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Sets In The City offers a variety of options for pre-wedding shoots. Photo: Rajesh Dembla

Lights, camera, marriage: in India, pre-wedding shoots are clicking with couples

  • Thousands of Indian couples are opting for engagement shoots before the whirligig of the wedding begins
  • Experts say the trend is to have smaller nuptials and spend on a shoot, with hotels, resorts and state governments getting in on the act by offering customised packages

Rama Sikri, 26, and Bhavesh Mehta, 28, clink their champagne flutes against the backdrop of the azure ocean as the camera zooms in on their smiling faces. Clad in a sequinned gold dress with orchids in her hair, Sikri smiles coyly as a tuxedo-clad Mehta whispers in her ear. The couple then ambles on the beach, hand in hand, before disappearing into the syrupy sunset as the director yells “Cut”.

But this is no Bollywood film shoot. Sikri and Mehta, who are tying the knot later this month, are at a beach in southern Goa for their pre- wedding shoot. Planned meticulously over weeks, the shoot will see the couple travel to different scenic locations across the state with their entourage to capture “moods and moments” before the big day.
Indian weddings are chaotic, so a shoot in a beautiful location is also helping us spend some quality time together

“Our wedding got postponed twice last year due to the pandemic. So we’ve now planned a micro wedding and are diverting some of our funds into this shoot to create beautiful memories,” says Sikri, a Mumbai-based IT professional. “Indian weddings are chaotic, so a shoot in a beautiful location is also helping us spend some quality time together.”

Like Sikri and Mehta, thousands of young Indian couples are increasingly opting for pre-wedding photography – also called engagement shoots – to immortalise their special moments just before the whirligig of the wedding begins. The pandemic has ravaged India’s US$50 billion wedding industry, forcing the cancellation or postponement of thousands of nuptials across the country.

Those who tied the knot last year in India, known to host some 10 million weddings a year, opted for intimate gatherings at home due to lockdown restrictions and fear of catching the deadly virus.

However, with travel restrictions now being eased, flights resuming and Covid-19 vaccines being rolled out, couples are getting excited about pre-wedding shoots.

“Indian weddings are highly complex affairs involving hordes of guests and multiple rituals. So the content collection window is very limited,” says Shallu Jhamb, a professional photographer who owns Punjab-based Payal Studios. “If you miss the moment, it’s gone forever. That’s why posed shots outdoors are the preferred choice these days,”

Jhamb says his diary is packed with seven pre-wedding shoots this month at locations ranging from the deserts of Jaisalmer in Rajasthan to the hills of Uttarakhand and the forts of Himachal Pradesh.

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To capitalise on the engagement shoot trend, hotels, resorts and state governments are offering customised packages to couples. The government of Rajasthan – a state replete with centuries-old palaces, forts and lakes, which is also a popular Bollywood haunt – has started a special scheme to allow pre-wedding shoots in the capital city, Jaipur. Interested couples can now get exclusive access to historic monuments in the Unesco-crowned world heritage city such as the Amber Palace, the 18th-century observatory of Jantar Mantar, and the Vidhyadhar ka Bagh gardens.

Buoyed by increasing demand, the pre-wedding shoot industry is also bolstering its infrastructure and services. Photo studios are doling out customised packages to lure engaged couples that include film crews, props, music, make-up artists, caterers and stylists.

“We try our best to make each shoot unique and aesthetically appealing using various methods, like photo booths, artificial rain, music, elaborate sets and special lighting effects,” says Delhi-based photographer Deepak Guarav.

Sets In the City, a 1.21-hectare studio on the outskirts of Mumbai, offers more than 50 sets for pre-wedding shoots ranging from Venetian canals to Moroccan souks, Tuscan streets, California beach houses, and cherry-blossom gardens. The studio has just added a Rajasthani-style fort to its repertoire, while plans are under way to construct landscaped Mughal gardens as well.

“The demand for engagement shoots has shot up phenomenally this season. Couples are flying in from all corners of the country to shoot here. Many proposals have also taken place on our sets!” says Rajesh Dembla, photographer and owner of Sets In the City. “The boyfriend gets his partner pretending that it’s an ordinary shoot but ends up going down on his knees to propose marriage! We arrange for champagne and confetti in such cases which also becomes a part of the video shoot.”

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The entrepreneur adds that studios such as his are becoming increasingly popular as they save on travel time as well as the headaches involved in getting government permission for popular locations. “One-stop studios make shoots seamless as couples can get everything done under one roof,” says Dembla, whose packages typically cost US$1,000 with inclusions such as a set, make-up artist and hairstylist for 10-12 hours a day.

In a cinema-obsessed country such as India, it is no surprise that many shoots revolve around Bollywood themes. Chicago-based engineers Dinki and Amit Nihalani, who came to India for their wedding, said their pre-wedding shoot in Jaipur “fulfilled our dream to act like movie stars for a couple of days”.

The duo chose a quintessential boy-meets-girl Bollywood-themed love story. “We used a popular track from a Hindi film to highlight our love for each other in the video, which was played on a big screen at our reception hall,” Amit recalls.

However, the shoot wasn’t without its share of hiccups. “It happened on a hot day and Dinki’s make-up kept melting,” Amit says. “Shooting all day in a dry desert was exhausting too. However, the scariest part was sitting on an elephant as one shot required us to do so. We were petrified about falling off the animal or being attacked by it. We laugh every time we think about it now, but it wasn’t funny back then!”

Jhamb of Payal Studios says equipment such as portable tents – for wardrobe changes during outdoor shooting – and innovations in videography and lighting are new developments for this year’s wedding season.

“The crew size has also increased,” he says. “Earlier, couples would arrive with just a make-up artist. Now, the entourage has expanded to include a caterer as well as a music expert. Recently, we rented a Mercedes S class and hired local models who posed as bridesmaids for a shoot.”

Dr Pooja Sahu, a Nagpur-based dermatologist who is tying the knot in June, says a pre-wedding shoot helped her to “fall in love with her fiancé all over again”. The run-up period to the wedding can be nerve-racking, she explains, with jewellery to buy, venues to finalise, menus to taste, and guests lists to make.

“Moreover, ours is a traditionally arranged match and we barely spent time together as my fiancé had to leave for California shortly after our nuptials were fixed. But we created lovely memories during our two-day engagement shoot. We chilled and enjoyed beer and a picnic on a farm and laughed a lot.”

But what seems like a fun time spent shooting in beautiful locations comes with its own set of challenges. At times, when a pre-wedding shoot is organised at popular places such as the Taj Mahal or other historic locations, a crowd often gathers to see what’s happening and ends up disrupting shoots, photographers say.

Photographer Kushboo Soni recalls how a herd of 50 cows suddenly appeared out of nowhere at a rustic location, playing havoc with her shoot. In rare cases, shoots can even be fatal. The quest for an exciting shooting location by a couple in the southern city of Mysuru last November led to their death by drowning in the Cauvery river after their coracle capsized.

But as Soni – whose company Mother of Reinvention specialises in pre-wedding shoots – points out, the pandemic has downsized Indian weddings while simultaneously increasing the importance of photography before the ceremony.

“The trend of mini weddings as against the big fat Indian wedding is here to stay,” she says. “Couples are now more interested in experiences rather than excessive expenditure on ceremonies involving thousands of guests.”