“I rocked the puja”: Smithsonian Channel documents Indian-American weddings Bollywood style

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Sumona poses with her bridesmaids, Sumona Chanda & Bridesmaids (Ayesha Sultana. Priyenka Modi-Ahmed, Chandu Pahuja, Tejal Kamat, Vishu Patell, Tania Verma, Diana Antolino, Shabitri Dasgupta – Photo: Smithsonian Channel

“My Big Bollywood Wedding” on the Smithsonian Channel June 10, documents the journey of three couples as they prepare for their lavish Indian nuptials

By Ela Dutt

It’s a chicken and egg situation with Indian weddings in this day and age in Indian-American culture – was it Indian/Hindu wedding culture that came first or the Bollywood style rendering – that define today’s lavish weddings that parents and adult children revel in?

For “My parents … it was all about saving for my daughter’s wedding,” says Sumona Chanda, one of the brides in a documentary about the weddings of three couples. And for her, fed on a diet of Bollywood movies, it was all about that dream sequence she had seen so many times growing up.

Even as Bollywood has become a byword in American culture, there’s no let up in the hunger for the beauty and ceremony of Indian weddings,   and the Smithsonian has zeroed in on that. The nearly one-hour long documentary starting at 10 p.m. Eastern and Pacific times on June 10, Smithsonian Channel, “My Big Bollywood Wedding,” invites audiences to the colorful, extravagant and glamorous, and always expensive, world of Indian weddings that stretch for days and involve hundreds of family and friends.

The documentary follows three different couples, two of them from New York which were predominantly Hindu. The third was a unique blend from the Boston area where two gay women, one of them Indian and the other Caucasian, were married by a transgender Muslim officiant.

All three created their Indian-American dream wedding with visits to India to choose the saris, the sherwanis, and the jewellery.

“We counted 12 to 13 events for our wedding,” Chanda told Desi Talk. “Four of them were really official, official – on invitation. But the others were family gatherings,” she added.

Chanda is of Bengali origin from Kolkata, and Binny Seth is a Punjabi Hindu.

Along the way, being a Smithsonian product, the documentary educated the audience with commentaries from scholarly, cultural and religious experts, who pronounce on everything from the henna ceremony, the first sighting of the bride and groom, the seven-pheras, and the fundamental basis of an Indian wedding – creating and building family and community networks.

“Indian culture is so amazing and vibrant – we wanted to educate the world and what better way than through the Smithsonian,” Seth said. “We did not want it to be a ‘reality show’ and wanted to make sure it was educational,” he said.

Seth and Chanda are second generation Indian-Americans living in New York City with huge pride in their Indian culture. The couple decides to celebrate their upcoming nuptials in a true Bollywood movie style – the wedding of Chanda’s dreams.

Richard Demato and Divya Kapasi, also of New York, have come together from two different cultures. She is the product of an Indian heritage whereas he is of Puerto Rican and Italian descent. Looking forward to a future with his new Indian bride, Richard, who admits in the documentary that he knew very little about South Asia or Indian culture, embraces the customs and style of an Indian wedding, wearing an authentic sherwani and joining in the numerous symbolic Hindu rituals with Divya’s family. He wanted to understand every aspect before he carried out any of the rituals, he says, and he wanted his participation in the rituals to be perfect. “I rocked the puja,” Demato declares after having made a gargantuan effort to learn the details of the rituals that began with a Ganesh puja in a California temple.

The wedding of Aneesa and Melinda, two teachers living outside of Boston, offers up perhaps the most 21st century perspective on an Indian wedding. Aneesa is an Indian immigrant who always knew she is gay; Melinda, on the other hand, married to a man for 10 years, only discovered her true sexuality after meeting and falling in love with Aneesa. Together, with their Indian and Christian backgrounds, they created a ceremony that blended their cultures.

Melinda had a hard time convincing her Christian family to come to the wedding, but her younger brother was there for her. Aneesa on the other hand, was accepted wholeheartedly by her Indian family. In the film, Aneesa speaks of the “unmistakable gravitational pull between us,” when she refers to them becoming a couple. And there was “no looking back” after they kissed, she says.

While their wedding incorporated elements from Indian culture like the mehndi and haldi (turmeric) celebrations, their wedding ceremony was creative and more universal. The transgender Muslim officiant presided over an amalgam of Hindu, Shamanistic and other traditions with more Western-style wedding vows written by the couple themselves. Melissa wore a white gown, while Aneesa wore a red Indian-style outfit at the outdoor ceremony, which was quite simple compared to the other two.

Meanwhile, Seth and Chanda strove for authenticity – not just in conducting the three to four-hour wedding ceremony, but down to the real turban that Seth’s Sikh uncle came to wrap around his head, “instead of the readymade turban my mother brought from India,” Chanda told Desi Talk. “There were no shortcuts. The whole scripture was recited as in the proper Hindu culture,” she added.

Along the way however, they made changes to customs they felt were not “meaningful” for them personally, and brought their parents around to their way of thinking. The couple chose every aspect of their wedding. and added to it, they said.

“I love cigars so I had a cigar bar,” Seth said. “I like hookahs so I had that at the sangeet,” Chanda said. And for one of the events, Seth chose the venue where he had his mundan as a kid.

“I love to dance, so a lot of our events had dances where family members performed,” said Chanda who is an accomplished Kuchipudi dancer. And where there were any differences between the generations, “Our wedding planner was great at ironing out things,” she added.

My Big Bollywood Wedding is produced by Tell2C Productions LLC for Smithsonian Networks, a joint venture between Showtime Networks Inc. and the Smithsonian Institution.

 

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