01 May The anatomy of a wedding film, according to Vishal Punjabi
How a man who never set foot in India until a decade ago became instrumental in changing the landscape of Indian wedding films
By Nisha Kundnani
Vishal Punjabi is that most intriguing concoction who was born in Africa to Indian parents and had no understanding of this vast and varied culture until he landed in India and started living here. Initially, he worked at Shah Rukh Khan’s production house, Red Chillies Entertainment where he picked up the ropes of filmmaking. But an important aspect of filmmaking still eluded him – storytelling. He learnt to tell stories only when he floated, on a very small scale, a company called The Wedding Filmer which shot weddings. What Punjabi didn’t think of was that he would end up becoming the big daddy of wedding films in only a matter of years. His films explore culture, with a single-minded focus in presenting Indian traditions the only way it deserves to be presented: in all its colour, glory, conflicts, emotions and drama. We met Punjabi at his Oshiwara office where he revealed to us a few cuts from an under-production film. Watching a wedding film directed by him is like watching a story unspool in front of you. When asked what he looks for in a wedding film, “he said, “Heart and soul of the emotions.”
Q. The first question I’m going to ask you is: you had a very interesting upbringing. You were in Ghana, and then, England. And then you came to India. What were some of your earliest experiences of being in India?
A. When I moved to India, I moved opposite this building. It was a chawl that was there. I used to live there. Struggling filmmakers, when you want to work in films, you get paid 2 rupees to do that. So it was that life. You struggle for like a year or two before you find your bearing. So, I was working with Shah Rukh Khan then. I had to prove myself. So I came in to work in a dot com. He had started a company called srkworld.com. I was actually a designer in his company. Then, even the company shut down. Because I was a lone kid from London who had come in, SRK felt indebted to me or guilty that he had to send me back right after I came, because it was two months after I joined this company and I had joined at a very senior level with the design team. I was doing all their flash animations. Suddenly, their funding got stopped. Everyone was laid off. Mushtaq Sheikh was writing the book then. He wanted someone to illustrate and design the book and do the layouts and all of that jazz. So I came to work with him on that and being on that, I had to come to the film set. So, my first impression of a Bollywood set was a Hindi film song. It was Asoka. They were doing that item number with a South Indian actress. It got cut from the film eventually. It was an item number in an Asoka story which no one could digest. But what all I saw was the swords, and horses and fired gas and the huge set which was made out of rope and wood, and it was all colonial – very interesting for me. This was my first few days on the set, and Santosh Sivan was unlike any other I had worked with. And from there I kind of nurtured myself into Bollywood, and I kind of squeezed my way through.
Q. So that was your first experience of being on a film set. But how about India as a culture?
A. I didn’t know anything about India. For me, it was a big culture shock to come here. I’d never seen cows on the street. I didn’t understand why people honked so much. I didn’t understand how people worked the way they did. Bombay is very competitive. Everyone wants to get somewhere before everyone first. I felt like if you can come up with an idea in this country which would make you even a rupee profit, and if it’s a big idea that can touch the masses, you are big on it. But it’s one of the few countries where you can actually do that, you know. But I didn’t know anything about Indian culture. I’m still observing and still learning everything. My first experience of an Indian Wedding was my sister’s wedding. Before that I had never attended an Indian wedding before, and my sister’s wedding was quite dramatic and big, and in Delhi. She married a Punjabi. That was my first few impressions of an Indian wedding.
Q. How many years have you been here?
A. So I’ve had two stints in India. One was when I was here till 2008. Then I took a two years’ sabbatical from India and went back to Africa to find my roots. Then I came back to India in 2009 end, restarting my career in filmmaking.
Q. It’s interesting that you are telling me that in a week where Mira Nair has come up with a film (Queen of Katwe). She’s also living in Africa now. It’s interesting because usually when people look at Indian culture, usually it’s writers and filmmakers from abroad who come to India and bring a very distinct kind of sensibility, because maybe they are observing India as an outsider. So you look at culture as an outsider?
A. When I go for a Jain or a Marwari wedding, I see the little nuances in the wedding. Sometimes, I find it hard to adjust or hard to understand. But this has been a huge learning curve for me while I do what I do. Like we know now about various cultures and why they do certain things and how people get married. The arrange marriage versus love marriage was something I couldn’t fathom in the beginning. When I went for my first arranged marriage, I kept asking the girl, ‘Why did you study dentistry then if you all wanted to do was marry? Because after you get married, your parents won’t let you work. You’ve not studied arts or dance or music, you’ve studied dentistry. And you waste it also, which means that you wasted your entire childhood in a lab studying and looking into people’s mouths, which is not the nicest job in the world.’ I couldn’t wrap my head around why someone would do that. But now I know. I get how women in this country are groomed and I understand why it’s so important. I may not agree with it, but at least I understand their point of view. I’m trying to.
Q. I remember sitting for an interview you were doing with one of the brides (Sonia Bhuta: pictured). You were trying to know a bit more deeply about the couple. Not everyone opens up. We may be working with them as wedding vendors, but we may not know the couple as intimately. So I thought you were making an attempt to know them a bit. When you do a wedding, when you are actually shooting, do you also do a pre-wedding talk with all brides or try to understand them?
