The origin story of Made in Heaven — the newest Indian series on Amazon Prime Video, from the Gully Boy makers Zoya Akhtar and Reema Kagti — is fairly ordinary. Fittingly for a show that's centred on the behind-the-scenes view of Indian weddings, the germ of the idea was borne at a couple of back-to-back weddings in Delhi that Akhtar and Kagti attended in 2016, alongside discussions with wedding videographers The Wedding Filmer, who are friends of the creators and also created the title sequence for Made in Heaven. But the show's production, on the other hand, was anything but. Made in Heaven made use of several directors and a writers' room in conjunction with a showrunner, a television model that's a lot more common in the West, but still relatively new to India.
Akhtar and Kagti co-wrote Made in Heaven with Lipstick Under My Burkha writer-director Alankrita Shrivastava, while the entire production was overseen by Baar Baar Dekho director Nitya Mehra, who served as the showrunner on the Amazon series. Additionally, Akhtar, Shrivastava, and Mehra also directed several episodes, along with Umrika director Prashant Nair. Mehra helmed three of the nine episodes in the first season, while the three others directed two apiece. Akhtar the opening two, Shrivastava the closing two, and the middle five split between Mehra and Nair. The only high-profile parallel is Sacred Games on Netflix, which also has a showrunner, but it has fewer directors, who manage storylines not episodes, and the writers and directors don't cross over.
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Talking to Gadgets 360, Mehra admits that she studied the Western model “quite deeply” to learn about ‘showrunning', because she loves “the quality of the work and how they set up their stuff”.
“The way they run their writers' room is incredible,” she adds. “[In India,] I think right now, people don't really — there's no real job title — understand ‘showrunning'. Right now, our TV generation writers are considered to be a type. And then, there are the film writers. In the middle, for series, we are trying to create a new breed because very often, Indian TV has been looked at upon in a certain way. The reason [American] series are good because they have had very good television writing for so long. And they are like writers-for-hire. The same writer that is writing for Seinfeld can do a Sopranos.”
“I think there's a systemic problem, because in India, I do feel writers have been marginalised,” Kagti notes. “They haven't got the respect or the money that they deserve. I think we've come to a point when there has been a dearth of writers. And now with this kind of focus coming into content, I'm hoping that more and more writers — good writers — come in.”
“I feel that a slight level of teaching needs to happen,” Mehra says. “Writing is instinctual [sure] but I just feel like those that are good at what they do — I've always believed — should all take time out and run workshops. Because there must be such a pool of talent and kids out there, that may not have — that's what I missed, I never got an education in film. And I'm just constantly self-educating. Thank god for YouTube and stuff like that.”
“Also, I feel, we don't really have a culture of labs or being very open to it,” Shrivastava chimes in. “I remember when I had done this NFDC Screenwriters' Lab, there were so many of my contemporaries, they were like, ‘But why are you doing a lab?' I was like, ‘You've no idea how helpful a lab can be.' I think the whole idea that, ‘Oh no, you're too good for a lab [or] a workshop.' [is not true].”
“Zoya and [I] constantly talk about going and doing some kind of writing course,” Kagti says. Shrivastava concurs “that openness needs to be there, to constantly evolve”, to which Kagti adds: “No matter how many ever films you might have written, or how much ever writing you might have done, there's still room for improvement. At least with my work, I believe that.”
A still from the wedding in the third episode of Made in Heaven season 1
Photo Credit: Ashique Muhammed/Amazon
Mehra notes that having multiple directors also meant more variety for Made in Heaven: “It was very exciting, because each episode being a different wedding, it was nice to have different directors come on board. It was nice to actually get everyone's aesthetic [and because] we were trying to bring in many more cultures, it was nice to have different voices as well.”
Shrivastava, who was the first to come on board after the creators, says it also made for a “far more collaborative” experience, unlike on films, where it's “a much lonelier journey and a more singular vision”.
“In a film, you can't have multiple creators,” Mehra says. “At least I wouldn't be able to direct with anybody else. There's no chance.”
“Though Zoya and me have co-written each other's work, I don't think either of us can co-direct a film,” Kagti adds. “One of us will come out... dead.”
Once the Made in Heaven team was done with the scripts, Nair was picked as the fourth and final director, after which they even set up a “directors' room”.
“And that was very exciting because we — all four of us — got into a room and read from [episode] one to nine,” Mehra says. “That was the time when anyone who had any issues, suggestions, or did not agree with anything — this was the time to argue it out and strive to make it the best we could.”
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The impact of a dedicated showrunner
As the casting process kicked off shortly after, the show's then in-consideration leads — Sobhita Dhulipala and Arjun Mathur, from Raman Raghav 2.0 and Brij Mohan Amar Rahe, respectively — initially had contrasting emotions about their involvement with the Amazon series. On the show, their characters are called Tara Khanna and Karan Mehra, respectively, who are co-founders of a wedding planning agency called Made in Heaven.
“These are all storytellers you want to work with,” Dhulipala tells Gadgets 360. “The scene that I tested for was fairly complex and layered, so I was very taken in by that. Often, as an individual, I feel that the characters that are written — maybe for women or just characters in general — they are not fully developed. The plot is, and the characters cater to the plot. But here, it's like being in a vast playground and you are just running naked. The same, but like emotionally, which is very exhilarating.”
