2019 has gone off to a great start, first with Gully Boy (GB), and now Amazon Prime’s Made in Heaven (MIH), a sharply written, nuanced take on Indian families and the great Indian wedding. How did the show come about?
Zoya (Akhtar) came to me one day and told me about a friend who has a company: they shoot beautiful films about weddings. It’s an exciting space, and we wanted a very unique view into the wedding. So we thought it would be interesting to have two leads who are organising these lavish productions but one’s marriage is unravelling; the other one is in a situation where he can’t marry the person he loves, because even though Section 377 is repealed, it doesn’t mean gay marriage is on the cards. Later, we met Alankrita Shrivastava who fit into the pack, and the three of us wrote the show, while Nitya Mehra and Prashant Nair also came on board to direct.
As a writer and filmmaker, would you say it’s difficult to create empathy for really wealthy characters, as we’ve seen in some of your other work, and now in MIH?
Just because something is about rich people, doesn’t mean that it is for rich people. With Dil Dhadakne Do, Zoya and I received a lot of criticism that it was an ‘elite’ premise. But if, instead of a family going on a cruise, we’d put them on a train going to Haridwar, the story would still hold. The family construct is what makes us and breaks us, and through it, we’re trying to make a comment on Indian society.
MIH’s two leads come from a certain class of society, and they’re go-getting, ambitious people. But the wedding setup covers an entire strata of society. The conflict between who we are and who we want to be is a big theme in the show; as is the juxtaposition between modernity and tradition. It’s a look at the insider and the outsider: each of the characters is constantly straddling these two spaces. The rich are not immune to these things.
In both GB and MIH, the women exude strength, vulnerability and affection in a way that is very refreshing to see. Is it an exciting time to be writing about women in India?
We’ve written these female characters the way we have not because time has allowed it but because we wanted to. In GB, we traced Safeena’s story to the time when she was 10-11, when her parents might not have been so strict. She was somebody who, suddenly when she got into her teens, was curbed, and told how a young woman should behave. That’s where the anger starts, and she’s angry because she is equal, but she doesn’t have the same opportunities as men do. Murad is the only one who lets her be, so whenever that relationship is threatened, she gets violent. She’s trying to protect her freedom.
Are you tired of being viewed as a ‘female filmmaker’?
Yes, I am. I think it happened because I came at a time when there weren’t too many female filmmakers, and when my first film, Honeymoon Travels Pvt. Ltd.(2007) came out, nobody called me a filmmaker — it was always “female director”. Years ago, a journalist kept calling me for quotes for a story, and after a few days, I asked her to call somebody else. She said, ‘Meghna Gulzar is out of the country and there’s nobody else I can talk to!’ (laughs). I do feel that there’s a level of reverse prejudice when you describe somebody like that. If you see the history of films, male characters have almost always been violent. One Safeena comes along, and there’s a lot of comment on her violence. That I find disturbing. Have you questioned the use of violence by male characters in films and popular culture? You haven’t. But when stigma and prejudice exist, this sort of thing is inevitable.