In mainstream Bollywood cinema, the big wedding extravaganza usually signals the end of conflict and the attainment of resolution via the coming together of two families in a celebration of singing, dancing, spectacular outfits and, to borrow a phrase from Derek Zoolander, ridiculously good-looking people. But despite the presence of 80s Bollywood leading man Anil Kapoor at the Gupta wedding, the last few days of the Guptagate saga, which now feels every bit as long as a Bollywood epic, departed in several ways from the Hindi film script that the Guptas were trying so hard to re-enact.
For one thing, rather than celebrating the resolution of conflict, this wedding caused and occurred amidst massive ongoing controversy. It rent the Gupta family from the Zuma family and, also, ripped through what remains of the ANC family. But of course in a standard Bollywood film the conflict is supposed to open the drama, and not poison its denouement in the grand marriage scene.
Since the deregulation of the Indian market at the end of the Cold War, the typical heroes of the Bollywood film have leapt up the class hierarchy. Millionaires and middle class professionals have replaced workers, peasants and the urban poor. And, according to Jyotsna Kapur, the Bollywood wedding has “become a trademark attraction of contemporary Indian Culture.” With the huge success of a new generation of popular films like Hum Apke Hain Kaun (What’s the Status of our Relationship?) Dilwale Dulhaniya Le Jayenge (The Lover Carries off the Bride), Kuch Kuch Hota Hai (Something is Happening), which were all centred around love and marriage, and which all ended in a big wedding, the big Bollywood style wedding became central to the aspirations of the growing Indian elite and middle classes. And along with its unparalleled success on the sub-continent the musical love story of the modern, beautiful, and well-off young couple also gained traction amongst the younger generation within the Indian diaspora. Kuch Kuch Hota Hai, released in South Africa in 1998, made more at the South African box office than the equally baroque, sentimental and over the top Hollywood counterpart the Titanic. And here lots of the old Indian wedding traditions are being put aside as wealthier families rush to hire wedding planners that can recreate Bollywood glitz and schmaltz in Durban or Johannesburg.
The new generation of Bollywood films, with their refreshed plot lines, deal with young love in a manner that resembles the cheesiest of the 80s high school romances popularised by Hollywood. But they add a peculiarly Indian form of glamour, and have an appeal that resonates way beyond India and its diaspora. This new crop of films with their sleek production values also became far more palatable to a broader audience in Europe and the United States. The remoulding of India as a modern rich nation with the big fat Bollywood wedding as one of its chief cultural features meant that the Bollywood wedding theme became popular and coveted even amongst global celebrities like Elizabeth Hurley. And of course for the film set in Bombay, real-life marriages occur in the full glare of the media, often mimicking the filmi-type wedding at every turn, further blurring the lines between film and reality.
In India, the wedding industry has exploded and, for the rich, weddings have become events that are scripted and staged to follow the latest excesses of the film industry as closely as possible. For people with enough cash it’s even possible to, like the Guptas, complete the Bollywood wedding experience by purchasing the presence of a Bollywood star. In 2007 the Deccan Herald reported that Shah Rukh Khan, the contemporary superstar of Bollywood, charged up to 10 million rupees (approx.: R1.65 million) for a two-hour wedding appearance. The need to create authenticity at any price is not linked to the recreation of an ancient cultural or religious practices but rather to how much real life can imitate reel life. And of course the status of the star at one’s Bollywood style wedding marks out, for all to see, just how much wealth and power the family wields.
The Indian wedding has a long history of being about much more than the marriage of two individuals. When marriages are arranged, as they often are, the union is largely about the union of two compatible families. The couple’s union serves as a means to unite the two families for a variety of reasons including money, land, or ancestral history. In case anyone missed the memo, the lavishness of the Gupta wedding had very little to do with the emotions of the meek young couple and much more to do with demonstration of the family’s power within South Africa. The Bollywood-choreographed photos periodically released by the Guptas throughout the last few days reveal very little about the bride and the groom. Whereas the star couples in the Bollywood films are the focus of the grand celebrations, Vega Gupta and Aakash Jagajgarhia appear as a well-dressed, average looking couple lost in the larger spectacle of the wedding.
The love-stricken couple that instigates the Shakespearian-scale conflict in Bollywood films that is eventually resolved in the final scenes with the wedding was not present at Sun City. Vega and Aakash came together in the all too regularly practiced and far more mundane fashion of arranged marriage. Bollywood wants all-consuming love, often to the excesses desired by the Sufi priest in their search for the intoxication of the love of the divine. For instance in Fanaa the lovers repeatedly quote lines inspired by Sufi poetry: “Tere dile mein meri season ko panah mil jaaya. Teri ishq mein meri jaan Fanaa ho Jaaye” (“may my breath reside in your heart and let my individual get destroyed so that we may be united as one in love”). But in a comment quoted in the Sunday Times, Vega did not repeat any dramatic filmi dialogue. Instead, in an exceptionally prosaic and almost rehearsed fashion, she described their meeting as “mutual admiration, which starts from the families we come from and the culture in which we were brought up. And, more than anything, it was his humility and kind nature” and elucidated on her groom’s charms by mentioning that “he holds a master’s degree in international business. He is tall and handsome. He is very business-minded, but also down to earth.”
The Guptas come from Uttar Pradesh. The best film made about this part of India in recent years is Omkara. It deviates, and brilliantly, from the standard Bollywood script. In this film the bride is murdered at the wedding that concludes the action following which the groom kills himself. It is a remaking of Othello amidst a depiction of the ruthless gangster politics that have come to characterise this state – which many argue is the most corrupt in India. Politicians are shown – as they often are in Uttar Pradesh – as outright gangsters that are armed, violent and bent on using the state for little beyond their own accumulation.
In South Africa a large proportion of our people cannot afford to get married and freedom has, for many, become about personal access to wealth. Weddings are no longer a rite of passage open to all but have, even when they are lit by the light of love, become an expression of privilege that often turns into a performance of power. This reality has sometimes marked aspects of both the popular attraction and repulsion that are felt towards Jacob Zuma. But with the Guptas usurping national sovereignty to fly in a planeload of guests, including politicians from an Indian state so violent and corrupt that it makes South Africa look like it is well on the way towards social democracy, Zuma has not, at all, looked like the big man.
The Bollywood-style wedding at Sun City has, as in a classic tragedy, taken the form of a grand hubris with an overreach that has brought the powerful crashing into the hard ground of reality. Of course in Omkara one feels sympathy for the tragic hero; in the case of Zuma and the Guptas sympathy seems impossible. It’s clear enough that for Zuma and the Guptas this wedding will mark the beginning of the end rather than, as in the standard Bollywood film, the end of the beginning to a radiant life. Let’s just hope that this is a wake-up call that will ensure that we don’t go down the same road as Uttar Pradesh. DM
Vashna Jagarnath is a senior lecturer in the Department of History. She writes and researches on Indian Cinema, the colonial public sphere and the History of Africana Intellectual Thought with specific focus on Marxist ideology within Pan Africanism. She is associated with Numsa Movement for Socialism Task Team [MFS] and Numsa Research and Policy Institute [NuRPI].
All tortoises are actually turtles. Some turtles however are not tortoises.