Two minutes into a puberty ceremony video on YouTube, and nothing unusual has happened. A family is immersed in its morning routine; the mother is making tea. She goes to wake her daughter, but the girl refuses to get up. Finally, the girl whispers something in her sister’s ear—the music changes and everyone goes berserk with joy because baby girl has just got her first period.
Traditional especially in the southern states and Assam, India's puberty ceremonies have both their supporters and critics. In recent years, they've also become a big money-spinner. In India and among the diaspora, puberty ceremonies can be a simple or grandiose affairs. The latter involve event managers, banquet halls, feasts and designer outfits. If larger-than-life flex billboards announcing puberty are a thing, budget is clearly not a constraint for wealthy families. Nowhere is this more evident than in the videos documenting the special moment.
Thousands of puberty or “half-sari ceremony” videos—mostly uploaded to YouTube by professional video companies from Tamil Nadu—celebrate a daughter’s first period. A couple have over 400K views and many have production values that would rival a feature film. Tollywood is a popular style reference. A girl looks coyly at the camera, smiles and flashes her braces, then runs through the rain without getting her lehenga wet (thanks to VFX).
Giri Anand, of Giri Stills photography studio told me over the phone from Coimbatore, “We get a lot of puberty ceremony projects with different demands each time. Usually photoshoots start from Rs. 22,000, and videos from Rs. 25,000. Some want it to be very basic while some want full cinematography services. It is an art, and different than conventional photography. It blends shooting creativity with storytelling.”
Videographers push the envelope of cinematic experience ever further, taking these videos to a whole new scale. Shot in France (by a Paris-based studio specialising in the subject), Archithayini's video packs in everything from drone cinematography for aerial shots to brummagem soundtracks—mostly Tamil translations of Bollywood party numbers. Another video from the same stable takes its sari-clad, jewellery-studded heroine from limo to helicopter to party venue. Its tacky visual cues of red roses, showers of petals, and friends clustered around giggling are strongly reminiscent of a Karan Johar film.
On the other hand, Hamithra’s video could rival Game of Thrones for its exquisite locations: sharp cliffs dropping into a brilliant blue sea, and a heroine with the most amazing expressions (and fur-collar jacket).
Not everyone thinks these videos are sweet, or funny. Comments can get pretty heated, with some people voicing the concern that putting up videos of adolescent girls on YouTube is inappropriate. “Feels so bad that these ceremonies are put up for public viewing,” writes one viewer of Venusha’s Puberty Ceremony. Another finds herself, “envious of this love shown to this girl. It would be amazing to have a ceremony like this to celebrate one's transition into womanhood or at any time, for that matter.” A third person is offended: “A girl going through puberty is supposed to be a natural process in life. It disgusts me to see the way it was portrayed. Are you shooting for a movie?”
I spoke to Kiru Srikanth, a YouTuber and activist of Tamil descent, who thinks these ceremonies are outdated. “As awkward as this is for a girl to tell her family about her first period, the parents make it more so by informing all the relatives about the news,” she said. “The girl is not allowed to go to school for two weeks and as a result everybody in the school knows it. For some reason this is the most happiest and proudest moment of a parent’s life.”
Nishtha Iyer, a Tamil Brahmin who is studying fashion in Delhi told me her ceremony was “a private affair. A lot of girls look forward to this day but many dread it. It isn’t just about being paraded around or watching your male cousin giggling and asking what the function is for. It is also about the state of confusion and pain the girl is in. While she’s still figuring out what is happening to her, in rural Tamil Nadu, often rishtas of prospective grooms start to arrive right after the next day of the function.”
Most of the girls in the videos online seem unconcerned about perpetuating regressive patriarchal structures—they're happy to play princess for a day. But maybe it's time, as this parody video jokes, to subject boys to this tradition as well:
This article originally appeared on VICE IN.