Unmaking Bollywood:
style and the political in
Made in Heaven

by Meheli Sen

“I like aesthetic. All my films are very aesthetic” —Zoya Akhtar

As I write this,[1] [open endnotes in new page] the Covid 19 pandemic has been rampaging across the globe, killing millions, and destroying economies, trade, and reordering capitalist alignments everywhere. In India, movie theaters were shuttered for over six months and have begun to reopen fitfully and with poor occupancy.[2] As the Bollywood industry stares at hundreds of millions of Rupees in losses, major filmmakers like Karan Johar and production houses like Dharma Productions, Vishesh Films, Sony Pictures, and others have had to release their films directly on VOD and OTT platforms, bypassing theatrical releases altogether.[3] The very notions of a “theatrical release” and “first-week collections”, so critical to Hindi cinema’s political economy have been rendered obsolete. In this moment of profound industrial precarity, the relationship between cinema and the internet has become more salient than ever, as a majority of entertainment content is today being consumed solely on the Web.

Zoya Akhtar had diversified into non-feature length work well before the current crisis hit India and Bollywood. However, I would argue that her work in the digital domain deserves special scrutiny in this moment, precisely because many of her choices—aesthetic, generic, and formal—seem prescient when read in the context of the present emergency. It is also instructive to note that when many in India were predicting a doomsday scenario for Bollywood in the wake of the “digital takeover” by OTTs such as Netflix and Amazon Prime, Akhtar has always struck an optimistic note, insisting that these platforms would create an environment of healthy competition, beneficial to all stakeholders in the business.[4] In other words, even as Akhtar’s feature films such as Gully Boy (2019) achieved critical and box-office success, she was already looking beyond the feature film as the only viable format for creative work.

In this essay, I will argue that Akhtar’s position has always been fluid and Janus-faced in this sense—a profound sense of un-belonging informs her oeuvre, even as she remains entrenched within the Bollywood network. This sense of un-belonging is not simply a matter of themes—which veer towards the subversive, especially when it comes to gender and sexuality, as I show below—but also about situating her work on sites which enable and sustain this form of expression that would make traditional film producers leery. In other words, Akhtar doesn’t wholly disavow the profligate pleasures of the popular film. However, in her recent work on digital platforms, cinema often lingers as a residue, a reflexive motif already posited as an atrophied assemblage—easily recognizable, and easily evoked as a nostalgic remnant—in a decidedly postcinematic dispensation. Form, content and the political are inextricably braided together in the industrial choices Akhtar astutely makes as a writer, director and now, producer. Ted Sarandos, the head of Netflix, had once declared in an interview that he wants to create “cinema-infused-television,” defining it as “story-telling on television in episodic form, but that is shot with the big production values of the cinema…”[5] I would contend that this is precisely the potent concoction that Akhtar presents in her work on the OTT platforms.

Series made for Amazon Prime. Publicity poster for Made in Heaven.

While scholars and commentators have described the new millennium as fundamentally “post-cinematic” in the wake of the digital revolution, some stress the filmic residues that continue to haunt the emergent media ecology:

“post-cinema would mark not a caesura but a transformation that alternately abjures, emulates, prolongs, mourns, or pays homage to cinema. Thus, post-cinema asks us to think about new media not only in terms of novelty but in terms of an ongoing, uneven, and indeterminate historical transition. The postcinematic perspective challenges us to think about the affordances (and limitations) of the emerging media regime not simply in terms of radical and unprecedented change, but in terms of the ways that post-cinematic media are in conversation with and are engaged in actively re-shaping our inherited cultural forms, our established forms of subjectivity, and our embodied sensibilities.”[6]

For the rest of this essay, I would like to hold on to this idea of the post-cinematic as a troubled terrain, troubled because it remains tethered to the cinema in fundamental ways, but also because its emergence and consolidation remains uneven in the context I am discussing. The story of the digital in India is complicated by matters such as the uneven penetration of the Internet in non-metropolitan areas, the cost of digital connectivity for a vast number of Indians, and the subscription costs for platforms such as Netflix, which remain prohibitive for a very large number of people.[7] Alongside the cinema, television dominates the Indian entertainment landscape, cheaply available cable TV connections now being accessed by more than 200 million households.[8] Moreover, the grammar of the traditional Hindi popular film—heady concoctions of star-driven spectacles—are almost uniquely suited to the big screen. Tent-pole films remain theatrical “events” that producers are reluctant to relinquish to OTT platforms, despite the current financial meltdown. I would contend however, that despite her deep moorings—both familial and professional—in Bollywood’s industrial ecology, Zoya Akhtar has been decidedly post-cinematic for much of her career. It is fitting, therefore, to focus on her non/post film work: Made in Heaven, the web series she co-wrote, co-directed and produced for Amazon Prime Video.

