Netflix’s The Big Day Tries Hard But Can the Indian Wedding Ever Be Feminist?

Pop Culture

Netflix’s The Big Day Tries Hard But Can the Indian Wedding Ever Be Feminist?

Illustration: Shruti Yatam

The first episode of Netflix’s latest docu-series The Big Day, offers a telling moment which contrasts how the bride and groom experience this titular day. Divya Khandelwal and Aman Kapur, both from influential Jaipur families, are counting down the hours to their baraat. Divya, a spirited young woman who has painstakingly conjured up this hilltop extravaganza with a wedding planner, is reluctantly sitting on a chair. She rues the three hours she has to spend getting her hair and makeup done, as her FOMO mounts. Aman, on the other hand, is horsing around with his friends in his hotel room, joyful and relaxed, not a furrowed brow or a speck of foundation in sight. Thus we see it: the weight of the day is firmly placed on the bride.

That does not mean the women featured in The Big Day are crushed beneath. The show has no dearth of fiesty brides, who embrace their type A-ness, refuse to play coy and recognise the sexism masquerading as sanskaar. And the three-episode reality docu-series takes this theme, and runs with it. Even though the dreaded “F” word (feminist) is not uttered a single time, non-conformist brides are probably described as such by their bemused, somewhat displeased relatives.

The show features six couples, with some joyous same-sex nuptials straddling Germany and Goa, being the only exception to the heteronormative narrative. It can be dismissed as tokenism, but I was glad to see the representation. There is an unmistakable common thread though; all six couples are part of the one per cent ( or five, you get the drift). So, the show is rather easy on the eye and as we enjoy the displays of upper-class bonhomie, patriarchy rears its head.

When Pallavi’s mother expresses consternation at her backless blouse with the very recognisable “Rishtedaar kya kahenge” line, she suggests they wear blindfolds. Ami scraps the traditional saat pheras in favour of a ceremony where she exchanges vows with her partner. Divya refuses to be given away in a kanyadaan and instead the pandit creates an ad-hoc ritual where both parents are involved. And with all this, The Big Day tries to tell us that the Indian wedding is loosening its oppressive grip on women. But can our shaadis ever unshackle themselves from patriarchy?

The show does not dwell on who is paying for these weddings, a burden which tradition places on the bride’s family and which infamously has begarred many. Neither do we get told, whether demands of dowry or “gifts for the groom’s family” were ever made? Will these women have to take their husband’s surname after this so-called “big day”? We don’t get those answers, instead we get told that the big, fat Indian wedding is now a sign of empowerment because a privileged few have done away with the kanyadaan ceremony.

What are we celebrating here? Two young people who have bowed to social conservatism and found their partner to continue the status quo of caste and class. You see, those who break the rules of propriety do not get a party that costs crores. And our obsession with these mega-weddings just underlines the fact that we have still not shaken off the belief that a woman’s true worth lies in her matrimonial status. Popular stereotypes suggest that women start planning their big day while still in their cribs and pass their youth waiting for Prince Charming.  But Indian women aren’t exactly spending their days dreaming up a Sabyasachi-approved, flower-soaked wedding. According to a 2017 survey by Tata Capital, a financial services provider, which polled over 2,500 individuals (both married and unmarried) nationwide, only about a fourth of women respondents wanted to spend major bucks on a wedding. But is anyone listening?

In a video which went viral in 2016, feminist writer Julie Bindel announced, “If you want to get married, go on, do it, but please do not pretend it can ever be feminist.” Perhaps, we may suggest watching it after you spend three hours marvelling at all the ways the wedding industry leeches money off the rich and creates colossal waste.

Despite all this, the brides of The Big Day are a lovable lot. They are the charming heroines you remember after the end credits have rolled, and even hardened cynics (like this author) are likely to smile ear to ear when the bride walks alone to the stage, the spotlight trained firmly on her.