There is much to laud in the Amazon Prime series Made in Heaven, currently amongst the most widely watched programs on the platform in India. The show follows the journey of two wedding planners, Tara and Karan, as they guide their young business through the various prejudices and challenges of Indian society, including colorism, homophobia, and domestic violence. However, New York-based Dalit author and activist Yashica Dutt spoke out online about a recent episode that she says bears striking resemblances to her own life. She alleges that her work was incorporated without credit or permission, claims the filmmakers deny.
In the opening scene of the episode “The Heart Skipped a Beat,” fictional author and activist Pallavi Menke, played by actor Radhika Apte, commands an austere stage at Columbia University. She’s there to discuss her memoir, which chronicles her experience as a Dalit woman and her use of the phrase “coming out.” “Dalit” is a term that refers to people belonging to formerly so-called “untouchable” groups ranking socially outside of the Hindu caste system. The episode was acclaimed for centering a Dalit woman and depicting an inter-caste Buddhist wedding.
For Dutt, however, her feelings of celebration quickly turned to feelings of invisibility as she watched the scene unfold on screen, which also included an anecdote about the character’s grandmother manually cleaning toilets.
“It was surreal to see a version of my life on screen that wasn’t but yet was still me,” Dutt wrote in an August 14 Instagram post after watching the episode. “But soon the heartbreak set in. They were my words but my name was nowhere. What could have been a celebration of our collective ideas was now tinged with sadness.”
Dutt and her supporters assert that Menke’s character was based, at least in part, on her own life and book Coming Out as Dalit (2019), which popularized the phrase “coming out” in relation to caste identity. One of the directors of the show, Alankrita Shrivastava, had even scheduled a casual meeting with Dutt in New York on July 15, 2022. No mention was made of Shrivastava’s intentions or her role in the creation of Made in Heaven during this meeting, Dutt said in an interview with Hyperallergic.
In the caption of an August 12 Instagram post, Neeraj Ghaywan, who co-directed the episode, cited Dutt’s book as inspiration for the scene in question. “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,” he wrote. “This inspired Pallavi’s interview section in the episode.”
Ghaywan is one of the few Dalit directors in Hindi-language film and, according to Dutt, has “revolutionized our cinematic language by showcasing unapologetic Dalits in Bollywood.” He and Dutt have admired one another’s work for years, she said.
In her Instagram post two days later, Dutt also included a request to Ghaywan and show creators Zoya Akhtar and Reema Kagti: that they formally acknowledge the influence of her work on the episode within the show’s credits.
However, in a subsequent Instagram post on August 17, Ghaywan, Akhtar, Kagti, and Shrivastava issued a collective statement categorically denying Dutt’s claim of appropriation, describing her critique as “misleading,” and referencing other Dalit writers whose work they drew upon while creating the episode. In an interview with Indian journalist Subash K. Jha, Ghaywan stated, “Pallavi Menke is a sum of all those who came before me and those who live in this time, grappling with their caste expression … so no one person can claim to be her.”
Shrivastava also took to X (formerly Twitter) to share that the episode was shot in October 2021 — prior to her meeting with Dutt.
Hyperallergic has reached out to Ghaywan, Akhtar, Kagti, and Shrivastava for comment. Amazon Prime Video India Head Communications Sonia Huria declined to comment further, citing the Instagram statement from the show’s creators.
After the episode was aired, several people left messages of support on Dutt’s social media posts, with some asking if she had given the producers consent to use aspects of her life story.
However, Dutt’s self-advocacy has also drawn criticism online, including allegations that she used the episode for publicity expressed by the influential Indian filmmaker Anurag Kashyap and in X posts by scholar Sumit Baudh. Baudh used the term “coming out” in relation to being Dalit in a 2007 essay — which the show’s creators cited as one of the inspirations for the scene in their Instagram statement responding to Dutt’s request for formal acknowledgment.
In an email to Hyperallergic, Baudh wrote, “The parallels start and end mostly at the title of Ms. Yashica Dutt’s memoir. Yet, the parallel is significant because of its prominent placement — in the title of the memoir. Meanwhile, in my essay of 2007, the idea of coming out as Dalit precedes and serves as an analogy to coming out as queer.” Dutt told Hyperallergic that she was not aware of this essay before she wrote her book.
“There have been relentless and non-stop attacks on everything about me for more than 30 days now,” Dutt told Hyperallergic. “It feels like it’s open season on how to humiliate a Dalit woman. I’ve been doxxed, slandered, abused, received threats of violence and sexual assault — all because I stood up and asked to be acknowledged.”
However, “this is not just a campaign run by Bollywood,” explained Dutt. “The Dalit community is not a monolith. Even within the caste system, there are higher-caste Dalits and lower-caste Dalits. I belong to the lowest Dalit caste — Bhangi. So this is an issue of casteist contempt.”
This incident also echoes longstanding questions around the politics of citation and intellectual ownership, which are by no means new when it comes to Indian cinema. The industry has a history of bolstering power structures that enable ongoing exploitation of Dalit communities and other marginalized South Asians.
One example is the 2021 Oscar-nominated documentary Writing with Fire, which depicts the work of India’s only rural, female-led media collective, Khabar Lahariya. After watching the documentary, the collective released a statement sharing concerns that their work was grossly misrepresented. The producers told NPR that they stood by their portrayal.
Another is The Elephant Whisperers (2022) — the first Indian documentary to win an Oscar — which follows the lives of elephant caretakers Bomman and Ellie, who are Adivasi, or tribally Indigenous to the Indian subcontinent. Like Dalits, Adivasis are excluded entirely from the caste system and systematically denied access to resources and education. According to a legal notice issued to the producers in August, the couple was promised financial support as compensation based on income generated from the project — which they have yet to receive. A statement released by the filmmakers Sikhya Entertainment and Kartiki Gonsalves called the claims “untrue” and cited the film’s celebration by Indian heads of state.
In the wake of the controversy, there have been statements of support for Dutt, as well. The X account India Explained, run by academic and writer Rohit Chopra, denounced the online attacks and intimidation she has endured.
Additionally, a collective of Dalit women and allies circulated an online petition in solidarity with Dutt. Made public on September 15 and accepting signatures through India Explained on X and the Facebook page Dalit Marxism, the petition has garnered 420 signatories including artists, journalists, scholars, and activists.