her husband is gay. Similarly, Aaliya and her fiancé Angad are an idealistic couple at the beginning of the episode. They don’t seem to care about money (even five fucking thousand crores) and claim that they don’t lie to each other. But when faced with the sceptre of the future, Angad lies to his parents about her past even though that was against her wishes. And she lies to Angad about her motivations to reconcile with his parents. We see that love isn’t always enough to keep a couple together. Sometimes, there are other binding agents. Despite this, Made in Heaven doesn’t have a purely cynical view of marriage. It does show couples who have weathered challenges and are still on the same page and in love. Only those form a minority when compared with all the other kinds of marriages out there.

In addition to marriage, Made in Heaven uses relationships to help understand characters. In the end, we realise most characters may not have clear motivations or consistent actions, because they don’t know who they are. This is most evident with Adil’s character. Adil cheats on his first fiancé with Tara and cheats on Tara with Faiza. While he is most certainly a douchebag, Made in Heaven gives layers to his character through his interactions with both Tara and Faiza. He is a character who doesn’t know what he wants and cannot deal with intense milestones within his relationships. Similarly, Faiza’s interactions with her therapist (again, kudos to the makers for normalising therapy) show her own internal contradictions. Her desire to not lose her friend even as she can’t stop seeing that friend’s husband. Faiza’s confusions are even clearer because she is dependent on the men in her life (her father, ex-husband and Adil) to keep her afloat. Even though she doesn’t want to lose her friend, she can’t rid herself of the need for a man who will take care of her.

Made in Heaven is clearly extremely well written. A number of episodes try to uncover problems of the patriarchy (dowry, widow remarriage, superstitions…). These issues may look like they’ve been addressed in other films and TV shows, but this show is written and directed with subtlety that doesn’t make them feel stale or cringey. Made in Heaven holds a mirror to society but it doesn’t try to assume a position of moral uprightness. It lets the viewer see and ultimately perceive the subtext of the show for himself/herself. All this while making the view invested in nearly every character in the show. Even side characters get a clear arc, like Karan’s landlord and his family and the production manager of the company. This isn’t to say that the writing is flawless. Kabir (played by Shashank Arora), the cameraman who also narrates bits of the series is not as well fleshed out as the rest of the cast. True, he gets a few scenes towards the end of the series, but it doesn’t seem like enough.

All in all, watching Made in Heaven made me tremendously happy. It is the second time that I have seen an Indian TV series that is world class (the first one being Sacred Games).  If you’re like me, you probably consume mostly American (and maybe some British) television. In which case you’ll understand when I say that mainstream Indian television with its poor writing and production quality cannot hold a candle to even mediocre sitcoms from the West. Made in Heaven is a small change in the status quo. Here is a show that tells the stories of people like me in a way that even a person completely unfamiliar with the Indian milieu will understand and appreciate. I hope this trend continues, and I cannot wait to binge watch Season 2.

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Jodhaa Akbar – How it holds up

This is going to be a bit of a different post. Recently, I re-watched Jodhaa Akbar, which released in 2008 and is directed by Ashutosh Gowariker. I had first watched the movie a few months after its release and was awestruck by the manner in which the film captured the splendour of both the Rajput and Mughal cultures while sharing a sweet love story. In my most recent viewing, however, I didn’t feel the same way. The movie felt dated in some ways and there were several points that just didn’t work for me. So – despite my dislike of listicles – here is a list of things that struck me as dated or poorly executed.

  1. The costumes

Given as this film received praise for its style (it won the IIFA Award for Best Costume and inspired real and imitation jewellery in India for years to come), I wish this wasn’t the case. But the fabrics and embroidery used on the clothes is clearly machine stitched and mass produced. As are the turbans used by all male Mughal characters. Once you notice these details, they are hard to un-see, and become a distraction throughout the duration of the movie. For instance, Maham Anga, a minister in Akbar’s court, has lace on her dupatta (veil) that is completely out of place for the era. I’m not an expert on historical costumes, obviously, but I recognised its stitching and prevalence in Indian clothing (See 1:54:25).

Additionally, the beards and moustaches worn by the minor male characters appear visibly fake. There’s only so much make-up can do, the sight of real hair cannot be replicated.

In addition to clothes, some of the jewellery (shocking) also bothered me. Don’t get me wrong, Tanishq did a fabulous job with the sets worn by Aishwarya Rai. It was accessories to turbans worn by minor characters that struck me as not being of the same quality as Jodhaa’s gorgeous necklaces. Here we can also mention that the pearls used in the curtains in 1:01:34 looked fake and didn’t fit into the splendour that the film was trying to sell. For those who will come at me for being too picky, K Asif (director of Mughal-e-Azam) famously asked for real pearls to be dropped on the floor for a scene, because the fake ones were prone to breaking easily. And no amount of clever camera work to hide the broken pearls convinced him. And this part of the film wasn’t even in technicolour! Such attention to detail, sadly, is missing in this film.

  1. The sets and props

While the sets are carefully designed, one can clearly tell the difference between scenes shot on sets versus sweeping shots of actual Mughal architecture. For instance, the scene shot in the Mughal subhedar’s fort in Ajmer has a distinctly set-like quality to it owing to the texture and patterns on the walls. Of course, using sets is inevitable, and the sets really are beautiful. But they simply cannot match up to the real thing. In the same vein, while the props used were beautiful, they were blatantly inauthentic. Golden organza curtains? Nope.

  1. Editing and camera work

This is where the film really begins to look dated. Major transition shots are accompanied by ‘wiping’ the next frame in. This is a feature that should only be restricted to MS Powerpoint (maybe not even that). Smarter editing and dialogue could have also helped make the movie shorter (at 213 minutes, it is a LONG film). For instance, the scene where Akbar’s mother leaves the palace to go on pilgrimage (1:44:15) is entirely unnecessary. It could’ve been replaced with a single dialogue signalling her absence.

This is also coupled by sloppy camera work. Most notably in the song Man Mohana. The song first appears around 45’. The camera angle revealing Krishna’s face at 45:15 is reminiscent of a Sooraj Barjatya movie. That accompanied by low angle shots of the idol simply did not work for me. Similarly, the shot of a white light engulfing Akbar when he supposedly gains enlightenment at the end of Khwaja Mere Khwaja could perhaps have been replaced by a subtler shot of his expression to signify the same thing.

  1. The use of music

I am not questioning Rehman’s genius here. My point is a minor one. The background score, at times, is used poorly and makes the film feel loud. Shots of Akbar’s enraged face at 47:05 are accompanied by loud dramatic music. This is entirely unnecessary. The actor’s expression coupled with the camera’s angle conveys the emotion the director wants us to understand. By adding dramatic music on top of that takes away from the subtlety of the movie as assumes that the audience is too stupid to understand what’s happening unless shown explicitly. Similarly, there is a beautiful scene where Akbar showers flowers on his wife in the middle of a sword fight (2:23:03). But is accompanied by music that is dated and redundant.

 

Now that I’ve listed what didn’t work, it is only fair to mention what did.

  1. The chemistry between Hrithik Roshan (Akbar) and Aishwarya Rai (Jodhaa) is endearing. As someone who isn’t a fan of romantic films, I found it cute and refreshing. This may also have to do with the fact that the director took time to showcase the personalities of these two characters individually.
  2. The lighting throughout the movie is very good, and goes to convey the setting and mood of the film very well. Think dark lighting to accompany Maham Anga’s plotting (1:44:52) and warm light to accompany the central character’s blossoming romance in In Lamhon Ke Daman Mein.
  3. Rehman’s music continues to create magic regardless of how many times I’ve heard the film’s songs.