On August 10, after more than a four-year hiatus, Prime India’s “Made in Heaven” returned for a second season. Zoya Akhtar and Reema Kagti’s series earned critical acclaim and a loyal audience after its debut, praised for authentic portrayals of the Indian elite, class struggles, patriarchy, and queerness. In the series, Sobhita Dhulipala and Arjun Mathur star as Tara and Karan, best friends and business partners running a wedding planning agency called Made in Heaven. Each episode focuses on a different wedding, couple, and behind-the-scenes drama mitigated by the Made in Heaven staff while navigating their own problems.
Season 2 brought back the winsome cast and sharp direction to tackle a new crop of extravagant (and fictitious) weddings, all within the real-life context of colorism, polygamy, abuse, and more. Episode 5, “The Heart Skipped a Beat,” deals with an inter-caste marriage, a prospect which initially excited author and activist Yashica Dutt.
Dutt is a journalist, Columbia alum, and member of the Dalit community, the lowest tier in India’s now-illegal caste system. She wrote a book called “Coming Out as Dalit” that released in India the same year that “Made in Heaven” premiered (with worldwide publication scheduled for 2024 through Beacon Press). The book received India’s Sahitya Akademi Yuva Puraskar award for outstanding literary work by an author under 35, and Dutt’s writing and activism contributed to Seattle becoming the first U.S. city to pass a law against caste-based discrimination. Though she was initially thrilled by the empowering representation in “Made in Heaven” — helmed by Dalit director Neeraj Ghaywan — Dutt was shocked to see what she believed to be her own likeness in the episode, with no acknowledgement from the creative team or in the credits.
The bride in “The Heart Skipped a Beat” is Pallavi Menke (Radhika Apte), a Dalit writer and activist based in New York, who teaches at Dutt’s own alma mater, Columbia University. She also uses the phrase “coming out” as Dalit, and her introductory scene is a talkback that shares similarities with a conversation Dutt had with Faye D’Souza in 2020.
“It was surreal to see a version of my life on screen that wasn’t but yet still was me,” Dutt wrote in an August 14 statement about the episode. While praising the show, she pointed out the history of Dalit erasure and discredit — asking the “Made in Heaven” team to give respect to her work. “Let’s acknowledge the Dalit labor and set a precedent for giving credit where it’s due,” she wrote.
Ghaywan himself had credited Dutt and her work for “inspiring” the episode just two days prior, in an Instagram post responding specifically to audience reception of Episode 205. “Thanks to @yashicadutt and her book (Coming Out as a Dalit) which made the term ‘coming out’ become part of the popular culture lexicon for owning one’s Dalit identity. This inspired Pallavi’s interview section in the Episode,” he wrote in the post, accompanied by stills.
It wasn’t the first time Ghaywan drew from Dutt’s work: For his 2021 short “Geeli Pucchi,” which was featured in Netflix’s “Ajeeb Daastaans” anthology, Ghaywan went so far as giving Dutt’s memoir to lead actor Konkona Sen Sharma, who acknowledged the book’s role in informing her performance.
But once Dutt herself spoke out, the narrative shifted. On August 17, Akhtar, Kagti, Ghaywan, and writer/director Alankrita Shrivastava issued a joint statement saying they were “deeply disturbed” by Dutt’s post, detailing the many ways in which she and the character of Pallavi are different, crediting the term “coming out” — which Dutt never claimed to originate — to Sumit Baudh, and describing Pallavi’s fictional book as an amalgamation of writing by Dutt, Baudh, Sujatha Gidla, and Suraj Yengde (when approached by IndieWire, representatives for Amazon Prime India pointed back to this statement with no further comment, and were not able to connect IndieWire with Ghaywan, Kagti, and Srivastava. A representative for Akhtar did not respond to requests for comment). Many replies on Akhtar’s Instagram expressed disappointment, as her creative team is one hailed for being progressive and inclusive when the Indian government and film industry make this increasingly difficult.
Dutt says she received criticism online for her initial statement, but told IndieWire during a September Zoom interview that it was the filmmakers’ public statement pushed that negative response over the edge. She said was threatened and verbally abused, doxxed and outed. Decade-old deleted tweets of hers were resurfaced and scrutinized — including one sharing a satirical blog post which she freely described to IndieWire as misogynistic. Dutt is not without her supporters, from those pushing back against the “Made in Heaven” creators to a statement of support with almost 500 signatures, but the response from the show’s creative team shocked her.
“It’s quite ironic and it speaks to how societies work versus how we want to project ourselves; a character has been based on my likeness, and has behaved in a way that many Dalits behave in terms of asserting themselves — but when an actual, live, Dalit woman asserts herself in same way that the character does on screen, it creates this torrential hate, vomit, and backlash, the likes of which I have not seen in India before,” she said.
