Indian writer says Amazon Prime series character seems to be based on her
An Amazon Prime series on Indian wedding planners has been accused of failing to acknowledge the contribution of a Dalit journalist who says that the main character appears to be based on her own life, as recounted in a book she wrote.
Yashica Dutt, 37, has been based in New York for a few years but grew up in India amid the daily contempt to which people who belong to her caste are subjected.
In her 2019 book Coming Out As Dalit – a Memoir, Dutt chronicled the agonies of her childhood when her mother tried to pass off the family as Brahmins to protect Yashica and her other children from society’s cruelty, recalling the constant terror of being caught out.
She was sitting in her apartment last week when her phone began ringing. Friends in India asked if she had given permission to the makers of the latest episode of the show, Made in Heaven, to base the main character, a Dalit bride, on her book.
In it, the bride is shown as a strong woman from the lowest caste in Hinduism who marries a man of a higher caste. She is unashamed about who she is, confident, and stands up for her community.
Dutt turned on her TV and, as she watched, was heartened that a Dalit had finally been cast as the main character in a country where the community is almost never seen in films or TV. She found the portrayal moving and nuanced.
But the admiration soon turned to shock. “Seeing my likeness on screen without warning or permission was a rollercoaster starting from thrill and excitement to sadness and loss,” she said.
Dutt is unmarried and does not live in India. To that extent, the character is not like her at all. “But the woman is shown as a Dalit author from Columbia University [where Dutt studied journalism] who has written a book about coming out and talks about how her grandmother used to clean toilets. That is my grandmother. That is me. It’s my life, my words. But my name was nowhere,” Dutt told the Guardian.
Soon people who had read her book were asking on social media if the series was inspired by her life. The director of the series then posted a comment on Instagram listing her name as one of the collaborators and thanking her.
Dutt says that while she appreciates the gesture, even if belated, an Instagram post is not enough. No one at Amazon Prime, she claims, has acknowledged that the episode was based on her life without her consent. But even more hurtful, she says, is the lack of acknowledgement in the credits.
On Thursday, the director and producers denied appropriating Dutt’s work and life. In a statement posted on Instagram, they said the Dalit bride was totally fictional and was based neither on Dutt’s life nor anyone else’s. They said they were disturbed by the “misleading reports” and they have “immense respect for Dutt and her work”.
Amazon Prime said the creators of the episode had responded and that it would not be commenting.
“The word for my caste is bhangi [assigned to those who have to clean toilets] – it comes from such a terrible place of shame in India that even saying the word is difficult. It took huge effort on my part to tell my story,” Dutt said.
Her book recounts the efforts her mother, Shashi, made to keep up the pretence that the family was Brahmin. With no money and an alcoholic husband, Shashi had to fund “upper caste” events such as birthday parties and make up their house so that it looked respectable.
The existential tension was almost intolerable. One wrong word or gesture in a moment of spontaneity while playing with friends or buying sweets from a shopkeeper could expose the lie and her true identity.
Her experiences taught her that, as a Dalit woman, she could be ignored. Now, as an adult, she says she will not be disregarded.
“Millions of people around the world may see the show. It is my life. It’s so blindingly obvious. Viewers have seen it and said so. It’s not just me. I have the right to have my intellectual contribution acknowledged where it belongs, in the credits, not as an afterthought in an Instagram post,” she said.