Mathur was practising for a play — his first in 15 years — with renowned actor Naseeruddin Shah when he first got the call for Made in Heaven. He notes that he was hesitant about accepting the role of Karan because he had twice played a gay character in the past and didn't want it to become a “little repetitive”. Akhtar and Kagti asked him to just read the scripts, which he did for eight episodes in a single night: “I finished reading them, and I was just like, ‘Ah wow, this has come to me, how can I not?'”
Arjun Mathur and Sobhita Dhulipala at an event for Made in Heaven in Mumbai
Photo Credit: Amazon
Thanks to his experience working on the Channel 4 British series Indian Summers, Mathur knew what it was like working with multiple directors on the same project: “There, it was completely dependent on the actors. Like, 'You know what's going on.'”
“I feel, the actors — the primary actors — have to take more responsibility in a series,” Shrivastava says. “Because the directors change, the actors have to really hold onto the sur [musical notes i.e. solfège] and the tone. The directors are there to guide them.”
Both Mathur and Dhulipala agree that they felt this notion of responsibility the most with Nair, since he was the only director on Made in Heaven who wasn't also a creator, a writer or a showrunner.
“But with him, somehow, there was the most freedom also,” Mathur adds. “He would come in and be like, ‘How do you want to play this?' He would be open to changing lines, changing everything. Nitya was the one who constantly gave me the feeling of security. As long as I saw her on set, I was like, ‘Okay it's all good.'”
“I think showrunners really come into play for exactly the reason,” Mehra says. “If there are actors that are moving onto another director that they may not know that well. [...] I think ‘showrunning' has a lot to do with balancing the crew and the cast and making sure everyone is working towards the common goal.”
“Nitya was like the mother hen, honestly, while we were shooting,” Shrivastava notes.
“It was great,” Dhulipala says of her experience, “because all four directors have a very strong sense of self, both as individuals and as storytellers. When you play a certain character, you see that this director — of course, there is a common ground but — they see a slightly different version of the character. There are like four different shades of blue. It's blue, but it's different. So that was very fun for me.”
Shrivastava concurs and thinks the actors did “really well considering that it was new” for most of them. She was also delighted to find out how open the cast was to inputs and collaboration, even though she “came in last as a director, because I did the last two episodes”.
“They didn't come with that feeling of, ‘Oh no, now we are already set in [our ways].' It was such an interesting give-and-take,” she adds. “I think there was also that sense of sharing what they have done before, and therefore how that could impact their performance here. I never felt it was limiting, I just felt like you could explore so much more.”
“There is a dialogue, that's welcome,” Dhulipala remarks. “It is essential to have that, to feel like you are valued, you are relevant. No one is working under another, we are all coming together to tell a story, to its best possible potential. You feel empowered.”
As part of the research, the writers spoke with real-life wedding planners, who helped reinforce their idea that “wedding planners often have to be much more than just people who provide catering and decor,” Shrivastava says. “They are like the shrink, the life coach, and the bestie. You become so intimate with the family while the wedding planning is going on, that the family or the couple might share things with you that they actually don't share with anybody.”
On the other hand, both the leads didn't do any such research to prepare for their respective roles. Instead, they focused on the material they already had in their hands: the scripts.
Sobhita Dhulipala as Tara in the ninth and final episode of Made in Heaven season 1
Photo Credit: Amazon
“I have this tendency of reading the script multiple times,” Dhulipada adds. “When I'm reading the first time, somehow I end up reading it from my character's point of view. After that, I start to pay attention. [By] stepping away a little bit, [it] gives you a little more perspective of the mood, the scene, [and] the dynamics between the other characters. And there were little things I did for my own thrill. I played Tara left-handed, something nobody would notice. But it was just a fun exercise for me.”
“Zoya used to speak about a show I've not watched actually — Queer as Folk — in which there was this one man who every woman wanted to sleep with. They found him irresistible but he just liked to sleep with men. That's all she told me, that's what Karan is,” he says, with a laugh.
The advantage of streaming over film
While Karan's character could exist on the big screen in India, several gay scenes depicted on Made in Heaven would likely never make it past India's CBFC (Central Board of Film Certification) which has a habit of behaving like a censor board. Though that was obviously helpful for the show's creators, it's not the biggest advantage of streaming vs cinema for them.
“It's not about release day,” Mehra says. “Like a Fauda, [the Israeli political thriller series], which was made three years ago, found an audience [much later]. Suddenly, wherever I travel, everyone's like, ‘Have you watched it?' Three years later. The longevity of it and when the word of mouth opens up, is very different to film.”
Kagti is happy that there are no box office concerns. While numbers are available for traditional TV, Amazon Prime Video and other streaming services don't disclose viewership for their original programming. Both Kagti and Shrivastava believe that the general interest in the commerce side of film is not the right way to look at things.
“What you need to think about is,” Kagti explains, “‘Did you like the film or not?' Now if you didn't like the film but you find out it made lots of money, are you going to start liking it? At the same time, if you like something and you find out it didn't make enough money, are you going to stop liking it?”
Lastly, the series format provides more room for sketching and exploring characters, the creators conclude.
“Zoya and [I] tend to overwrite so we were like, this is the perfect format for us,” Kagti remarks, before adding with a laugh, “but even in this, we were overwriting.”
“What I love is that the intimacy this format gives you,” Shrivastava says. “I love characters and I'm not so much into plot, and I love going deeper and deeper. That's what I feel is amazing about the show. And I really don't think, in a film, we would have been able to take them so far.”
Made in Heaven is now streaming on Amazon Prime Video worldwide.