A. Yeah, because the films are for posterity. They are mainly not just for them. They are for their great grandchildren. So what happens is that culture from now, culture back then, when my parents got married, or when I see these Marwari families now or Gujarati families now.. when they got married, the bride wouldn’t even meet the groom. Most of the times, I ask their parents, ‘How did you guys meet?’ And turns out that they never saw each other. Or even if they did, the mother always had to have her head covered. You know, the miniskirts and jeans were out of the question. You would be assassinated if you wore those things in those days in the 1940s and the 50s. Now you can see, in the weddings the brides dancing in the baaraat, drinking and doing shots and stuff like that. 50 years from now, God knows what’s going happen to the Indian culture. It won’t remain the same for sure. Their children, and their children’s children are going to be very different. And the way they are brought up, especially third generation, for example, wouldn’t understand how their parents got married or why they stuck together for nine years before they married, because in the future, marriage may not even exist. This is my theory. I think marriages won’t exist, which is why what I am doing right now is preserving a piece of humanity in that sense. Later on, you will be like, ‘What was that? Why were you even doing it?’ To some, the institution of marriage doesn’t make sense. To some it’s everything. But here their great grandchildren will understand how they spoke. They will understand what their roots were like.
Q: So it’s a record of its time.
A: Yes. It’s a time capsule. It’s not just a wedding film. So you talk about children, you talk about upbringing, you talk about the values that they have been brought up with. She (Sonia Bhuta, one of his brides) talked extensively about her values and his values being the same and family, and how important it is for both of them, and especially not being from India, when NRIs get married. I think they are more close-knit because they hold onto their culture even tighter for fear of losing it, which is nice.
Q. When you make a film, do you look at it as cinema or do you give it another approach?
A. In the beginning, five years ago, when I started off, I was trying to prove a point that weddings can be shot with aesthetics and can be made like pieces of cinema. As time goes by, you realise that not everybody understands or loves cinema as much as we do. But what they do cherish, is a beautiful memory. What they cherish is a way of watching a video and engaging them constantly, not making them want to fast forward their lives, making them look like their lives are worth anybody putting that much of hard work in, to tell their story because it’s already engaging and it is nice. It is uplifting, it is inspiring. So from each wedding that we will do, we will find a thread or we will find a node that you can take something out of, and the couple can take something out of, and I, as a filmmaker can take something out of.
Q. You know, also, weddings are a grand affair. So many things are going on in a wedding. How do you identify that moment of culture in a particular scene? Do you go looking for it or do you find it with the help of several cameras everywhere?
A. Why do I choose weddings? Or I could do birthday videos for example. Or you could make nice documentaries on very rich families like the Jindals, or the Ambanis. But they are not life changing moments. Births, weddings and deaths are your three life-changing moments. The way you approach life…
Q: Passage of rites?
A: Yeah, wedding is one of those moments in life, where, from here on, your life will not be the same. And to capture the celebration of life, everyone puts their best foot forward. So, by default, you get a Karan Johar set, by default you get great hair and makeup, wardrobe, which for films normally you have to pay an arm and leg for. You have seen them. You have styled them. All these things come to you for free. Then you get human emotion: personalities being brought out for you for free because everybody wants to appear and feel good when they watch their film. So we are in a very good space in that sense. It comes naturally to us. It comes easily at a wedding. We don’t have to look for moments. They always are there in front of you. It’s just a matter of keeping an eye on a crew knowing exactly what to look for, and when to roll. For that, I think we are a little blessed.
Q. It plotting involved?
A. No. We don’t direct these videos. We only capture them. Now, how well you capture them depends on how sensitive you are, depends on where you are, how much you can anticipate, how talented you are, in terms of framing. Then your filmmaking skills will kick in to play, whether you are shooting to edit. But those are the technicalities of it. Those you develop over time. I like to believe that we only get better with each film we do. So, now we are very good, I would think. Then yes, now we should be even better because we observed and built a crew that’s that sharper and hungrier to tell stories.
Q: Are there any aspects to weddings in culture that you feel are missing in India, and we still need to kind of preserve that and bring that out?
Lots of things are misinterpreted in India. Sometimes, when you see a wedding ending, you see the bride’s family haath jodoing the groom’s family and asking for forgiveness saying that if we have done anything wrong at the wedding, please forgive us. I find that a little sad when it happens, because weddings are again between two people. In some cultures, especially in the North Indian cultures, there’s a very strong boy’s side and girl’s side. And the girl’s side always has to bend and bow down to the boy’s side. This happened at my sister’s wedding and I found it very disturbing. I mean I couldn’t adjust to that whole culture at all, like I couldn’t understand why that was happening and I couldn’t understand why they were asking me to do so. I remember getting angry internally about it and trying to struggle with the fact that we are lesser than him because he’s a man. In Indian culture, over time the size of your wedding has become a status symbol. People want to hire us because we are the best, not because they understand the value of what we do, or because they respect the man I was, or because they cherish the memory. They just want it because somewhere, some planner has told them these guys are the best and they have the money to afford it so they’ll get it. Those weddings are very dangerous. In the beginning I’d do it for the money because we were growing, but over time you realise that you don’t get that soul that you require. The most beautiful weddings are not the most expensive weddings but those where two families come together to celebrate the bride and groom being really happy with each other. That’s where the magic happens.
