Weddings are all about celebrating love, lifelong companionship and the almost-mythical promise of a “happily ever after.” But they’re also about showering your guests with smiles, gifts, champagne, and all the Instagrammable moments that money can buy. When it comes to the Big Fat Indian Wedding, it’s usually the latter that rings true.
From a couple who chartered a jet to get married mid-air amid COVID restrictions on land, to a groom who skydived into his own wedding baraat (a common wedding custom in India where the groom enters his wedding with a large procession) – Indians are known for declaring their undying commitment to their partners in the most over-the-top manner possible. Even when their attempts to do so come crashing down.
The cacophonous, colourful and often chaotic celebrations typically last from three to five days. No wonder this industry is worth $50 billion. That’s probably because we come from a culture built on flexing our status, money, and the fact that someone out there is willing to put up with us for the foreseeable future, if not the rest of our lives.
The rise of the ridiculously over-the-top wedding trend has especially taken the industry by storm in the wake of the pandemic, as couples shifted away from the few months where Zoom green-screens stood in for wedding decor and wedding toasts were rudely interrupted by shitty wifi connections instead of the reclusive ex-lover. Add to that the social media frenzy of celebrity weddings (#Vickat?) and you have yourself thousands of wealthy families, who once favoured enormous guest lists, international performers and obligatory reception poses, now focusing on curating affairs that are intimate, immersive and unique. And really, really expensive.
“Earlier, many Indians would specially hire foreigners to pose at their weddings or sometimes even act as human tables,” Monisha Ajgaonkar, a wedding photographer and founder of The Photo Diary, told VICE. “But now, we’re seeing a shift away from these vulgar trends to experiences that are more offbeat.”
From the food to the decor to the gift bags, couples are pulling out all the stops to ensure that their special day stands out. Even if it costs millions of dollars to do so.
“Clients have all these weird fantasies that they want to fulfill, and especially want to make their entry into the wedding over the top,” Shrey Bhagat, the co-founder of wedding photography company Knotting Bells, told VICE. He recounted a recent instance at a wedding held at Lake Como, Italy.
“We were shooting a wedding at the villa from the movie House of Gucci, and the groom insisted on coming in a helicopter, but wasn’t able to get landing permission at the villa,” said Bhagat. “So, he came in on his helicopter anyway, while the rest of his baarat came in a boat and were only allowed to land at a point that was 10 minutes away from the villa. They then also used the boat to exchange their varmalas (exchange of garlands done at a wedding).”
In fact, according to wedding industry insiders, instead of the traditional walk down the aisle or groom riding in on a horse – helicopters, speedboats and luxury cars seem to be the preferred mode of entry at big-buck weddings. Even when it’s not, um, ideal.
“We did a wedding at a palace in Jaipur where the bride insisted on coming in a Bentley,” Bhavnesh Sawhney, a luxury wedding planner and founder of event management company FB Celebrations, told VICE. “Except, the lanes of Jaipur were too narrow for her Bentley to turn into the wedding venue and she got stuck. So, my team had to carry the bride in her heavy wedding lehenga into the venue.”
Sometimes, the extravagant entries involve luxury cars. Other times, they’re all about the production value of mythical proportions, quite literally.
“At a recent wedding we shot, the bride and groom dressed up as Rama and Sita [a Hindu god and goddess], complete with the bow and arrow, and made their entry in a massive chariot. And all this was at an indoor wedding at a hotel in Mumbai,” Aditya Mahagaonkar, the co-founder of WhatKnot Wedding Photography, told VICE.
Hindu mythology is omnipresent in Indian culture, entertainment and folklore, to the point where it's often even invoked by older generations as the ideal relationship between a couple. So it’s not entirely uncommon for Hindu epics like the Ramayana to seep into a wedding schedule. Sometimes, even their Bollywood film interpretations.
“I had a client who was so inspired by the Bollywood movie RamLeela (a fictional film inspired by the epic) that they recreated the movie’s set,” said Ajgaonkar, recollecting a wedding set that took over two months to build for the happy couple’s special day.
“They even hired choreographers to make an entry that recreated the couple’s entry from the movie. But what hit me the most was that when we asked the workers how long it took to build this set, they said it took 60-80 days, and they were never even offered any food at the venue on the wedding day.”
In many cases, going over the top, especially with the decor, doesn’t quite go as planned.
“We had a wedding where the bride wanted to create a tropical forest inside a banquet hall,” said Mehak Sagar, the co-founder of wedding planning portal WedMeGood. “So they imported all these exotic butterflies and birds from some European country. Except, these birds then began pooping all over the indoor venue and it got super chaotic.”
Sagar also recalled another instance where a high-profile couple airlifted an entire mandap (a sacred tent used in Hindu wedding ceremonies) from India to Dubai because they couldn’t build it in a desert. According to her, it’s not uncommon for couples to literally take things to the next level when it comes to making their wedding decor stand out, no matter the cost.
“One couple created a giant ball pit for their cocktail party, where dining tables were put inside the pit. Another couple wanted gigantic human-sized Toblerone mountains at their wedding. These super over-the-top things are more about making the wedding memorable than anything else.”
For the average couple, handwritten notes and wedding hashtags are enough to make the whole affair memorable. Others crave more, and sometimes. Many also take it a notch higher for their afterparties.
“One couple really wanted to do a casino night for their cocktail party. So they flew all their friends and family from India to Las Vegas for the weekend to do that,” said Mahagaonkar.
Similarly, Sawhney, who has been in the wedding industry for eight years, also recalled a reception that involved constructing an entire travel itinerary into a single space.
“We did a cocktail party in Delhi where we built four night clubs, one inspired by the nightlife of UK, one from Bangkok, one designed after Miami and one based on Bollywood, in a single venue,” said Sawhney, remembering a wedding where chefs, DJs and decor items were specifically flown in from the UK, Thailand, and US to curate the ultimate opulent experience. “People are willing to spend as much as $5 million to $6 million to make their day special.”