Spoiler Alert: Some spoilers included. You are notified!
The new season of Made in Heaven brings back our fashionable, intriguing and equally notorious wedding planners ready to command forces for some weighty wedding histrionics. One of the more prominent features of this popular show is its unabashed spotlighting - even if sometimes pontificating - and unraveling of familial complications erupting in disruptions to the characters' mental and emotional wellbeing. As the show weaves decadence with drama much like the shimmer of gold through silk in all those designer bridal lehengas, it simultaneously unbraids the psychological impact of disturbing family dynamics. Whether it is an ailing mother on her deathbed guilt-tripping her gay son to get married, a homophobic and sexist father trying to dictate whether his wife can attend his lesbian daughter’s commitment ceremony or even the blatant colourism that is coded into our collective psyche, the season broaches a host of difficult subjects in its outsider-insider saga of secrets.
Here are three types of psychological challenges depicted on the show that are seemingly commonplace in Indian families:
Enmeshment: The protagonist Karan's mother refuses treatment for her terminal illness by dangling it like a bait for him. She wants him to concede to a marriage to a woman despite knowing that he can't. She continuously guilts him into feeling responsible for her happiness to the extent that he deals with depressive phases. Jazz’s family almost treats her like a one-stop solution for all their problems. She is made aware at every instance that she is not supposed to deviate from her given role of being a caregiver for her whole family. Tara’s mother-in-law cunningly excludes her son’s current girlfriend, instead choosing to center her soon-to-be-ex daughter-in-law as an act of power-play within the family without any real concern for any of them. A helpless wife watches her husband remarry despite not being afflicted by grief just so she can maintain closeness to her kids whom she is most likely to lose if she protests against the new marriage. These portrayals emphasise how individual identity of family members is impeded from its natural growth arc and each member of a family is expected to be consumed by heightened concern for the whole unit in an almost pathological way. Family therapist Salvador Minuchin introduced the concept of “enmeshment” as part of his studies on how family structures can uplift or thwart individual development. Enmeshment is a form of co-dependency within families where interpersonal boundaries are erased, independent will is denied and any form of autonomy or valuing of self is perceived as unnecessary or even traitorous. Made in Heaven has some powerful examples of enmeshment, particularly in joint family systems. Whether due to sociocultural hierarchies, economic problems, religious doctrine or just plain narcissism from dominant personalities, enmeshment is corrosive to the psyche. It leaves people feeling guilty and shameful for no apparent reason. It also convinces a lot of people that wanting some form of individual identity is a betrayal to the larger family unit and this, in turn, might affect their self-worth and their interpersonal relationships.
Parentification: An extension of the previous example in enmeshment, we also see Karan’s mother imprinting upon him from an early age that he has to be the custodian for her happiness at all points in time. Even as a teenager, he faces abuse from her merely for self-expression and exploring a legit part of his sexuality. Instead of offering understanding, she shames him and labels him in a rather immature and impulsive outburst. Tara’s mother is so desperate for her family to not be poor, she ends up tutoring her daughter that her value is directly proportional to her power and moolah without considering where that road might lead for her daughter. Tara is programmed to become a winning racehorse from an early age while the parent carts off all of her duties to her. It is usually a parent who nourishes and supports a child. However, in parentified households, there is a role reversal of sorts where the child is forced to take on a parental role at an early age. In these situations a parent who is fully capable of functioning as a responsible adult still dumps that responsibility on a child who has yet not developed psychologically and physically to handle those expectations. Parentification absolves a parent from being the mature party in a parent-child relationship and squarely rests that obligation on a child’s shoulder. Children who might not have the power or even the perceptive depth to solve complex adult problems are expected to play the roles of mediators, confidantes and rescuers. An inability to fulfill these roles might lead to them being blamed and shamed for their “incompetence” in making the parent and the family happy. Parentified children carry guilt about this so-called incompetence. They might find it hard to ask for help or open up to others emotionally to the extent of being pervasively avoidant because they have been conditioned to undervalue their own needs in favor of uplifting others.
Familial Gaslighting: Gaslighting has become something of a buzzword on the interwebz with several different definitions debated and contested. The most conclusive way to describe gaslighting is that it is a form of emotional abuse. Gaslighting is a type of premeditated emotional abuse in which one party either overtly or covertly makes the question their sanity and reality. This sort of abusive behavior entrenches self-doubt in a person and alienates them not just from others around them but even themselves. A bride who is repeatedly subjected to cutting remarks about her skin tone by relatives sold to colourism. A man demeaning and forbidding from attending their daughter’s commitment ceremony to her partner, a woman. A bride who is verbally castigated and forced to feel incompetent about her sexual attractiveness by a husband who has erectile dysfunction and doesn’t want to deal with his own issues. Familial gaslighting is particularly deceptive because it often comes from people we are supposed to feel safe with and trust.
Pop culture, entertainment and media can be a both a mirror and a hammer (borrowing from Bertolt Brecht) for our social conversations. It can show us our face as a collective and also take a shot at breaking down regressive world views. While we can't expect a show or a film for changing our society, sometimes, we are able to verbalise our own personal experiences with more ease when we see it represented on a screen in front of us.