The Big Day and the nagging problems

What the Barjatya’s were to Bombay cinema in the 90s, Netflix India is hell-bent upon creating the same with the OTT platforms in the ‘20s. The revisionist version of new India, and subsequently, Indian “millennial” trends from this epoch has made for a solid chunk of Netflix India’s original programming material since 2020. Netflix’s infamous Indian Matchmaking (2020) was the precursor to erecting the structure of a new Indian figure; the non-sequitur follow-up The Big Day (2021) is their effort in cementing that new Indian figure rooted in tradition and contemporaneity. The docu-series (Collection 1) produced by Conde Nast India is a measured second step into the wedding saga discourse for young Indians who are considering marriage and the route to legitimizing it.

If Indian Matchmaking stood for personalizing your choice of bride/groom, The Big Day is all about personalizing details from the décor at the wedding to the rituals and the outfits. There is no end to spending and if there’s a key takeaway from the series it’s that no good bride/groom will ever discuss the budget and financing options to plan their dream wedding and the festivities on camera with the world. A reminder of the same ethos was in Indian Matchmaking, which conveniently skipped the d̶o̶w̶r̶y̶ gift details and eliminated that discourse in its entirety from the show. Other than being on-point with Conde Nast India’s aesthetics, each of the weddings and other functions featured in The Big Day looked fancy and fairly certainly cost a bomb to put together. Instead, we are reminded time and again, “you only marry once” so, it’s fine to celebrate.

The Big Day is a “collection” of 3 episodes, each featuring two couples. The first episode is based on the grandeur and details of the events, with a blatant display of wealth and a very public sense of creating haves vs have-nots. The highlight was the Sangeet of one couple that was modelled along the lines of a Bollywood award show resembling the interruption in an award ceremony with song and dance performances by family and friends of the bride and the groom in addition to them. We’re told to, “Think of it like the Oscars!” by the celebrity choreographer who’s also performing numbers at the said event. I have only been reminded of experiencing this discomfort whenever I’ve been subjected to an Amb@ni birthday/ wedding/ childbirth unsolicited video forwards that I’ve had the misfortune of receiving over the last three years.

The second episode problematizes the notion of gender equality in Indian marriages and highlights a change in dynamics of who gets to be the more dominating/controlling partner in the planning of the festivities: no surprises for guessing that the focus is on the female figure. Notable mention to the bride who first chose her wedding outfit and later called her boyfriend and coerced him into getting married, she gleefully tells the camera. Yay, feminism.

The third episode looks at love and celebrating it against all odds. It’s the one with all the heart and mush, despite the consistent reminder of haves and have-nots playing out loud in the background.

I’ll be the first to give credit to the show where it truly deserves. Purely from a visual and thematic perspective, the series stands apart from the repetition of cinematic video teasers and wedding films multiverse. It steps away from using the cliched cinematic video footage and stylization crap associated with upper-class marriages and other events. Slow pans and long takes are replaced by swift cuts and snappy editing (there's a moment in the second episode where the couple is photographed in a Wes Anderson directs The Shining (1980) way to mark their wedding). The representation of the privileged Indians and their weddings don’t always have to be plagued by the jarring omnipresence of bloggers and influencers on social media. It’s okay for Netflix to take over once a year and tell us about their star cast without attempting to make caricatures out of them.

The Big Day humanizes its cast or tries to do as best as possible without making them look like a giant joke in the face of South Delhi and South Bombay stereotypes often associated with this theme. Most of the show’s original cinematography along with the editing and music is an immersive experience, straight out of a magazine (complete with a price on request vibe during segments concerning personalization and ostentatiousness). It’s crisp yet detailed and doesn’t allow you for a second to get bored. If you are enamoured by how casually Katrina Kaif slips in to dance at a wedding and how nobody will make a meme out of a girl who chooses to decode “bridezilla”, do know that Conde Nast India is the force behind this powerful shift of gaze.

This is also where The Big Day really attempts to whitewash the colossal disasters; in the name of critiquing “bridezillas” for “bridechillas”, it lends acceptance to larger than life weddings into showing them to be sustainable yet bespoke events. The Big Day normalizes this experience with the involvement of the bride and groom, their families, friends, and people working in this multi-million dollar wedding industry. The camera politely posits questions about their decisions and the characters justify them each step of the way, and everyone lives happily ever after. The POV isn’t intrusive or investigative, it is consistently in awe of those it features, everyone’s happy, and mostly, things are A-OK. The Big Day, at the end of the day, is a documentary on weddings and not a wedding showreel itself, a distinction that the creators failed to carry out in their valiant attempt at bringing life to personal stories.

If you are watching it googly-eyed, you fall down a trap into believing that this diverse group of Indians is choosing to personalize their ceremonies given how these buzzwords are emphasized in the couple and family interviews throughout the three episodes. However, if you step outside of the vantage point laid out by the focused group shortlisted you begin seeing how politically correct and aesthetically pleasing the entire series sounds. I can’t think of any reason why any person of any sensibility will choose to take an offense and perhaps, that, right there is a problematic question you can posit— in a country like ours where weddings are state’s business and not two consenting adults life at stake, is the show mildly close to the highlighting the lives of the new Indian they claim to be carrying out? It doesn’t even need to highlight, a cursory mention would have been good. The series fails to draw any attention to the gripping realities of the Indian wedding industry outside of the glitz and glam.

Though the series is well packaged and you won’t particularly find things to cringe about, there may be instances where you’ll raise your eyebrow and continue to hold that expression until the end of the sentiment. The first episode took me 24 hours to finish cause I couldn’t sustain raised eyebrow for over 30 minutes straight. Sure, it has redemption, especially in the form of those who try to write-off ritualistic practices often woven tightly with the wedding itself and the repeated emphasis on doing away with those practices may be the most emancipatory thing this show attempts to work with. Always a pleasure to see rigid ideas and practices dismantling irl.

The Big Day is, then, an Indian ethnographic study into the lives of those who can afford to indulge in weddings of their dreams and bring their autonomy along with it. There will be swarms of people who would very willingly argue that there is better content to consume and definitely more options to pick from, but you can’t overlook the statement that Netflix India repeatedly makes with its choice of featuring protagonists who identify with a certain class of audience in India. It is here to stay, whether we make our peace with this genre of storytelling or not. Some of us get wedding video footage, some others get a whole episode split with another couple on Netflix. I wonder if Indian influencer brides on Instagram feel cheated after streaming The Big Day, given a great deal of injustice experienced by them— of not getting their personal Netflix Original in a packaged deal with their wedding couture.

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Anisha Saigal

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Pop-culture omnivore. Survived publishing, academia, film school. Struggling with the pandemic.