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Interview: Arjun Mathur Talks the Indian Smash Hit ‘Made in Heaven’

If there is any lesson we learned from the momentous and life-affirming Parasite Best Picture win at the Oscars earlier this year, it’s that we ignore international film at our peril. In addition to the incredible work consistently turned in by Oscar winners Bong Joon Ho out of South Korea, Ang Lee out of Taiwan, Pedro Almodóvar out of Spain and the trio of Mexican directors, Guillermo del Toro, Alfonso Cuaron, and Alejandro G. Iñárritu, who have dominated American cinema in the past decade, the world of quality entertainment is continuing to quickly expand way past the United States and Britain. So much of this is because of the massive success and spread of streaming services, like Netflix and Amazon Prime Video, who have made a commitment to providing global audiences with truly global entertainment. There is no shortage of content now available from all around the world, right in our living rooms. 

The International Emmy Awards are designed to honor the best in television from around the world, and the 2020 awards are set to be given out in a virtual ceremony on Monday, November 23. One of the actors nominated for Best Performance by an Actor is Indian actor Arjun Mathur, for his portrayal of Karan in the Indian smash hit series Made in Heaven, which is available worldwide on Amazon Prime. I recently spoke with Mathur about the show, his nomination, and the really disturbing reason why Indian weddings are such a big deal. Plus, he reveals which American director he would die to work with and it’s a name that just might surprise you.

Catherine Springer: Today is the first day of Diwali, am I right?  Should I say Happy Diwali?

Arjun Mathur: Yes, indeed. Happy Diwali to you.

How are you going to celebrate today?  Everything is different with COVID, isn’t it?

Yeah. We’re going to be careful. Maybe just have a few close people over, have some food, play some cards, eat some sweets. Everything but the firecrackers.

Sounds great! It is a crazy time for all of us. 

It really is.

But there are some good things. I wanted to say congratulations on your Emmy nomination! I know you’re the first Indian actor to get an Emmy nomination, is that right? And there are only 8 acting performances nominated, so it’s quite an achievement. 

Thank you. Thank you. Yeah, I am the first male Indian actor, yes. Last year there was one of our female actors who was nominated, but yes, I would be the first male to be so.

And it’s for your wonderful show, Made in Heaven. For those of us who may not have heard of it, tell us a little about it.

Sure!  It follows the lives of these two wedding planners, Karan and Tara, as they deal with the drama of their own personal lives as they are also navigating the world of high society New Delhi, through the weddings they put on. With each wedding, they encounter a new set of people and a new set of problems. And most of the problems that they save, and most of the issues that the show is bringing to light, are issues about our very archaic, Northern traditions in Indian culture. Basically, the show is kind of using Indian weddings, the attraction and gloss of Indian weddings, to draw in the audience and then slap them with them with some really hard truths about Indian society. [laughs]  The show is actually just trying to hold a bit of a mirror up to society without much judgment, and just say this is what we are, this is what we do. 

I really love the show. The structure works so well, it’s part soap opera, part drama, part comedy, and the focus of a different wedding in each episode allows for traditions and cultural elements to be explored. No matter how progressive a society might be, or think it is, when it comes to weddings, tradition always finds a way in, not always in a good way. 

Exactly! In an Indian wedding especially, this happens to be the perfect recipe for all of this, you know, because things like misogyny and patriarchy are so deeply steeped in the Indian psyche. And, at the time of the wedding, it’s the perfect time for it to kind of bubble up to the surface and show itself.

From an American perspective, we’ve always had this image of the Indian wedding as this big, glossy thing. Can you explain to us a little bit why Indian weddings are such big events and so culturally significant?

It’s just always been, irrespective of class or economic standing, for a lot of people and a lot of families, pretty much all they are living for. For women, the day that they get married is like, that’s it. I think there must actually exist some who don’t quite have any idea what they would like to do the day after they get married. Family and society are making that happen, because, like I said, there is a lot of misogyny that exists. To a large extent, it’s almost like parents rear their child to hand them over to a man one day, you know? For many women, it’s almost life’s greatest ambition to make sure that they’re married to someone worthy.  This is one section of society. There is another, which is the well-off, the really rich economically well-off India, and I think, for them, it becomes a lot about showing off.  In a place like Delhi, it’s a matter of competition. Who has the biggest wedding, you know? 

You mentioned you loved that there was so much of the female voice in the show. You also said you weren’t really looking to play another gay character, but you couldn’t turn this one down.

Absolutely. As you said, I have played a gay character twice before, so the first moment that this came to me I thought, oh, really, again? But the second I finished reading all the episodes and I saw what the show was really trying to say, it was exactly this: Number one, in Indian society the male perspective is so prevalent that I loved that this was being primarily told from a woman’s perspective, with most of our filmmakers being women, I think it was just a really important piece of work for this point in time, and I wanted to be a part of it. Secondly, everything it was saying, all the stands it was taking against these things, like patriarchy and misogyny, and a lot of laws and traditions that don’t really serve anybody anymore, but they exist. And lastly, of course, I think the support that it was lending to the clear voice that it had in support of the LGBTQIA+ community. All these things put together, definitely. I felt that it was a really important piece of work, extremely relevant in this particular point in time, and I very much wanted to be a part of that. I was glad it came to me.

Is there a lot of activism in Indian cinema, or is this show really breaking new ground in that way?

It is rare. I’ll be honest with you, it is rare. Most of Indian cinema, or the mainstream cinema at least, functions on a completely economic model, a very formulaic kind of idea, with a number of songs, there’s a very particular way a leading man should look, there’s very little activism that actually happens in our cinema. So, definitely, I think this show broke a lot of new ground. 

