When Sakshi-Shubam Became Jodhaa-Akbar

Last September at the Westin Gurgaon, guests at the engagement of 26-year-olds Sakshi Rajpal and Shubam Malhotra were stunned into silence when the emcee at the event requested them to turn their gaze towards a gargantuan screen that had so far served as the innocuous backdrop for Sufi band Jazba’s performance. There, in the unmistakable language of a Bollywood romance, the real-life couple played out a reel-life fantasy: “When I first saw Sakshi…” narrated the businessman groom, while the lawyer bride ran in slow motion across the screen, her hair swirling about in youthful ecstasy, her dupatta flying in the air behind her. They hugged, they gazed into each other’s eyes to the soundtrack of a new Hindi movie song, and walked off into a radiant sunset. The video ended with the screen being split into two, and the happy couple emerging hand-in-hand from it.

Suddenly, the handsome couple on the stage seemed more than the boy and girl next door. Their 15 minutes of matrimonial fame had endowed them with a celebrity halo. Salim and Anarkali were in the house.

And this was only a ‘pre-wedding’ video that had been created especially for this particular event by Sumit Productions, a small Delhi-based wedding photography service firm. Shot over the course of a day, the Gurgaon-based couple had driven to Sohna where they were filmed walking along Dum Duma lake and flying on the FlyBoy at The Westin, having changed garments three times. After the shoot, they had their voices dubbed in, and sound and light effects added to make it look like a filmi song video.

10.jpgThat’s only a tiny fraction of what big names like The Wedding Filmers (TWF) would do for one of their wedding videos – often researched for months before being shot, edited and cut into an hour-long video along with a three to seven minute trailer. Founded three years ago by Vishal Punjabi, a former visual-effects specialist and filmmaker with Shah Rukh Khan’s Red Chillies Entertainment, after his own wedding video went viral on Facebook, the Mumbai-based firm draws on its considerable clout in the film and fashion industry to produce a drama documentary that engages even strangers surfing the Internet. Their 2012 film Heartbeats hit almost 11 million views on Facebook alone, and earned TWF “an insane amount of new clients” according to Punjabi, who also shoots sequences for Hindi films – such as the wedding climax scene in Ayaan Mukherjee’s upcoming Yeh Jawani Hai Deewani – besides commercials and his own new film venture. Heartbeats is currently entered in 32 different film awards around the world in the non-fiction short film category, and its leading man and lady, the happy groom Devrath Sagar and bride Kanika Gandhi, are often accosted in Dubai and Indian shopping malls by people who recognize them from the online hit.

The wedding film has become the ultimate eraser of the divide between the familiar real life and the large-screen fantasy. When the first Hindi movie was released a hundred years ago, it quickly became one of the most defining mediums of playing out Indian dreams – of fame, fortune, power, love and glory. The moving picture’s hold on the human imagination is unparalleled, both for the stories they weave on screen and the gossip they create off it. But the average citizen’s access to this chimerical world of glitz, glamour and make-believe is limited.

Enter the wedding film. One may not be Aishwarya Rai and Hrithik Roshan, but one is always the Jodhaa and Akbar of one’s own wedding, and a film that can aspire to those standards is understandably in order. It is a sign of the lucrative times when even professional filmmakers of documentaries and commercials are now jumping into the fray – and not just for Indians in India, either.

Born in Tanzania to Gujarati emigrants, Mili Ghosh graduated from Canada and moved to Chicago to set off both on a career and marriage. She kickstarted her filmmaking career with short films and documentaries, including one called Meditation for a Change, targeted at Chicago high-school students, and Media for a Change, which highlighted the negative outcome of outsourcing Detroit auto-worker jobs. An assistant’s position at a wedding film company introduced her to her life’s passion, and to a burgeoning South Asian wedding industry. Launched by Mili and Sid Ghosh in 2004, their first job being a Pakistani ceremony, the young couple’s firm Memories in Motion now caters mostly to the Indian diaspora in the US, Canada, Philippines, Thailand and Dubai – the most significant being the wedding of Tarini Jindal, daughter of Indian steel tycoon Sajjan Jindal. The firm hired a global team of seven cinematographers, five photographers and two assistants for the elaborate affair.

