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As a child in 1970s Delhi, shaadi season was my favorite season. Homes were bedecked with strings of lights, band-baja-baraat (wedding party) music emanated from uniformed band-wallas, and there was raucous dancing in front of the white mare, often to the tune of “Aaj mere yaar ki shaadi hai” (my bro is getting married). Sugar high, twinkling lights, shehnai music.
The modest, stay-within-your-means wedding was like nothing my young self had experienced on-screen. Bollywood offered two choices when it came to weddings. One was a genial Alok Nath saying “Yeh shaadi dhoom dham se hogi.” (Big fat Indian, mostly Hindu, wedding or BFIW). The second was a scowling Amrish Puri saying “Yeh shaadi naheen hogi.” (No wedding, no way). The latter was usually because of a mismatch between religion, caste, class, or janmakundalis (horoscopes.)
Reel weddings versus real weddings? Time for a closer look.
Bigger and Fatter in America?
Had the BFIW reached American shores? And did it need to go on a diet? I decided to embark on an informal survey. The response of my friend Sujatha Suresh,who runs an event planning company called Running Dreamz Productions in California, made my eyes widen and my brows almost touched my hairline.
“Flowers are now flown from India to achieve the authenticity of a South Indian ceremony. Decorations from Rajasthan and Gujarat make the mehendi ceremonies feel like the sets of a Mani Ratnam movie. The jago and dholki at the Punjabi weddings are accompanied by live music by performers well versed in the traditional songs. An upcoming Tamil Brahmin family is interested in flying one of the top Carnatic music performers out for the reception performance.”
Sujatha Suresh is seeing these trends first-hand: “I am incredulous about the Bollywoodization—or should we say Karan Joharization—of the Big Fat Indian Wedding. Boring Indian weddings are now a thing of the past. The mehendi and sangeet cocktails are ubiquitous across India and have become an essential part of the festivities. Choreographed dances by the bridal party as well as middle aged friends of the parents are now de rigeur.”
Another wedding planner who coordinates Indian weddings in the Hawaiian islands confirmed these trends. “The excitement around island destination weddings is higher than I’ve ever seen it,” reports Mira Savara of Mira Savara Events, “The weddings tend to be 50-200 guests, which is quite large by Western standards, but small compared to the weddings we see in India. This allows the families to focus on a “wow” experience for their intimate guest list, and yes, we are seeing some real “Bollywoodization” of traditional Western weddings as well—pops of color, decorations that showcase an Indian flair, and choreographed dance numbers!
Destination weddings? Flowers from India? Choreographed dances? Are weddings now all about Bollywood production values and set design?
A friend shared her ambivalence about the professionalization of modern weddings: “My aunts used to sit over a cup of chai wrapping gifts for the wedding. Now, when I walk into a wedding, there is no place for trays wrapped in simple cellophane, bearing gifts for the bride or the groom. The trays have been color coordinated and stacked. The flowers are perfectly matched, the outfits of the bride and the groom and their families have been planned keeping the backdrop for the wedding photos in mind.”
I needed to turn to some people who had done some thinking about the Big Fat Indian Wedding.
Elite Status Weddings
Delhi-based sociologist Parul Bhandari has researched elite weddings in India extensively. In the status-crazed circles that Bhandari describes, “the elite Indian wedding is not simply an ostentatious celebration involving an unabashed display of money and taste. It is about competition, conservatism, and assertion of power. It is nothing less than the coronation ceremony of an elite status.”
Bhandari continues: “In this professionalised approach to wedding planning, elites have begun the trend of celebrating some of the most traditionally muted rituals with much glam and glitz, which would otherwise be celebrated with austerity especially in a middle class setting. For example, at the elite weddings I attended, for the small ceremonies of haldi (smearing the bride and groom’s body with turmeric powder) and gharcholi (bathing the bride and groom with holy water), a troupe of singers was invited and silver coins were given to the attendees.”
In the upper echelons of Indian society, “the practice of giving a dowry is also modified… [and] assumes a muted presence, shrouded in the ostentatious display of wealth and generosity of gift-giving. At one elite wedding I studied, the groom was given an Audemars Piguet watch costing approximately £10,000, a BMW 7 Series car, and £50,000 in cash. There is an insistence, especially by the father of the bride, to treat this not as dowry, but only as a gift, as the bride-to-be too, it is argued, is gifted expensive jewellery and clothes by her in-laws.” Her research echoes that of sociologist Patricia Uberoi, who writes that weddings are “the most visible site of conspicuous consumption and conspicuous waste,” in South Asia.
