“DEEPIKA Padukone’s hearty laughter at her wedding has shattered an age-old culture.” So read the headline in The Print, India, the day after some of the first wedding pictures of the Bollywood actor were released. In the picture in question, Deepika Padukone, seated on a boat somewhere in the Italian region of Lake Como, is laughing wildly while her outstretched hands, resting on pillows, are covered with mehndi.
The curly-moustache sporting groom, Ranveer Singh, is resting on cushions next to Padukone. This particular photograph was taken as part of the couple’s ‘secret’ wedding ceremony, to be followed by Konkani and Sindhi ceremonies in India.
Entertainment writers charged with covering celebrity weddings have a difficult task; significance must be found somehow in what is the mainstay at events such as these. There are the lavish displays of silk and brocade and velvet finery, the tonnes of flowers of every hue and shade and the massive quantities of food (in Padukone’s Bengaluru ceremony at least five kinds of cuisine were served). Add to this a sensible number of celebrity guests and a jet-setting panoply of venues and you have yourself a standard celebrity wedding.
Brides will laugh heartily and longer when they know they are not beholden to serving their husbands or their in-laws, when they have a say in the relationship.
Amid all this usualness, something distinctive must be said about the nuptials that have recently got under way. In the case of Padukone and Singh’s wedding, this came in the form of writer Taslima Nasrin’s feminist take. In her view, Padukone’s over-the-top ebullience in the wedding pictures (the “hearty laughter” recurs in several more shots) was nothing simple, but something iconic. In laughing heartily, the actor was destroying the pre-feminist stereotype of the bashful bride, who must look sedate and submissive while all those around her engage in wild celebrations. This, in the writer’s view, was just the beginning; heartily laughing brides could spell the beginning of the end of patriarchy itself, of marital rape and arranged marriages and financial dependency to wit. It all begins with laughing a lot and within the range of photographers at one’s wedding.
This would all have been just as well were it not for the utterances of the bride, Padukone herself. While she has in the main and when suited to her career espoused feminist values, she chose to give up her maiden name Padukone and will henceforth go by Singh. This sort of homage to the husband was not the sum of Padukone’s visible devotion; in one post-wedding interview she commented that she was certain that her husband had a higher IQ than her. She may have been having a feminist moment while laughing on the mehndi boat on Lake Como, but for the Indian press she remained the icon of wifely devotion — feminism be damned.
Once the many rounds of Padukone’s wedding were over, it was time for Priyanka Chopra’s wedding to Nick Jonas. This one had the added twist of not only being a celebrity wedding, but a celebrity wedding of a bride and groom from opposite corners of the earth. Chopra, who has been starring in the American television show Quantico, met Jonas whilst in the United States. The whirlwind romance that left many unconvinced endured and soon became an engagement; with due alacrity, it was time for a wedding.
It happened this weekend and Nick Jonas himself was the one to release the first batch of pictures. In the images appeared a somewhat bizarre and unforeseen coincidence; the same hearty laughter with the bride and groom posing in a boat, appearing incredibly amused at the unsaid joke. The feminist bridal laugh, it seems, had been gobbled up by yet another Indian celebrity; or rather, with another laugh-filled bridal photo shoot — another Indian starlet who would think nothing of taking on roles that idealise submissive women. With one celebrity Bollywood wedding sporting wild laughing, patriarchy was scheduled to die; with two, it seemed nearly certain it would wither and die of its own accord.
The sarcasm is not misplaced here. The two women in question, may they laugh heartily forever, are ones with tremendous influence over a film industry that has long refused to cast women in anything more than stock variations on the usual roles, with a mere handful devoted to strong women who challenge and rebel rather than submit and suppress.
The rampant plastic surgery and eating disorders prevalent in Bollywood, not to mention the staple song and dance numbers that treat women little better than puppets, are all far more real and frequent sustainers of the very patriarchal and gendered ideas that perpetuate male dominance. To imagine that these actors whose staged wedding shoots complete with their staged candid laughter, can somehow be indicative of an upcoming reformation of the wedding and possibly even the marriage are trite and deceptive.
Patriarchy must indeed crumble and brides must indeed be free to laugh. However, the way this can happen is not by the changed expressions visible in celebrity wedding photo shoots but rather changed dynamics between the genders. Brides will laugh heartily and longer when they know they are not beholden to serving their husbands or their in-laws, when they have a say in the relationship, the continued freedom (not ‘permission’) to choose their own destiny. There is a lot that celebrities can do to make this happen. One unpopular suggestion would be to refuse to have the lavish celebrations that are duly aped by millions more, to speak publicly of the ‘equal’ marriage that they intend to have, the deeper feminist commitments that they hope to adhere to. There are a lot of useful and urgent interventions that can shatter misogynistic stereotypes; changing the format of bridal photo shoots to include wider, more ecstatic, grins is not one of them.
The writer is an attorney teaching constitutional law and political philosophy.
Published in Dawn, December 5th, 2018