Yashica Dutt holding her memoir, Coming Out as Dalit (image courtesy Yashica Dutt)

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, the school Dutt also attended. In the scene, Menke is 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 cleaning toilets.

“The scene where the Dalit author who is from Columbia, has written a book about ‘Coming Out’, and talks about how her grandmother ‘manually cleaned toilets’ (while wearing all blue as a homage to Ambedkar), asserts her selfhood with her life partner-to-be, gave me chills,” Dutt wrote in an August 14 Instagram post after watching the episode.

“It was surreal to see a version of my life on screen that wasn’t but yet was still me,” Dutt continued. “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 many viewers of the show 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.

Dutt’s self-advocacy has also drawn criticism and threats online. Indian filmmaker Anurag Kashyap allegedly described Dutt as “toxic” and “an opportunist.” Scholar Sumit Baudh said in X posts that he 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, and further added that the similarities between the show and her life go beyond the use of the expression “coming out as Dalit.”

“I wrote a book based on my specific life experiences and life story, using a term whose various addendums (coming out as gay/trans/lesbian/asexual/pan etc.) have been in use for many decades across the world. As any Dalit and queer person would, I saw the similarities in closets of ‘caste’ and ‘sexuality’ and put them together,“ Dutt said.

“But what gave the words ‘Coming Out as Dalit’ the mainstream recognition it has today, that allowed the makers of the show to use it in the first place, was my life story, my book and my years of publicly responding to the immense backlash on my own, which I still continue to receive, for simply saying these words that so many today identify with,” Dutt continued. “The fact that there has been an large attempt to shift the focus from the show’s theft of my likeness to my use of a globally prevalent framework of identity in my work, which then has been used as a device to further denigrate me and ‘show me my place’ as a Dalit woman, should tell you everything about masterful and coordinated this effort is.”

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.”

The Elephant Whisperers poster, after Oscar nomination, signed by Guneet Monga, Doug Blush, Kartiki Gonsalves, Priscilla Gonsalves, and Sven Faulconer (photo via Wikimedia Commons)

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 also been several statements of support for Dutt. One open letter signed by 40 North American and Indian activists and allies denounced the online attacks against Dutt and intimidation she has endured. “We hope that the producers of the show and Amazon India will take the necessary steps to offer Ms. Dutt the credit she deserves and resolve this matter,” the letter reads. “We also hope that they will issue a statement urging the abuse against Ms. Dutt to stop.”

Additionally, a collective of Dalit women and allies have 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. Titled “Stop the Hate Campaign Against Yashica Dutt, Bollywood Must Give Rightful Credit,” the petition has garnered 420 signatories including that of New York University Professor Emeritus Arjun Appadurai; Bhim Army Chief Chandra Shekhar Azad Ravan; and Beena Pallical, general secretary of the National Campaign on Dalit Human Rights in New Delhi.

“Many Dalits, of all genders, are forced to hide their caste identity to survive in the subcontinent,” the petition reads. “Coming Out as Dalit is a universal experience for most of them. Rarely is it by their own choice, they are usually ‘outed’ by hostile others. Through her book, Dutt articulated this utterly commonplace experience for the first time in Dalit Literature. She coined the phrase that thousands of readers resonated with. Her work stands on its own merits and cannot be erased.”

Sadaf Padder is a Brooklyn-based South-Asian-American independent curator, creative coach, and founder of Alpha Arts Alliance, a hyperlocal multidisciplinary collective that pledges a percentage of all...