Wedding costs are growing at 30 percent annually in this $25 billion industry. Indians routinely spend one fifth of the wealth accumulated in a lifetime on a wedding ceremony, sometimes pledging their land as collateral.
Why this fascination with a big, over-the-top Bollywood style wedding? Has real life started imitating reel life or is it the other way around?
Screen weddings offer Bollywood a vehicle to show off designer costumes and jewelry, folk songs—a fun tamasha! No wonder Bollywood is obsessed with weddings, and weddings, by all accounts, are obsessed with Bollywood.
To remind myself about just what on-screen Bollywood weddings were like, I began rewatching, in earnest, several movies I could think of that included, among others, the mother of all wedding films: Hum Aapke Hain Kaun (HAHK). Plot lines of all variants abound. Each Bollywood film seemed to be having a conversation with modernity versus tradition. Patricia Uberoi calls the Alok Nath-style cultural propagation of “sanskaar” and images of large, happy joint families—as in HAHK as contributing to a conservative “ethnicisation,” of Indian family values against the modern culture of the West.
In HAHK, the subject of dowry comes up, with the clownishly vampy Bindu gnashing her teeth at Arti Shahani’s lack of dowry. To his credit, the patriarch Alok Nath sticks up for this dowry-less girl. Folk traditions are evident during the film. A great deal of fun is had over hiding the groom’s shoes.
Modernity and tradition face off again in the Kal Ho Na Ho wedding. Since the film is based in New York, some liberties can be taken. Saif Ali Khan genuflects, Western style, to ask Preeti Zinta’s hand in marriage. Yet there is Punjabi folk music at the wedding “Pyaari Banno” full of nostalgia, Indian style.
In Yeh Jawaani Hai Deewani, the destination wedding to a Rajasthani palace hotel, and much dancing and partying is in evidence. In the song “Dilli Wali Girlfriend,” Deepika Padukone makes a reference to a bride’s weight in gold. Gold, that precious yellow metal around which so much revolves. There is a shadow behind all that shiny gold jewelry.
In Monsoon Wedding, the simple and touching romance and wedding of the working class Vijay Raaz who falls in love with the maid, Tilotama Shome outshines the wealthier versions. This is the film that stole my heart with its subtle depiction of family dynamics during a middle-class Delhi wedding.
Naseeruddin Shah’s embarrassment when he needs to borrow money for the wedding highlights the financial burden on the bride’s father.
Bollywood itself serves as a cultural forum for competing values. Not surprisingly, Bollywood depictions of weddings include the uncritical as well as the socially aware. Everyone loves a good party, and if you’ve got the money, surely you are entitled to flaunt it? Yet societally, a culture of extravagant weddings too frequently translates to debt and financial difficulty as an aftermath. Sadly, this burden has traditionally been disproportionately borne by the bride’s family. In India, dowry-related crimes are rising in a culture of rampant greed. Something about this stinks, and the fragrance of even the most beautiful wedding flowers can’t disguise this whiff.
Bidai: The Sendoff
Dhoom dham is all good and fine. But at some point, the Bollywood movie comes to an end, and we return to reality. After the bidai (farewell) and the tears, after the honeymooners have left in their flower-strewn car, and the pandit has departed, and the wedding planners and caterers have been paid, I wonder who is left holding the bill for the Big Fat Indian Wedding!
Geetika Pathania Jain, Ph.D. is a frequent contributor to India Currents.
Plot lines of all variants abound, and my mind boggled with the sheer variety of themes that emerged.
. Girl has prior boyfriend but gets married to the chosen bridegroom (Tanu weds Manu, Monsoon Wedding)
. Girl does not want to get married to the chosen bridegroom and skips matrimony altogether (Bazaar, Veer Zara). Boy does not want to get married to chosen bride (Hasee toh Phasee, Roja)
. Boy and girl want to get married, but what to do (Kal Ho Na Ho, Mughal-e-Azam). Girl gets jilted, embarks on solo honeymoon (Queen)
. Girl gets jilted, embarks on speech about virtues of Haryanvi women (Tanu weds Manu Again). Boy and girl get married once again (Tanu weds Manu Again)
. Singles mingle at a friend’s/sister’s wedding and end up together (Tanu weds Manu, Yeh Jawanee Hai Deewanee, Hum Aapke Hai Kaun)
. Boy meets many eligible Patel girls (Meet the Patels)
. Boy and girl are from different communities (Two States)
. Boy and girl are from different social classes (Mughal-e-Azam)