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Monsoon Wedding
Diaries: Part 1

Bridezilla Liz Hurley’s Indian wedding caused an international incident, while Bollywood’s Brangelina (AbhiAsh) pull off the ‘Wedding of the Century’

By Summer Block Kumar

Posted: April 21, 2007

Editor’s Note: This is the first of two articles by Summer Block Kumar, a writer living in Shanghai with her newlywed husband, Dev.

BREATHLESS, CHATTY, AND CHASTE, Bollywood gossip is full of the sort of winking allusiveness I associate with Hedda Hopper and the heyday of Hollywood scandal sheets. But thanks to some recent matrimonial missteps, the trials and tribulations of Indian millionaires and ingénues are now making the U.S. mags, too.

For a long time, the twin star systems of Hollywood and Bollywood operated independently, floating in their own dizzy galaxies of exclusive openings and backstage “canoodling.” But as Bollywood continued to gain international appeal, these two galaxies were bound to collide. Unfortunately, Hollywood’s adjustment to Indian values has not been without its casualties (a lesson Richard Gere learned recently when he publicly pecked Bollywood starlet Shilpa Shetty at an AIDS awareness program in Rajasthan and wound up the subject of vehement protest and legal censure).

But the American Gigolo was not the first celeb to court jail time on the subcontinent—that honor goes to British model-turned-actress Elizabeth Hurley. The trouble began when Hurley became engaged to wealthy NRI (non-resident Indian) businessman Arun Nayar. To celebrate their transcontinental love affair, Liz and Arun planned a six-day festival. Why have one wedding when you can have three? First, an intimate civil service before two witnesses; then an Episcopal blessing at Sudeley Castle in Gloucestershire; at last, the ill-fated Hindu bash in the 548-year-old Meherangarh Fort in Devigarh, Rajasthan.

The UK festivities featured the first public display of the lovebirds’ questionable taste. The two kicked off their English wedding ceremony with a presentation of their own personalized Bollywood movie, featuring Liz and Arun singing and dancing in classic desi style.

Bridezilla vs. India

In India, Liz made a number of regrettable faux pas, including failing to invite Arun’s 87-year-old grandmother to the wedding. She also opted not to wear the £35,000 ($68,000) diamond and ruby necklace her father-in-law Vinod gave her as a wedding present. Liz also issued her foreign guests a series of reasonable but insensitive Indian dos and don’ts, including “don’t give money to beggars” and “bring bacterial wipes” (the latter a phrase rarely found on wedding invitations).

Most unforgivably, the groom’s family was not housed with the majority of the European guests in the luxury Umaid Bhawan Palace, but in farther away and less opulent accommodations.

The real trouble was yet to come. When Vinod tried to take his traditional position on the wedding platform near the sacred fire, he was apparently rebuffed by his youngest son Nikhil. A scuffle ensured, and Vinod Nayar and his wife Joanne (Arun’s stepmother) were asked to leave the wedding venue.

Naturally, Vinod went straight to the press, alleging that his family was pushed aside in order to present a thoroughly star-studded image to UK gossip rag Hello! who paid Hurley £2 million ($4 million) for exclusive rights to the wedding photos. The British tabloid The Sunday Mirror quotes the slighted father-in-law as saying, “Maybe they didn’t really want my side of the family there. It was important for her to get celebrity faces there. That’s what the Hello! deal was about. She was fulfilling her contractual obligation.” He continued, “I think this elaborate Indian event was Elizabeth’s theatrical dream. It was certainly not a serious attempt to honour our customs.”

Not content with airing his grievances to the tabloids, Vinod went on to evict his son Arun from the Mumbai apartment where he resides, and to disown both Arun and younger brother Nikhil.

Vinod then agreed to testify in a legal case against the beleaguered couple. It seems local resident Vishnu Khandelwal charged Liz and Arun with violating Hindu customs and offending the sensibilities of Rajastani residents. Vinod compiled a laundry list of Liz’s slights, including failing to remover her leather shoes during the saptapadi (seven turns around a holy fire), overindulgence in alcohol, revealing dress, and public displays of affection. Khandelwal also added the perplexing accusation that the Nayar-Hurley wedding was really a proselytizing tool to lure Hindus to Christianity.

If the couple is found guilty, there’s a chance that arrest warrants could be issued against both Liz and Arun. Forget Bollywood gossip—this has all the makings of a Bollywood film, complete with Vinod’s filmi cry, “My heart is heavy with pain.”

As the legal battle heads to court on May, it’s fair to ask, what on earth happened here? Who manages to turn a wedding into an international incident? And what is it with Rajasthan? (I’m waiting eagerly to see what horrible thing Jude Law will do to offend Rajasthani residents on his current Jaipur vacation with girlfriend Kim Hersov.)

‘Wedding of the Century’

Happily for India’s much-abused gossip fans, another all-star nuptial bash is right around the corner. They’re brilliant, they’re beautiful, they even have their own celebrity portmanteau—I’m referring, of course, to Aishwarya Rai and Abhishek Bachchan, or AbhiAsh.

It seems every reporter in town is covering the April 20 wedding of Bollywood royals Aishwarya and Abhishek, son of the legendary Amitabh Bachchan and his actress wife Jaya. No detail is too trivial, as evidenced by the front-page quote in the Mumbai film magazine Screen: “Latest news: Bollywood actor Amitabh Bachchan drives to his house Pratiksha in Mumbai,” featuring a grainy photo of Amitabh driving home. There follows the sort of tedious, amateur snapshots your father took of your third birthday party, complete with people’s turned backs and gaping, cake-filled mouths.

Like Liz and Arun, AbhiAsh have imposed tight security for all wedding events, but that doesn’t prevent hordes of worshipful fans from standing vigil outside Prateeksha, the Bachchan home. One 19-year-old fan flew all the way from South Africa to get a glimpse of her idols and give them a gift. Other fans are waiting with laddoos, hand-stitched saris, and lacquer bangles. The Statesman reports that the citizens of Patna threw their own pre-wedding party, sans guests of honor, including a banquet, dancing, flowers, and music, as well as wrapped gifts set in front of photographs of the bride and groom.

So why does Aishwarya get bangles while Liz faces jail time? The key may lie in navigating the maze of Indian wedding customs with flexibility and humor.

Read about Summer Block Kumar’s own Monsoon Wedding on Monday.

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