I read the piece written by Dr. Soni of her critique on Netflix’s new video series on over the top Indian weddings “The Big Day“. I wanted to share a few of my thoughts on it. I found the series entertaining, interesting, and funny. Each couple had a unique love story and their weddings were customized for that and to reflect their own individual styles and tastes. Since these couples came from very wealthy families and backgrounds, they could afford such grand extravagant weddings and the planning team to do it.
What bothered me was that The Big Day showed Indian couples that came from families is not even the 1% in India or the Indian American community but the less than 1%! These were people in extremely wealthy and elite circles. How many of us Indian Americans, even those who are in the upper-middle and upper class of doctors, engineers, CEOs of companies, can afford weddings on such a grand scale?
Let us take Nikhita and Mukund. Nikhita said in the trailer “I wanna make this wedding everything I ever dreamed of.” Well, considering that she and her husband were around 24-25 at the time of their nuptials, can someone that young pay for a wedding that cost upwards of tens of millions of dollars? Her father Subrah Iyer is a Silicon Valley tech CEO worth several hundred million dollars ($750 million). Of course, the majority of parents want to pay for their kid’s weddings but how many Indian American kids have parents who can afford to pay for a weeklong over-the-top wedding in India in the tens upon tens of millions of dollars? The Iyers are in less than 1%, and Nikhita and Mukund’s wedding story is a very far removed reality!
Again, these couples and their families are extremely wealthy and have every right to have these types of weddings. It is just that this is not the reality for most of us. I wish the wedding series was called ‘The Big Day for Indians in the 1%’.
If you would like your opinion or perspective expressed at India Currents, do not hesitate to contact email@example.com with a submission or note.
Indians all over the globe are binge-watching the new Netflix series, The Big Day. The series focuses on big fat Indian weddings in exotic locales and I could not get enough! The Valentine‘s day launch was on point to woo the romantic notions of thousands of couples who put their own wedding plans on hold because of the pandemic.
Traditionally, marriage entailed matching horoscopes, a pinch of haldi, kumkum, chandan, coconut, dates, seven steps in front of the fire, a mangal sutra, and good luck. Over time and much thanks to Bollywood, weddings are a $50 billion industry in India. Indians love big weddings. Even some Americans desire to be married in the Indian way because Indian weddings are colorful, extravagant, and over the top.
When I was getting married, weddings used to be a family affair and the festivities revolved around setting a budget. The bride’s trousseau (sarees, jewelry, home goods) was collected from the day she was born. Once the wedding date was set, the house buzzed with decisions about the invitation card, venue, light display, music, marching band, caterers, and gifts for the groom and his family. No wedding planner was hired. Friends and relatives chipped in to prepare for the wedding. The bride and groom were not involved in deciding anything once they said yes. Everything was decided for them. They spent their days floating on clouds and fantasizing about their lives together.
I got married in the Pink City of Jaipur. Rajasthan’shavelis and mahals added to the charm. Colorful attires, music, and delicious cuisine set the mood. I wore a red and gold tissue saree I bought from Kala Niketan. I did my own makeup. My mother’s Navaratana necklace adorned my neck for good luck. My dad blew his budget because the groom’s family invited about three hundred people last minute. But he dealt with it, without flinching an eye.
The Big Day, produced by Conde Nast India, is about avant-garde millennial Indian couples and displays the megabucks put into the Indian wedding industry. This gives us an escape out of our surreal, locked-down Zoom reality and into an extravagant social engagement. Six lavish, pre-COVID Indian weddings in exotic locales, with “breaking barriers” bridal looks, decor, food, and flamboyance!
The weddings are different because, in a rather unconventional twist, the millennial couples are in charge. They seem to have choreographed the entire ceremony to meet their style and personal flair. The couples tell us their back story. Their meet-cute, their courtship, their choice in engagement rings, their proposals, their challenges, their families’ reaction, and most importantly, the wedding preparation.
Some broke tradition by snubbing certain subversive traditions which seem to denigrate women like kanya dan and mangal sutra. Others embraced tradition by effortlessly accepting to live with extended families. There was a lot of emphasis on cross-cultural unions including a poignant gay marriage.
