In the name of the bride, a movie star has been brought to a wedding. She’s a fan, and her moneyed groom wants to stun his missus-to-be, while impressed guests advertise her squeal across social media feeds. A celebrity appearance at an Indian wedding is rarely just an appearance; the next moment he is lip-syncing to a love song while encircling the bride, and, since he is a paid professional, he wears the appropriate expression of yearning. It isn’t enough for the actor to cameo. He must play act, he must court, he must woo the bride.
This is one of those things that happens only in India—illustrated by the viral clip from a recent billionaire wedding where actor Salman Khan performed as a backup dancer—and our slippery dynamic between money, spectacle and power (and perceived power) is probingly explored by the new Amazon Prime Video series Made In Heaven.
Created by Zoya Akhtar and Reema Kagti, this drama about Delhi-based wedding planners tells its stories kaleidoscopically, each episode revolving around individual weddings creating specific issues, problems both outlandish and plausible. We are taken across a spectrum of big Indian weddings, baroque opulence thrown up in varied forms: differing by religion and by ritual, by aesthetic and by aesthetic requirement. As a political leader points out when signing off on his daughter’s wedding, marigolds are all well and good—but happen also to share the colour of the ruling party.
Our shaadis are a far shehnai from the one-ceremony-fits-all weddings we usually see in foreign film and television, and these India-only intricacies make Made In Heaven our first genuinely world-class show. It is unmistakably local, a show I expect to be warmly received by international audiences and critics who will finally get to see something they haven’t. At long last, India has a show of which we can be proud.
Made In Heaven is about a wedding-planning agency of the same name, run by attractive go-getters from wealthy families who think big before they think smart: They go into debt because of an unsustainably lavish office space. That is but the tip of their troubles. Some characters may seem obvious at first, but, like the city of Delhi itself, there is more to them than the archetypes they cosmetically represent, and scratching beneath the surface reveals wounded and messed-up people hiding behind beautifully made-up masks.
Tara Khanna, the one in charge of the agency, is the poor Delhi girl who married big, landing herself a dashing entrepreneurial tycoon, only to never really fit in. Her society-in-law looks askance at her, despite fashionable flawlessness. As we get to know Tara, we discover her closet may hold more skeletons than dresses. Hers is a life of calculated compromise, one that has left her unsure about her own motivations and future. It’s a compelling character, and this well-observed show gives us several.
Her business partner and confidant, Karan, is Grindr-ing his way through life till personal trauma makes him resolutely wage war against Section 377. He seems a Delhi cliché, till devastating parental issues raise their head, as you may expect from parents who name their sons Karan and Arjun. This is a deeply, almost prescriptively, introspective series, one where principal characters frankly spend so much time brooding it is a wonder they get any work done.
Made In Heaven is visually striking and lushly cinematic, shot by Jay Oza (who also shot Akhtar’s recent smash Gully Boy) and put together by creators who clearly prioritize empathy with their flawed characters over passing judgement on them.
There is, however, an omniscient cameraperson who pretentiously (and patronizingly) narrates lessons learnt in each episode. This feels too pat for an otherwise sophisticated series, rather like the conveniently direct lines drawn between backstories and current behaviour. The show frequently looks too good (even the hospitals have diffused lighting), and any experiment with form—when an argument is shot with a handheld camera, for instance—is too prominent to ignore. This is a nuanced series that, smugly and unsubtly, likes pointing to its nuances.
Terrific actors show up in guest parts, like Deepti Naval, Manjot Singh and Rasika Dugal. Arjun Mathur impresses as the tormented Karan, bringing a sense of calm to a noisy show. Sobhita Dhulipala gives Tara texture, visibly differentiating between her vernacular past, rough around the edges, and her poised present-day self. Shivani Raghuvanshi shines as the ambitious Jaspreet, who would like to be called Jazz but can barely say the word. Jim Sarbh and Kalki Koechlin play to their strengths, while many a march is stolen by the phenomenal Vijay Raaz. As a dodgy businessman, Raaz imbues thoughtful pauses with Tarantino-esque import and always seems like the one who knows best—making us feel like we’re in good hands.
An Indian wedding is a relentless carnival, a parade of forced smiles, overpriced flower arrangements and families at their most passive-aggressive. It is also where clans come together, hatchets are buried and people end up having the time of their lives. Made In Heaven understands both worlds. This is a show about wealth, the having of it and the want for it, and the details are telling. Some women dream simply of a big wedding cake. Others retreat to their mansions and cry themselves to sleep. The maids have made their bed, and now they must lie in it.
Stream of Stories is a column on what to watch online. Raja Sen is a film critic and the author of The Best Baker In The World (2017), a children’s adaptation of The Godfather.