There’s a revolution happening in Indian filmmaking.
While older, traditional, long-held beliefs about caste, class, gender, and sexuality are still very much alive in the patriarchal country, a wave of new art is challenging those very ideas. Two new Indian series, both streaming on Amazon Prime, are subtly refocusing India as a land of modernity and opportunity where youth—specifically women—can thrive no matter where they come from and how they identify (in terms of gender and sexuality).
Four More Shots Please! and Made in Heaven charm us immediately with the characters and circumstances at play. The former is a meditation on female friendship in Mumbai, with broad strokes reminiscent of HBO’s Girls and Sex and the City. In Four More Shots Please!, the girls (played by Sayani Gupta, Gurbani, Kirti Kulhari and Maanvi Gagroo) are a varying range of so-called “messes”—from the plump Sidhi, who is desperate to connect with her disapproving mother whose only goal is to get her married, to Damini, a workaholic journalist who self-sabotages her personal life—and the series allows them to explore life and make mistakes without judgment.
Made in Heaven, the superior of the two shows and co-created by acclaimed Bollywood director Zoya Akhtar, digs even deeper into personal flaws: two Delhi-based wedding planners, Tara and Karan, navigate the emotional (and occasionally irrational) wants and needs of their clients. The duo (in excellent turns from Sobhita Dhulipala and Arjun Mathur) go to extreme lengths to ensure the wedding goes on, sometimes sacrificing their values to secure the gig and the money that comes along with it. Tara and Karan themselves are juggling their own personal demons; a formerly lower-class Tara has conned her way into money and is trying to save her failing marriage. Karan, a closeted homosexual, is deep in debt after a former business failed.
Using weddings as a backdrop is brilliant because it’s the perfect canvas for interrogating the most problematic stereotypes and cultural stigmas about women in Indian society, and there doesn’t seem to be an issue that Made in Heaven doesn’t turn on its head. In the course of nine jam-packed episodes we are treated to nuanced stories about infidelity, abuse, dowry, premarital sex, divorce and second marriages, homosexuality, and abortion—all of which could be considered taboo to discuss even in today’s India and the diaspora.
Even weddings themselves are questioned. Usually a happy subject, the religious ceremonies in Made in Heaven are often the foreground for blinding sadness for many of the characters. Cultural traditions, auspicious customs, and even the bright colors that enhance the experience are shown to be flawed themselves. It is no longer good enough to accept things as they are; in today’s world, we must examine all that feels misguided.
And that includes long-held beliefs about women’s place in society. Some members of older generations still believe that women belong in the home and should not work, that their self-worth is directly tied to their marital status, and that women are impure if they are not virgins at the time of marriage. Both Made in Heaven and Four More Shots Please! directly oppose these ideas, still showing them as omnipresent in society but highlighting the ways that modern women fight back in equal measures of defiance and demurity.
The fact that these shows mainly center on marginalized groups and women is no accident. Four More Shots Please! creator Anu Menon drew her inspiration from American TV and film like Sex and the City and Girls Trip, lamenting that the Indian film industry hasn’t explored this terrain. “I loved the basic idea…four friends get together for drinks, talk about the things going on in their lives and support each other…I think all of us do that,” she said in an interview. “Nobody has made anything on female friendships [in India].” Akhtar, on the other hand, whose Bollywood resume is filled with unconventional stories about the human condition, is no stranger to exploring socioeconomic and cultural issues through an unusual point of view.
What’s exciting about this trend isn’t just that the shows are about contemporary Indian women living in a changing India—it’s that the characters (including the men) feel fresh and their actions and decisions feel natural. Occasionally the shows are unpredictable—where they could zig, they zag. (In an episode of Made in Heaven, a nosy landlord is revealed to have motivations that are not what they initially seemed; bisexual and confident Umang in Four More Shots Please! loses her cool in front of an actress she has a secret crush on).
One of the most striking aspects of both shows is how they look and feel. The dialogue is peppered with f-bombs and varied profanity in a Hindi-English jumble; the visuals portray sex and masturbation in an unashamed and unafraid manner. Sexuality is a major thread that connects the two shows—not just tackling homosexuality and bisexuality that, until late 2018, was illegal in India, but also by allowing women to fulfill their own sexual needs. Many little actions that have been forbidden or considered embarrassing are proudly on display. The shows reject prude, straight-laced versions of life and instead exist in our actual modern reality where sex and cursing are constant. After years of seeing Bollywood use a hug as a stand-in for anything sexual, it’s refreshing to see characters with brown skin actually getting it on.
These shows feel markedly different from what is typically expected from Indian cinema and the traditional soap opera serials Indians in India and abroad grew up with, and it’s a welcome, progressive step forward for what Desi art can be. Though the stories are specific to a modernizing India that is jostling between what it has always been and what it could be, they are ultimately discussions about happiness, belonging, and identity that are relatable to any contemporary adult, anywhere.
Radhika Menon (@menonrad) is a TV-obsessed writer living in New York City. Her work has appeared on The TV Addict, Brown Girl Magazine, Breadcrumbs Mag and Syndicated Magazine. At any given moment, she can ruminate at length over Friday Night Lights, the University of Michigan, and the perfect slice of pizza. You may call her Rad.