Some dialogues and vignettes pull at heartstrings:The Hindu priest who married two men dressed in lungis to recreate a Chennai custom said: “Hinduism is a way of life”. That sentiment brought so much solace to the newlyweds that they danced together.
I was floored with the destination of a Kishangarh fort and loved the incorporation of Sarson (Mustard) flowers and sprigs of Bajra. The use of floating sanganerblock printed fabrics was a very creative idea. Everything was locally sourced and repurposed. The couples planned their wedding with such a great eye for detail, working tirelessly with vendors and creatives. The Baby boomer parents were there to offer support, happily or grudgingly, as they watched them choreograph their own wedding.
I hope these newlyweds live happily ever after. I am hooked and will definitely watch the next episodes! My only question is – did the savvy millennials foot the bill of The Big Day?!
Monita Soni, MD has one foot in Huntsville, Alabama, the other in her birth home India, and a heart steeped in humanity. Monita has published many poems, essays, and two books, My Light Reflections and Flow Through My Heart. You can hear her commentaries on Sundial Writers Corner WLRH 89.3FM.
Being connected is crucial in the time of the 2020 pandemic!
We all have been through a strange time period. When the virus came to our shore, everything shut down in shock. The initial week or two of isolation was like an extended holiday. For those of us who could stay home without having to work, this was an escape from reality. We divulged in home-cooked meals, lazy afternoons, boisterous evenings filled with board games, binge-watching TV shows, or reading. At my home, we fashioned our timetable around morning yoga, the adulation of Hercule Poirot, long meandering walks up the mountain, boomerangs of plated food, categorizing the flora and fauna around us. Despite Covid 19 raging in the world around us and contrary to health guidelines, We longed to take a break from ourselves and to connect with our friends. Misery seeks company! The human angst and the hysterical response to the global tragedy appear to be the premise of the show.
The plot of NBC’s Connecting urges us to be aware of our diversity as a country and how we got there. The NBC original showcases American history and our civil rights. So we hope to be informed in a lighter vein as we follow the lives of six friends. The show is innovating in the use of Zoom, filming the actors in their own homes. The time period is through early March 2020 and it will take us through our surreal day to day experience in the United States through our Presidential elections.
I am sure all of us remember our early experiences of fumbling with zoom, from connecting and using gallery mode to changing backgrounds and sharing screens and all the faux pas. I am certain we are going to find it very relatable and hilarious like the Saturday Night Liveskits about Zoom Call, Zoom Church, and Zoom Catchup. Most of us are on tenterhooks about not getting infected but at the same time, we are becoming Zoom savvy not wanting to be out of step with our fellow men! My experiences connecting with my grandson in India are interesting enough to fill a book because of the time difference, spottiness of the internet, his interest in playing games on the phone while talking to me, and lately a fuzzy camera because of disinfecting the phone with sanitizer.
Parvesh Cheena told me that he was absolutely delighted to be accepted in the series, Connecting, on his birthday. The gregarious actor plays “Pradeep” a gay man who lives in Los Angeles with his adopted children. He shares his exertions on home-schooling his defiant brood with his friends, while his friends share their domestic woes, breakups, and other dramatic personal events. Parvesh has modeled his character after his college roommate who has adopted children.
While doing the series, Parvesh realized that society is better equipped to deal with the previous pandemics (the Bubonic Plague of the 1600s, the Influenza of the 1950s, and even the SAARS of 2009 ) because of our access to the internet and social media. We can smile and laugh on video chats, offer our condolences, and give virtual hugs, but I reminded him that in older times, people had access to books and creative geniuses like the Bard churned out King Lear, Macbeth, and Antony and Cleopatra.
As an Indian, I am proud of young people breaking the conventional career choices of our generation and finding their niche in acting, dance, literature, music, and politics. I wanted to study interior design but my persuasive father made a compelling argument for me to become a physician. It has been a rewarding profession but my creative instincts have found an outlet in the arts that covers the walls of my home.
So I agree with Cheena’s encouraging words: “It’s never too late to try!”