Q: Speak a little more about the cultural aspect of weddings. How do you see culture in our lives? Would you call yourself a very cultural person?
A: I’m getting too respected now, because I grew up in very different places, and under very different circumstances. My parents were divorced when I was very young. When I was 9, they split and I moved to different countries. I used to stay with mum for a bit, then I moved with my dad for a bit, then I went to boarding school. So, I never got a chance to celebrate Indian culture as such. I mean, most I know is, in Navratri we play Garba, in Diwali we have a big Diwali ball etc. But that was my extent. My dad was never religious, so he never went to temples, or he never dressed traditionally at home, never even spoke the language. Until I turned 18, they decided to marry each other again after those many years. At my sister’s wedding, they both fell in love. And then they got married again, and suddenly they both had changed and had grown spiritually. And then they try and force it upon us, but I never understood it until I started doing these weddings. In Bollywood again, you only end up meeting actors and actresses and producers. I was working for Shah Rukh, so I was surrounded by that circle. Only when I started shooting weddings that I started meeting people from every walk of life. When I started meeting guests from different cultures, I started meeting grooms and brides from different cultures, and then I understood the importance of grounding and routine. I’ll show you some weddings that we have shot, and you’ll see how difficult it is for two cultures to get married, and how easy it is for them to make it work if they really want to. Culture can be a road block for a lot of people. People use it as an excuse for getting their way of what they want. Some people use it as an excuse for a gross display of wealth, because it’s in their culture to do so. But deep down inside, culture would come down to humanity and the weather around you. Like for example, in Dubai, or in the Middle East, people wear robes and dress a certain way, because in those days it was very sandy, and technology would not provide them shelter or anything of that sort for them to protect themselves from the sand. They wouldn’t eat pork because pork in that area had a certain disease. Over time, obviously those things changed with technology and with advances in science and advances in fabrics and fashion. Things change, but somehow, culturally we get stuck. However, when you see South Indians getting married, you see the bride sitting in the father’s lap, that’s also culture, and it’s so beautiful. Every time I end up crying, because I just find that ceremony of the bride sitting on her father’s lap before he gives her away it signifies so many beautiful things in their life, which we don’t really think of anymore. So preserving culture is important. What to preserve and what to let go of is really something we need to think about as Indians in today’s time. This includes weddings.
Q. Coming to music: Does the soundtrack personify the couple or a lot of it is also your own understanding of the film?
A. Obviously it should personify, not the couple, but the mood behind the scene. There are scenes in the film. It has an amalgamation of everything that happened at the mehendi with all the family and everyone. I have just given you glimpses of who they are and what they’re about and the struggle they went through. Each wedding has got different moods. At some point you will cry at the wedding and you will feel like the struggle that you felt. But then there are moments in the wedding where there are celebrations. That’s the fun of it. You see the happiness, the laughter and the joy. Then you feel the romance between the couple. And then there’s that music. And then there’s that sadness of leaving your family and starting a new life and the nostalgia of everything that you have been through since the time you have grown up till now. So different moods, different ceremonies, different structure. Each one will go through their own and you end up getting something really beautiful. I think what is nice about music and culture is that you are so used to seeing Indian culture in a certain light. Suddenly adding a new soundtrack to it changes the mood entirely. So we are used to that kind of singing at Indian weddings. Suddenly, you change it to something contemporary and acoustic, and sweet sounding, and in some good structure, in some good power, it gives it a whole new dimension suddenly. You add any song to it and you mix (some song), and suddenly you have got a whole new perspective on the song. And it changes culture and how you look at it. You realize that culture has moved forward. It still is beautiful, it still is heartwarming, but with a new soundtrack, with a new approach, with a new visual. Short and slow motion, for example, the first time we did the bidaai and bride took the rice and threw it in slow motion, like hearts stopped beating when that happened. You have not seen it like that before. It’s not like it never happened. It was just taken and flung behind, seeing people’s faces. Suddenly you are romanticising the whole moment and you see the rice grains, you see the mother catching it in the jhola and you see the little finer details. You see the camera capture culture differently and you make people feel different about it.
Q: As a filmmaker, shooting a big fat Indian Wedding, what inspires you? What are some of the scenes that you personally like in a wedding?
A. Talking to the bride and groom and hearing their love story is amazing. Talking to their parents is always nice. Because you get a glimpse of history, because you get a glimpse of what life was like 20 or 30 years ago. I know the fact that people do get married, but every time I hear a story of people falling in love , there was no Facebook, there was no twitter, but you set up a date and time you have to be there. There’s a lot of risk involved. It was more orthodox. It wasn’t as liberal as now. I like that part of it. The bride getting ready and the little bits that go on behind the wedding, the rehearsals and all those aspects are really nice to capture. What the friends have to say, those parts are very interesting.