Ghosh sees a clear correlation between the scale of the wedding and the collection pricing for photography and cinematography. “Wealth amongst NRIs has increased and thus the scale of the weddings have expanded as well. The presence of Bollywood stars performing on a sangeet night, or singers like Adnan Sami, Shakira, Akon or Mika rocking the stage, or something more out-of-the-box like Cirque du Soleil entertaining the guests, is definitely a result of the flamboyance and extravagance creeping into the high-end Indian wedding market,” she opines. Ghosh, who says her toughest task is to get the people on camera completely forget its presence, uses HDSLR (hybrid digital lens reflex) cameras such as Canon 5D Mark III, 6D, 1D Mark IV when she needs to shoot both high-resolution stills and high-definition video, limiting herself to Zeiss cine-prime lenses for cinematography and Canon prime lenses for photography, she says.

In a wedding industry valued in lakhs of crores and growing at 25% per annum, and in a sector that makes up almost 20% of all wedding expenses, wedding photography and videography are perched on a ride that is slated to go higher and higher over the next few decades. No doubt the user-friendly digital nature of the beast has something to do with its popularity. The first D-SLR that could also shoot video was introduced by Nikon in 2008 with the D90, and by 2010, film and television productions began extensively using HDSLRs (which allow one to interchange lenses) as a viable alternative to their 35mm film format. Nikon, which had a 29% market share of D-SLR cameras in 2008 and now stands at 55% in the same category, offers cameras that range from Rs 22,250 to 5,24,950 (body only) and expects to sell 3 lakh units this year, says Sajjan Kumar, vice president – imaging division, Nikon India.

Canon, another popular brand with videographers, is also aggressively pursuing expansion plans in India: last month, the company announced its 100th store in India and its aim to achieve an overall target of 45% market share in D-SLR during April – June 2013, with a 21% higher average selling price from the previous year. Buoyed by demand, Vu Technologies – launched by Devita Saraf, daughter of Rajkumar Saraf, CEO of Zenith Computers – also recently announced India’s first 3D video camera, offering full high-definition 1080p videos.

Sure, films of this quality come at a price – TWF could charge anything from Rs 5 lakhs to 50 lakhs depending on the number of days, persons and events involved; Mili Ghosh charges from US$ 20,000 to US$ 70,000 (not including hotels and flights) – but there are others who’d do it for less, for just the fun of it.

Tanveer Singh, the young co-founder of Colorblind Production, was a techie in Sapient with a nine-to-five job and a penchant for creating videos in his free time when he connected with a Facebook friend who was a 3D animation expert. The two shot a wedding film ‘for free’ just to see how it would turn out – and were subsequently flooded with requests to film weddings. Soon, they diversified into music shows such as David Guetta’s three-city India tour, commercials, music videos, small documentaries and corporate presentations for clients such as Disney and MTV. “We obviously had to quit our jobs,” chuckles the Kuwait-born Singh, who has now registered his production house in Delhi having made about 80 films so far, of which 50 were of weddings.

A computer-applications graduate, Singh admits that though wedding videos earn them lesser amounts than the other commercial projects they do (they charge from Rs 10,000 to Rs 5 lakh per wedding for a 25–30 minute video with trailer) they do have several advantages in terms of faster turnover, easy payment terms and the element of celebration and entertainment that come with any Indian wedding.

In Heartbeats by TWF, a slow-motion sequence zooms in on Kanika’s smiling, pretty face as Devrath puts sindoor on her head and her mother breaks out into tears behind them. Above the sentimental Punjabi folk tune, a voice-over by a friend says, “Love requires that you be the greatest person you are capable of being… your own hero and star.” Whether or not love gets you there, the wedding film sure will.

First published in The Economic Times

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