He is an interesting person in his own words composed of “a quarter “Chicago” pizza” and in my words “three-quarters of bonhomie, gratitude, and ebullience”. It is hard to come across someone who is authentic and polite. I was intrigued by his journey as an actor. You might remember him from Outsourced as the preposterous busybody Gupta and as Sunil Odhav in Crazy Ex-Girlfriend.
Parvesh recalls that he had to invent himself into an Indian culture that he was not familiar with. His parents came from North India in the 1970s in the time of Nixon and Lyndon Johnson but Parvesh was born in the US. At that time, scientists and engineers from the East were building America, and yet actors were not mainstream. Indians were depicted as a cabby, a waiter, or a doctor, so Gupta in Outsourced, although not culturally accurate, heralded a change.
I shared my experience with him from the 1990s, when strangers in New York would ask me if I knew a “Rajiv” in Los Angeles. Or was it okay to take the chicken out of my tomato broth or would I eat dessert as my main course? I was often floored by such quixotic questions but Parvesh has a generous response to this inane curiosity. He says, “People are just trying to connect.”
At the end of the day, Parvesh imagines himself as a storyteller rather than an actor. He was happy to share that the first role he played on stage was in his school play where he was cast as King George the III. Although the only word he spoke was “hmm”, he fondly recalls how his Nani made him a red cape lined with gold. Ever since that time he dreamed of connecting with a wider audience! He is ecstatic to represent mainstream Indian Americans because he wants to raise awareness about other ethnic groups in society. He is acting to quell xenophobia.
I know that Parvesh has a golden future as a comedian. Comedy is a difficult genre because it requires clever material, timing, and an honest perspective. He has a natural talent for it and I was touched by the positive energy exuding from Mr. Cheena in Connecting, restored by a cup of coffee. He was just a regular down-to-earth guy in Los Angeles, requesting everyone to “mask up” and stay safe. I was a pathologist/ correspondent listening to him in my parked car outside the hospital and we were connecting so effortlessly on a gorgeous fall day. Since our interview, I have already recommended the show to many of my friends and I am excited to see their Halloween episode on October 31. Hope all of you do the same – social distancing while CONNECTING.
Monita Soni grew up in Mumbai, India, and works as a pathologist in Decatur Alabama. She is well known for her creative nonfiction and poetry pieces inspired by family, faith, food, home, and art. She has written two books: My Light Reflections and Flow through my Heart. She is a regular contributor to NPR’s Sundial Writers Corner.
When I saw the trailer for “Never Have I Ever” I was disappointed, annoyed, and consumed with secondhand embarrassment. How could they make a TV show about an Indian girl who was obsessed with losing her virginity, “popping her cherry”, “getting railed” or any of the provocative phrases that were used in the show?
Short answer: they didn’t.
“Never Have I Ever” is a new Netflix teen comedy show made by Mindy Kaling and Lang Fisher. It features an Indian-American teen Devi Vishwakumar, who wants to make a fresh start after a traumatic freshman year in which she experiences a three-month-long paralysis following her father’s death.
After the trailer, “Never Have I Ever” surprised me. Devi Vishwakumar, who is excellently played by Maitreyi Ramakrishnan, is relatable. She wasn’t your Indian stereotype, consumed just with her schooling, and obeying her parents. She is a three-dimensional character, with motive, pain, and emotions.
Devi is a firecracker. She is angry, she is resentful, she is competitive, she has a penchant for swearing and a habit of insulting people. In other words, that part of her personality – the overachieving yet angry nerd – was me in a nutshell.
Yet she was given substance beyond that. We are given a character who struggles through trauma, makes bad decisions, and she is not glorified for it. She is called out by her friends for being self-centered, a liar, and every mistake she makes. Devi is a character who feels real. While she takes from parts of the Indian stereotype, she is made into a three-dimensional character who I related to and it made me happy.
Initially, the element that did turn me off, the obsession with her virginity, was a little over-the-top. I felt as though Devi was being idiotic and foolhardy, trying to “pop her cherry” just for the sake of it, but the way the show tackles it is well-done. Every action of Devi’s is meant to happen. Whether she’s getting stupidly drunk at a party or insulting a college counselor, it makes sense in the context of her character. Devi’s character is built around her mistakes and her regrets, rather than her triumphs, and it makes the show move forward smoothly.
