This week, Isha Ambani and Anand Piramal—two people Westerners might never have heard of—got married in a wedding estimated to cost $100 million.
Ambani is the daughter of industrialist Mukesh Ambani, a man worth an estimated $45 billion whose reach into technology, food, and textiles make him like an Indian version of Jeff Bezos. Piramal is the son of another business scion, a childhood friend of Ambani.
Ambani and Piramal’s wedding has been the culmination of what has been an extraordinarily extravagant wedding season over the past few weeks in India.
Isha and her fiancé married decked in diamonds, with the starriest of Bollywood stars pouting on a red carpet outside palace doors for paparazzi. The wedding was broadcast on a large screen outside the family’s 27-story, $1 billion home, showing walls smothered in white flowers.
It makes the consumption of wedding content on social media that much more weird for me.
As an Indian-American, I grew up watching Bollywood movies, lip-synching Hindi lyrics along with the actors and spending an inordinate amount of time watching three-hour long Bollywood movies. (It’s also important to point out that Bollywood is much more complicated, diverse, and interesting than the stereotypical images of people dancing and mouthing lyrics, but I digress.)
I understand the inherent, heightened cultural importance of the wedding in Indian culture, and how Bollywood has exploited that to the max. As a person who works in media, I understand how social media makes “Instagram-official” and likes a modern, powerful currency.
But what I don’t understand, and can’t come to grips with, is how throwing a $100 million wedding achieves anything beyond bragging rights.
Sure, it’s a wedding, just one wedding, but still it’s worth asking: What does the deluge of conspicuous consumption mean in the face of the problems facing many of Ambani’s employees and their families and fellow countrymen? What does it mean to throw a $100 million wedding when a significant portion of the population struggle to earn even $1 a day?
“Imagine the impact #AmbaniWedding would have had if Mukesh donated hundreds of crores spent on silly dance & music extravaganza & charter flts [sic] to social causes,” a former diplomat tweeted, suggesting the couple could have easily had a simpler wedding and donated the rest of their budget.
To be sure, Indian wedding season is marked by opulence and grandeur; the country's dominant Hindu faith entails multiple days of events, parties, and celebrations, with guests often numbering in the hundreds, and parents refinancing their mortgages and emptying their savings for what is culturally considered a milestone event.
In other words, Indian wedding season—which typically runs in the winter to take advantage of the subcontinent’s more temperate climate at that time and what is considered an auspicious time of year for Hindus—is usually one that overflows with a joyful exuberance of excess.
But Indian wedding season 2018 has been a whole different monster.
It all started a few weeks ago, around Thanksgiving, with the wedding of the actors comparable to Brangelina at their height: Deepika Padukone and Ranveer Singh, who’d quietly dated for five years and only announced they were officially in a relationship about a month prior to announcing their engagement and wedding.
Padukone was the daughter of a national badminton champion, with a film in Hollywood via the Vin Diesel action flick xXx: Return of Xander Cage; together with Singh, the couple had churned out a series of blockbuster period hits that had established them as A-list actors and stars.
The couple opted for an intimate, private ceremony in Lake Como (site of the marital vows of George and Amal Clooney), with paparazzi stationed nearby, battling to capture the first images of the couple.
Padukone and Singh didn’t release photos for a day or two, prompting memes from fervent fans staying up all night and refreshing their feeds to get the first images of the couple as they came out.
In traditional fashion, Padukone and Singh held not one, not two, but (at least) four receptions after their dual ceremonies (Padukone is Konkani, Singh is Sindhi; India’s vast cultural diversity means wedding ceremonies vary widely from region to region).
It was flamboyant and deliciously gaudy, with Bollywood glitterati arriving decked in bejeweled saris; at one event, the famously fashionable groom sported a sparkling cat on one shoulder of his kurta, or long tunic.
The Western media barely batted an eyelid. Two Bollywood stars getting married, after all, wasn’t a big deal, no matter the fact that they had the pocketbooks and loyalty of about a billion people.
The next weekend marked the the turning point in Indian wedding season on the world stage: Bollywood crossover star Priyanka Chopra, who had successfully established a Hollywood career after years as a top actress in India, was set to marry American teenybopper heartthrob Nick Jonas.
The two had dated just a couple months before becoming engaged, marrying two lucrative and invested social media platforms with the announcement of their own impending wedding.
It helped that they were unexpected: Chopra is 10 years older than Jonas, prompting a writer at The Cut to author a widely-panned essay calling Chopra a scam artist and the horse that Jonas rode in for his baraat (or entrance to his wedding ceremony) a prop.
It certainly wasn’t a smooth way for Indian weddings to insert themselves into Western consciousness, but controversy is the mother of all viral Twitter trends, and The Cut’s racist, sexist, ageist piece invited a slew of anger and condemnation for the site. It prompted heavy edits, subsequent deletion of the article, and an apology from the author herself on Twitter.
But Chopra and Jonas’ wedding and the amount of coverage it received—down to a 75-foot veil that mirrored the trench coat train she wore in her first appearance with Jonas—did something that had never been done before: It made Indian weddings... normal.
Western commentators discussed mehndi (where females gather to celebrate the bride and decorate themselves with henna) and baraat ceremonies as if they were fluent in intricate, ancient Sanskrit customs. In an age when multicultural couples are on the rise, Chopra and Jonas became an inadvertent example for how two cultures could come together for a union seamlessly.
