17 January 2011

Twist in the Wedding

Why the shaadi is still a staple of Bollywood romance

Bittoo Sharma first meets Shruti Kakkar at a wedding. She’s rude to him, but he’s quite taken with her. He borrows his friend’s video camera to shoot her dancing, turns up in her U-special the next day to present her with a DVD exclusively devoted to her performance. The opening of Band Baaja Baraat makes one think you know exactly where it’s going. The girl seen by the boy at a shaadi, the wooing that ensues, leading up to the couple’s own wedding — it’s among the oldest tropes in the Hindi movie universe. And Band Baaja Baaraat’s opening scene is a clear tribute to Yash Chopra’s own contribution to the genre: Chandni (1989), where Rishi Kapoor first sees Sridevi at a wedding, starts photographing her in secret, and later, in one of the dramatic high points of the 1980s filmi romance, reveals a roomful of pictures he has taken of her.

The Indian wedding has always been a traditional mating ground. It was a rare, socially sanctioned space where young women of marriageable age were on display, for matchmaking aunts — and potential husbands. (Ask around in any north Indian family and you’ll find at least one uncle and aunt who got married because he saw her at his brother/ cousin/ friend’s wedding and set his heart on her.) The shaadi ka ghar, with its dressing-up and dancing and suggestive songs, was the natural setting for romance, a place where banter between young men and women was laughingly condoned and flirtation was almost traditional.

These days, one might think, urban young people don’t need the socially sanctioned space of the shaadi to meet a potential partner, either on screen or off it. The CCD-mall-multiplex generation should have no time for wedding movies. The days of Hum Aapke Hain Kaun...! (1994) are over.

Yet it seems that the 2000s — after Karan Johar’s K3G (2001) — were when the choreographed Bollywood sangeet really became de rigueur, first in movies and then in weddings across the country and the diaspora, and I can think, off the cuff, of three Hindi films in the past few years where the hero first properly sees the heroine at a wedding: Saathiya (2002), Love Aaj Kal (2009) and Rab Ne Bana Di Jodi (2008). And at least three 2010 films derive much of their energy from weddings — Aisha, Do Dooni Chaar and Band Baaja Baraat.

Do Dooni Chaar
is least obviously preoccupied with the wedding — it serves mainly to kick-start the plot, which is really about the middle-class family’s desire for a car. And yet there is a way in which, despite all their travails and tribulations in getting to it — the borrowing of the car, the cost of the wedding present, the potential theft, the potential exposure — the wedding itself has the power to create a generally celebratory mood, successfully drawing in the glum father and the teenage cynic alike.

Aisha — which sets Jane Austen’s Emma in contemporary Delhi — is possibly the most traditional of the three, in that it opens with a shaadi where we first see the heroine, Aisha, and ends with Aisha’s own wedding. But the hero already knows the heroine, so the wedding is not the setting for their romance. On the other hand, it sets in motion a definite trail of matchmaking — only the matchmaker in question is the heroine herself. Almost the whole of the film is taken up with pairing off young people who appear in the original wedding scene, culminating in the final wedding, where we have the pleasure of seeing them all matched up (in more ways than one, since this is the most alarmingly colour-coordinated wedding you’ll ever see).

The film that really takes the wedding movie theme and runs with it, though, is Band Baaja Baaraat. It seems to play by the old rules — introducing the heroine and the hero at a wedding, following their relationship and culminating in their own wedding — but, in fact, it brilliantly subverts both the genre and our expectations by making them wedding planners. Shruti refuses Bittoo’s romantic overtures. She accepts his DVD and, later, his partnership, only on condition that he isn’t going to line maaro her. She arranges weddings, and she’s going to have an arranged match herself. She has Plans — and love isn’t part of them.

Yet, as we watch the two of them lean laughingly into each other at wedding after wedding, complementing each other perfectly in the exaggeratedly comic flirtation-rejection of the wedding song, we know that the shaadi movie will have its way. It’s as if the well-done north Indian wedding — with its glitter, its banter, and, crucially, the zippy song that gets the whole family on its feet — casts a kind of spell, temporarily erasing the rules of the ordinary world and making romance seem somehow inevitable. Much like the well-done Hindi film.

The writer is a Delhi-based writer and anthropologist.

Published in the Indian Express, Friday Jan 14, 2011.

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