And it’s been really well received, I understand. So this is, hopefully, letting you know that there is an audience for this, an appetite for it, and, hopefully, this will open up more like this.

I hope so. I really hope so. I hope more and more people are inspired to create content that isn’t just empty, because that is a lot of what we have been creating up until the last few years, when suddenly now we have the streaming platforms. There is no more creating just for our narrow pockets of audience, and masses of Indian audience. Our work is now being watched all over the world, you know? We’re really trying to compete on a global stage. So I mean, we really certainly need to pull up our socks and improve the quality of our content, and Made in Heaven I think certainly, to some extent, has inspired at least a few people to do that. 

Even, I myself, when we were making the show, I did not expect the reception it’s gotten. These days in India we are living in a world currently where trolling and online hate that things receive can really hit a new level, you know? And I think I did expect that. Yes, the show is receiving a little bit of that, everything does, but, to my surprise, not one person to date has said one negative thing about the character I portray. It was so widely accepted, across age, gender, everything. It was a complete surprise to me. All that came to me were just very real, very personal stories of how someone was able to come out to the families after watching the show or how someone was able to come out to the workplace. Or how someone was able to accept a queer member of their own family better after watching this show. And I mean, that kind of reward, you can’t put a price on that.

Yeah, that’s absolutely wonderful. What really helps that is the way your character is written, and the way that you play him. He’s not just one dimensional. He’s not just “the gay character.” As a gay person myself, I really appreciated that. The character has a full life and a full journey. 

Yeah, definitely. I’ll be honest, for me, it was always about the emotional journey of the character. There was never any thought that went into his sexual orientation, except the days where I had to film a scene where I had to be intimate with a man. But other than that, there was never a moment where I felt that this character had to think anything different or feel anything different or behave different, just because of his sexual orientation. So, to me, honestly, I was just allowed absolute and complete freedom to make this character as real, as natural, as much as me as possible, while staying as honest to his emotional journey the best I could. Of course, I don’t have the same conflicts in my life, I don’t have a mother who hasn’t been able to accept me due to my sexual orientation. But, I just had to find parallels in my own life to where I might have felt similar emotions to kind of bring the authentic portrayal of the character. That’s all I really tried to do, it didn’t get much more complicated than that, really.  Because the creators left it to me, and said, this is not even a thought. He’s alpha, he’s male, he’s as masculine as it gets. We’re not going to give this any importance, simple. And I think that’s really what worked.

Yes. It really is a complete performance.  I understand you studied a bit in the States, at the Strasberg Institute?

I did! In fact, just yesterday, they very sweetly posted on their social media about me, which is a real proud moment for me, for such a prestigious institution to be feeling proud of me! [laughs]

As well they should be! Do you want to come work in the States? You haven’t done any American productions yet, have you?

Not just yet, no. I’ve been in a British production called Indian Summers. I do have a manager in the U.S. and I even have a British passport, so working outside of India is definitely something I’ve been actively trying to do over the last few years, and shall continue to because, honestly, for actors like me, and many others like me all over the world, we want to drop the borders. For us, it’s just one big stage.

So let me, let me ask you, from a worldwide perspective, I’m wondering if Parasite winning Best Picture at the Oscars last year had the effect on the rest of the world as it did here? Us finally acknowledging that great film is being made in other countries and in other languages? I think it was so important.

Absolutely. What happened was like, wow, what a moment, historic! I certainly hope so! Just by this having happened, the precedent is set, so that’s great. That really needed to happen. I guess now it’s up to, the people, you know? How good are they going to make their content? I hope India is up to the mark and can deliver on this. And one day perhaps deliver a film that gets us an Oscar!

Do you ever have dreams of directing or writing yourself?

I’m not a writer, per say, but, yes, I do have some fantasies about directing one day. It would have to be the right material that inspires me and the right people that I find to collaborate with. And then I could, think about it, because I think half of filmmaker’s work is getting the right people together. Someday, perhaps!

Is there anyone that you’ve always dreamed of working with?

My favorite filmmaker in the world is Richard Linklater.

Really? Awesome. 

Yeah. Yeah, I would really give an arm and a leg. Let’s see. Hopefully someday. [laughs]

That could very well happen! Hopefully, people will find Made in Heaven and enjoy it as much as I did. The fact that it’s on Amazon Prime and accessible all over the world, it’s reaching such a wide audience, is wonderful.

It’s so amazing!  Let me share with you, I have been acting in India for 13 years now, and, although I have always been known as a good actor, I have conventional notions of success and the big ticket sales and all that stuff have really evaded me, so far. And it’s been a long and difficult struggle because that is the way the Indian film industry works. It’s a very dynastic kind of hierarchy system, wherein if you have parents who worked here, then things are going to be much easier for you.  So there are a lot of actors like me who have kind of just been waiting in the wings for the moment in the sun.  And I think with the streaming platforms, with filmmakers having been freed of the shackles of the box office, they are able to make riskier choices, in terms of the content they want to put out, the actors they want to work with. And actors like me are having a field day right now. I mean, it’s really a moment, and I’m really glad and am proud. And we owe it all, actually, to Netflix and Amazon Prime. That’s the truth.

*Edited for brevity and clarity.*

Made in Heaven is currently streaming on Amazon Prime. The International Emmys will be awarded on November 23 at 11am EST, live on iEmmys.tv:  https://www.iemmys.tv/international-emmy-awards/awards-gala/

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