And this week, the Ambani wedding. For the third weekend in a row, Instagram photos of celebrities draped in literal diamonds and designer duds flooded into our feeds.
Where the Padukone-Singh wedding was a classic celebrity Bollywood wedding (between two stars, largely ignored by Western media) and the Chopra-Jonas wedding was a modern take on tradition (older woman, younger man; a white Christian man with a Hindu woman; a bicultural wedding), the Ambani wedding is an extravagant one that makes for its own turning point: that of the rise of the uber-rich in India.
In a way, it was the ultimate culmination of the old and new in Indian weddings. Like Padukone and Singh, the couple held an elaborate engagement party in Italy; like Chopra and Jonas, the family bought out a palace in the city of Udaipur.
But that’s where the similarities end. The pre-wedding bashes featured guests and employees flown in on chartered flights from major Indian cities, temporary housing, and food and other goods getting specially shipped in to support the onslaught of traffic.
A stage was set for dance performances, on which major Bollywood stars old and new staged elaborately choreographed routines amidst state-of-the-art lighting and technical effects. The icing on the cake was the exclusive performance by Beyoncé and a troupe of backup dancers put on for the party.
The wedding, held on Wednesday with “only” about 600 guests, including Hillary Clinton, government officials, and foreign dignitaries, was fairly traditional as Indian weddings go, with the Ambani family’s wealth on full display.
The Ambani wedding has been called the “big fat Indian wedding” by Indian media because even by Indian standards, the Ambani wedding is outsized to the point of being excessive.
One argument is that the Ambanis have money; why shouldn’t they celebrate one of the most exciting times in their family’s history by flying Queen Bey in? Why shouldn’t the richest family in South Asia showcase their immense wealth?
But critics have slammed the wedding for its excesses, particularly in light of the socioeconomic troubles India continues to face.
If anything, the Ambani wedding is a cultural turning point in the Western conception of India and its weddings. It is mind-boggling for many non-Indian observers in the West because it does not mesh with the stereotypical image of India some have: a backwards country that struggles with poverty and starvation.
Those problems still exist, but thanks to economic reforms in the 1990s that opened the country to foreign markets, India has made huge strides in modernization that have made its a hotbed of technological development—and with it, a rising class of nouveau riche that produce elite families like the Ambanis.
The Ambani family is the latest to catapult Indian weddings into the Western mainstream and make them less “exotic.” But at what cost?
The weddings' over-the-topness makes for mixed feelings for many onlookers. On the one hand, the triple punch of Indian celebrity weddings are a recognition on the world stage that India and its diaspora are here. The weddings are a powerful economic bugle that India and its cadre of celebrities are more than capable of attracting international brands who see the country as a promising future investment in an otherwise volatile international retail market. Both Padukone and Singh have starred in prominent international fashion spreads. Chopra and Jonas' wedding events attracted a litany of brands on social media through sponsored content.
The Ambanis move beyond ad campaigns, beyond even their ability to throw a private Beyoncé concert and get Maison Valentino to design her reception lehenga (long embellished skirt). The Ambani name is so economically intertwined with the Indian economy that their wedding becomes a marketing vehicle in and of itself.
But what does that over-the-topness actually represent? Bollywood's escapist roots are a reflection of postwar India, when the ghost of colonialism and the violent fight for independence made song-and-dance routines and fairytale story lines a crucial way to deal with hardships and trauma.
Weddings in those movies were often even more escapist in that they include choreographed routines and embellished saris that normal Indians might have aspired to. With the nouveau riche's ability to grasp these #weddinggoals and then some, the culture has somehow influenced Bollywood, not the other way around.
And with that comes the burden of being an example. To be fair to the Ambanis—matriarch Nita Ambani leads the company's namesake charitable arm—the wedding's festivities included a four-day seva, or community service, by feeding 5,100 differently-abled and less fortunate people, along with a craft fair showcasing handmade art.
The argument was made that the Ambani wedding was actually one big fat Indian economic impetus. It was an effort to soften the Ambanis and any criticism that might come their way. And it is a community service to be commended, one that shows that the family's great wealth can also be used for good.
But it's that capability to make lives better contrasted with the gaudy opulence of the wedding that is hard to digest.
The Ambanis have made it not only a spectacle to be commented on and understood by people who might never have understood the intricacies and specific cultural impact of an Indian wedding, but have also given people who might not have that sort of wealth a glimpse into how the super-rich live, something like what the Kardashians might offer here.
This is not to say the Ambanis shouldn't celebrate their child's wedding, or that other families shouldn't put on a show if they want to. Weddings are ultimately a reflection of the couple and their families coming together, and it is up to them to throw the wedding they want. As writer Jaya Saxena pointed out, if Isha Ambani wanted a giant fairy-tale wedding, who are we to say anything against that?
Ultimately, these weddings compete in the ultra-competitive social media space to capture our voyeuristic attention: our likes, and our conversations. They also uncomfortably, silently, illustrate the chasm between the haves and the have-nots, and idolize excessive consumption in the race to be ever more relevant and spectacular. The social media images may be pretty, but the bigger story of wealth and inequality underpinning them is far more complex, and can't be smoothed over with any amount of diamonds and airbrushing.