It’s why the show worked for me. In the beginning, I was skeptical, due to the supposed idiocy of the plotlines. As a high schooler, most of these things didn’t or couldn’t happen to me. But somehow these characters, all-too-human and none a true stereotype, carried the show so well.
Nalini, Devi’s mother, is the best example. She is a tough woman who is struggling through maintaining a dermatology practice, running a household, trying to be a mother, and also going through her grief. She is not your Indian stereotype. Yes, she is strict, but she is sassy, and Westernized. She’s not always likable, but she’s never truly the villain. The clash between Devi and her mother makes them both human. Nalini makes mistakes and she comes to terms with them. She grows as much as Devi does.
Another great example is my personal favorite character, Devi’s supposed rival, Ben Gross. Ben is a well-written character. His rivalry with Devi is hilarious and competitive yet he is also given his moments to shine, such as his own episode: “… been the loneliest boy in the world”. Ben is initially rude and callous, but he grows just as Devi does, side-by-side and he is revealed for the sensitive, sometimes a little dumb, sweet guy he is.
“Never Have I Ever” disappointed in some of its technicalities. Tamilians everywhere are pointing out the cringe-worthy reference to ‘thakkali sambar’ made by Devi’s dad. Let me break it down on behalf of my Tamilian mom. First, ‘tomato sambar’ isn’t a thing. Second, he mispronounces the Tamil word as ‘bald’, not as ‘tomato’. Since Tamil is used sparsely in the sitcom, this truly was annoying for Tamil viewers.
While I did enjoy Mindy Kaling’s storytelling overall, she seemed a bit out-of-touch with her audience. For instance, San Fernando Valley in Southern California near Los Angeles is teeming with Indians. So Sherman Oaks High School must have its fair share of Indian American students. There’s simply no way that Devi could be the ‘only Indian’ in her school or class or even row. It did not make sense.
Yet, despite the minutiae that annoyed me, there are details that made me smile.
Throughout the show, you see Nalini’s ‘vanki’ ring, a traditional ring of curved gold inset with stones. It made me pause the show and stare for a moment. My mother wears an almost identical ring.
Nalini isn’t overly religious, but she hates when books fall on the floor (because in Indian culture books are blessed and tossing them on the floor is a major offense). Their altar, placed in a corner of the house and decorated with photos and statuettes of Hindu gods, looks similar to my own. They make masala dosa (one of my favorite foods), and they call each other “kanna”, a Tamil term of affection that’s been used on me a couple of times.
As a half-Tamilian, these details resonated with me. But they hit home for my mother who enjoyed ‘Never Have I Ever’ a great deal. It is likely the first time in either of our lifetimes that there has been a three-dimensional Indian character on the American screen.
We are seeing Indian cultures, Indian characters as #1 on Netflix. We are seeing ourselves represented on the largest stage outside of India. And that is incredible.
What’s more – the show featured some top Bay Area talent – Richa Moorjani who plays Devi’s gorgeous cousin Kamala, dancer Jaya Kazi who choreographed the moves to Nagade Sang Dhol in the Ganesh puja scene and Rashmi Rustagi who plays an older Indian woman in Episode 1.
Ultimately, I loved this show. Though it made me cringe from time to time (and what teen show doesn’t?), it made me feel seen. I know the rage Devi feels and I know the culture she shirks. This is a show that may not be made for my generation, and it may not be perfect, but it speaks to us. My generation lives with Indian culture and American culture, and we are the ones who are stereotyped as “just another overachieving Indian”. We are Devi, despite how much our personalities may differ.
This show isn’t just for me, in California, cushioned by my South Asian friends and South Asian culture; it’s also for those in middle America who are scared of being seen in Indian clothes and afraid of eating Indian food at school.
This show is for all Indian-Americans who bridge the gap between cultures and deal with its inherent problems. This show is not a one-note story and nobody is close to perfect. The characters and their lives are imperfect, but it all comes together in one touching story.
Just remember – don’t forget your tissues!
Kaavya Butaney is a sophomore at Los Altos High School in Los Altos, CA. She writes for her school newspaper, The Talon, and loves speech and debate and choir. Kaavya is an intern at India Currents.