Press juncket with the MIH team.

Made in Heaven featured nine episodes and released on the platform in March 2019 to largely favorable reviews and audience responses. Set against the backdrop of elite weddings in Delhi, the show remains a particularly telling instance of Akhtar’s intervention in the realm of gender and sexuality, especially as these find novel modes of articulation in the post-cinematic moment. It won several awards, including a Best Actor nomination for Arjun Mathur at the International Emmys. Much delayed by the Covid 19 pandemic, a second season has recently been announced by Amazon, attesting to the series’ critical and commercial success, and indeed, fan communities online have been abuzz with speculations about the possible directions the show would take in its new season.[9] In what follows, I argue that Made in Heaven allows us protean points of entry into what we might consider a “post-Bollywood” media dispensation, where the basic parameters of the commercial movie industry and its generic matrices are being radically reimagined, if not rejected altogether. Zoya Akhtar remains a key figure in these new alignments.

Despite the commercial success of her feature films, Zoya Akhtar has frequently been called out for her focus on the lifestyles of the rich and famous.[10] Her feature length work—especially Zindagi Na Milegi Dobara (2011) and Dil Dhadakne Do (2015)—feature generous budgets, massive star casts, lugubrious melodrama, spectacular song sequences, and dozens of exotic “foreign” locations. Perhaps because of their overall glossiness but also because they focus on characters who remain decidedly upper-class, Akhtar has often been criticized for her inability to look beyond the lives of the elite. Nandana Bose has additionally observed that Akhtar’s reliance on familial connections—her entire body of work is produced by her brother, Farhan Akhtar’s company, Excel Entertainment—significantly tempers her potential as a pathbreaking creative artist. Bose also notes the conventional grammar of popular cinema Akhtar adheres to, finally concluding that,

“her [Akhtar’s] marketing strategies, branding and shrewd deployment of the publicity machinery impart an illusory perception of originality and unconventionality.”[11]

Film critics were even more scathing in the popular press. Mihir Fadnavis opens his review of Dil Dhadakne Do in this way:

“In Dil Dhadakne Do, a bunch of incredibly rich folks go on a foreign trip, trying to find themselves, and indulge in some thumb wrestling in the process. This could come across as corny rather than heartfelt. It certainly did in director Zoya Akhtar’s last film, Zindagi Na Milegi Dobara, which felt like the Bollywood definition of First World Problems. Being from the third world, it was difficult to give a damn about the people in the film.”[12]

Taking cognizance of these persistent allegations, Zoya retorted in an interview,

“I know people say my movies are about rich people. I don’t have anything to say. What does that mean? This is not a critique, but just a reaction…You watch the film and tell me it does not work for you, I get it. But not like, this is ‘a rich guy’s story and does not appeal to me’. I don’t wanna listen to that. It is like saying, ‘I don’t wanna watch this film because it’s got a king, or set in a slum, neither of which I am familiar with.’ It’s ridiculous…At the end of the day it is about experiences, emotions that work for all of us.”[13]

Whatever the legitimacy of the reviewers’ pique, a consideration of Akhtar’s entire oeuvre shows that far from being limited by her own class position, she has, in fact, emerged as a trenchant critic of class dynamics in South Asia.[14] Akhtar’s sensitivity to issues of social inequities remains complex, not only because of the single-minded insistence on elite-lifeworlds that defined her early cinema, but also because she remains acutely aware of the segmentation of audiences in the current moment of media fragmentation. The reflexivity with which the typical consumer of the popular film appears in her work as naïve, childlike, or enchanted—for example, the child who dreams of being/becoming star Katrina Kaif in her short film for Bombay Talkies—is indicative of the ways in which her earlier work already anticipated the post-cinematic in constitutive ways. Put differently, Akhtar today aspires to a global audience for her digital content, at least, an ambition that leaves a significant section of the South Asian viewership behind. These complexities notwithstanding, I would argue that following on the heels of Gully Boy, Akhtar’s keen observation of social and economic stratification remains in sharp focus in the series, Made in Heaven.