When Dutt first watched the episode and posted about it online, she called for Ghaywan and the co-creators to recognize her contributions, but not the episode’s third writer, Alankrita Shrivastava. Dutt says she only later realized Shrivastava’s connection to the show — and the fact that they met up in New York City in July 2022. Dutt pointed this out in her followup statement, dated August 30, which led to Shrivastava tweeting that the episode was filmed in October 2021 (still after the D’Souza interview and publication of Dutt’s book).
Dutt reported on the film and TV industry when she lived in India and cited how strongly entertainment influences the population. The Hindu film industry in recent years has visibly favored Hindu nationalism in line with Narendra Modi’s government, while previous eras have espoused globalization, religious tolerance, or cultural values being pushed at the time. Produced in India and distributed on a global platform, “Made in Heaven” does not have to answer to the Indian film industry’s censor board and can broadcast its admirable themes to the world.
But it’s not just entertainment that has influence — it’s the people behind it, how they espouse the themes in their work, and how they respond to criticism.
Caste is a system of class stratification passed down through families, which has been illegal in India almost since the nation’s independence. It was a crucial tenet of the how the British ruled India and pitted native Indians against each other, assigning jobs and privilege to people based on their caste. But just as race-based discrimination and segregation are no longer ratified in U.S. law, the prejudices behind that institution still pervade. “Would we acknowledge and say racism is over in the US or anywhere in the world?,” Dutt asked. “Of course not. Caste is 1,000-year-old institution. It’s a system of discrimination which is so deeply rooted in how people grow up thinking about themselves in relation to people around them.”
The Indian film industry is comprised of a fair amount of high-caste Hindus among its wealthy elite. A bizarre key player that has emerged in this narrative is director Anurag Kashyap, who has no professional affiliation with “Made in Heaven” other than a Season 2 cameo (playing an indie director named Anurag). Kashyap, who has previously acknowledged his own anti-caste behavior, told Bollywood Hungama without naming Dutt that she was “attacking (Ghaywan),” that she “looks like an opportunist.”
“Can you imagine in the Hollywood context, if Quentin Tarantino or Wes Anderson were to go and pick on Black female academic or a Native American female academic, and call them these words — and they would be allowed to do that unchecked, unverified, their comments would be amplified in the media for a whole week making the headlines? That’s what happened,” Dutt said.
For Dutt, there is no doubt about the intersection of cast (my ignorance: is this not caste?) and gender in the backlash she’s faced, particularly in the absence of expected Dalit allies like Ghaywan and Baudh (who called her a hypocrite for criticizing the show but not crediting him with the term of “coming out,” even though Dutt doesn’t claim to have originated it). She noted that even among Dalits there is status, that B.R. Ambedkar called caste “a descending order of contempt” — as susceptible to exceptionalism as any minority.
“We aII know how narratives work,” Dutt said. “An individual person like myself, all I have is a social media account on Twitter or on Instagram, versus the might of the Indian press. Those are two very different power dynamics.” She said the filmmakers’ actions compared with the messaging of “Made in Heaven” was “very telling about how they wield power.”
It’s hard not to wonder why the “Made in Heaven” team wouldn’t simply acknowledge Dutt’s work — even without giving her credit — and move on, but Dutt isn’t surprised at all by the doubling down as an intimidation tactic. She cites the couple at the center of “The Elephant Whisperers,” who have since spoken out about not receiving compensation for their work on the Oscar-winning documentary (the filmmakers deny any claims of mistreatment).
“This is not the first time Bollywood has been in question or the Hindi or Indian film and TV space has been questioned for appropriating marginalized stories,” Dutt said. “This has happened before, many, many times. And I think the reason they’re hitting back so hard is to set an example.”
Dutt still praised “The Heart Skipped a Beat” and Ghaywan’s work, but said she was “traumatized” by the social media backlash of the past month.
“This is the legacy of the show,” she said. “If, after my statement, the show said ‘We respect what Yashica says. We disagree but we acknowledge that,’ and moved on and that was that, then the show would be the beautiful representation of Dalit pride and power that I think it was, that I called it.”
Dutt is used to negative responses to her words and work, albeit not at this scale, but her fear is the precedent set by this entire saga — and how it would play out for someone with less power or platform than herself. She can’t believe it has been over a month of this conversation, but hopes the worst is over.
“I’ll survive this,” she said with a wry smile over Zoom. “I’m a Dalit woman.”
“Made in Heaven” is now streaming on Netflix. “Coming Out as Dalit” will publish in the U.S. and globally in 2024.