Netflix, The Big Day, and Marriage vs. Wedding
Tanushree Ghosh @thoughtsnrights
The recent weeks have been so heavy that it will probably seem surprising that I choose to write on The Big Day - a Netflix four-part documentary following the fascination that is the great Indian Wedding – with so much else going on. But I find it to be pertinent to be doing so, for in the reflections around the show and what it showcases lies the basic tenets that form the fabric of India today and need to be pondered upon.
This is not a criticism of the show just because it showcases insanely lavish weddings that only a few can afford (from Katrina Kaif inexplicably showing up in one that had seemed to be the down to earth one, to Terrence Lewis choreographing, mad hatter sangeets, fire dancers, 25,0000 mustard plants transported and each cushion cover handmade by artisans). Or for flaunting the lifestyle of the rich during a time of economic downturn and despair. As I have noted before, there is never a right time to showcase what is the equivalent of prosperity porn yet there is always a market for it. I personally don’t find anything wrong in fascinations with an Ambani wedding, nor can I fault the Ambani’s for having one that suits them.
Nor is the show one-sided. In fact, I felt that the producers and writers were mindful, over mindful, in designing it to be diverse and inclusive. That is, as diverse and inclusive as it can be within the economic strata the show presents. From the same-sex couple to mixed heritage; from the diaspora to born and brought up in the motherland, from khandani rich to self-made power couples – the makers have tried. They have gone out of their way to appear progressive too. From recycling and environmental responsibility to physical appearance and sexuality.
Netflix also can’t be cited for gender stereotyping on this show. The power dynamics, the dialogues, and of course, the protagonists, are selected and presented carefully. Weddings – otherwise a minefield of regressive and patriarchal rituals – are neutralized throughout the show to soften the blow. From the refusal of Kanyadan to female priests, from women making the calls in how they want not just the wedding, but their married life to be to the in-laws agreeing. The groom earning less not mattering, and no one disagreeing on refusal to receive a baraat - watching these families will make you feel everything’s alright with the world.
And lastly, the questions on how fancy is too much fancy is and why the pomp and show are answered wisely with 'individuality'. As one of the wedding planners says, the amazing progression of Indian weddings is how each wedding has a distinct personality. As if the wedding is the person(s) itself and that is what we will talk about more in a bit. But the point here is that the show of wealth is skillfully disguised as the expression of self. That too of the woman. Not that it needed to be but doing so indeed is a marketing masterpiece. It makes obscene amounts of money spent on sets that’d go down in a day and few days that mark just that – just a few days in an entire lifespan – palatable. Mandatory almost.
Nothing wrong with any of this. Or is there? Before going there, let’s understand why recap why such shows get made.
It’s because Indian weddings, for those who can afford them, have become a spectacular canvas that awes and causes intrigue. Proportionate spending on the wedding as a life event was always high for India, across socio-economic lines. But It is now not just an investment or an event, but a show of a lifetime.
Fascination with such intricate, aesthetic, larger-than-life manifestation of 'love', is understandable. Shows like Band Bajaa Bride have been paving the way for a long time. Even a naïve and remote observer like me (married twelve years back, and that too in a Bengal where extravaganza in the wedding is still catching up compared to the North) was treated to a trailer of what lies ahead in a 2015 trip to a cousin’s wedding in Delhi. The number of food stalls had become a competition - `no less than 100 items – even if that meant guests hardly could taste five. The sangeet wasn't any more our sangeet of family members playing in prompt antakshari. Neither was it Hum Aapke Hain Kaun. It was full-blown Mittal's hiring SRK on Victoria memorial grounds - even for upper-middle-class families. The sets. I had often wondered what they were while driving on NH1 from Delhi to Chandigarh during our annual visits to India. I finally realized they were farmhouses and wedding venues propped up as Jaipur palaces when I landed in one as baraati. The sets can take artist handiwork in Versailles and Ajanta Ellora to the task. And just when you’d think that things can’t be anymore lavish than what it is already, a multitude of wedding theme accounts on your Insta feed will prove you wrong. From lehengas to jewelry, there is no end to the exquisite ‘individuality’ and the spending that follows.
No one can be faulted for being fascinated with this. Even keeping the mushy love and promise of eternal bliss aside, just for how pleasing it is to the eyes, we will binge-watch. And then off-course, as previous successful shows like Indian Matchmaking have shown, the Indian ‘exotic’ traditions and the ‘want to but can’t quite hate’ aura around them add the additional mystic dimension.
So making such shows make business sense, and making them with care around the usual pitfalls (patriarchy, gender stereotyping, the insensitive flaunting of wealth, acknowledging that it’s not an eco-friendly industry as it’s done in the show) avoids it from blowing up on your face.
But the reflections, still need to be made because as I said an introspection on this, as a society can answer some questions worth answering.
First- confusing wedding with marriage. In the show, Nikita does it literally, stating that she was amazed at what could be done in India and that she could have the marriage that she wanted. Well, the marriage comes after the wedding. It is years of continuous work and has nothing to do with the wedding (although, family squabbles at some weddings have been known to ruin, or at least tarnish, the chance a marriage could have had).
India as a society, needs to think as our weddings get more and more expensive while our lives remain mired with gender role conditioning and patriarchy if we can afford the investments on the wedding than in the marriages. When I was getting married – a relative wisely stated that the reason Indian weddings are so long and painful and costly is so that the couples don’t even think of separating, no matter how turbulent the marriage. There’s some significant social and financial investment here and pressure and shame at play.
Second, the question of the economy and where the profit margins lie. Wedding planning is a booming business yes – and it employs a lot of folks. But just like in our garment industries and our handicrafts that sell for high tags overseas, our ‘cheap labor’ artisans are exploited while the designers and planners (not all but most) profit from good margins. In my opinion, the constant upward trending of 'wants' vs. what can be afforded, puts the squeeze further in the wrong place. This is why this discussion is the perfect base to reflect on broader tenets: like us bargaining for a few rupees with rickshaw wala-s while paying overpriced tags for designer goods.
Lastly, inclusivity and fighting of practices only when it suits us. It is great that several of the protagonists in the show take a stance against certain rituals. But as I observe Indian weddings (and remember the ones in our family), what I see are compromises. With seriously discriminatory practices. With bad behaviors. With illegal behaviors sugar-coated as will. We don’t call out. Because it’s our culture and something beautiful. Because it’s impossible and unnecessary to pick up fights with our elders (and that’d be again, against culture), because we’d rather have a lifetime of peace. So, the issue I have is, although the protagonists are lovely – they are privileged exceptions - and it’s not just because they got a horse when they asked for one when they eight.
With GDP and subsequently wedding spending rising, it is good that we will find a path for artistic expression and will choose to hedge our bets of being the star of our lives on our wedding. It is also good that more wedding shows will follow suit, further inspiring fairy tale weddings. But as that happens, I hope couples, women and men, consider the makings of a fairy tale marriage and a fairy tale society around us instead.