It was the day after Bichu Prathapan and Indu Bichu’s wedding in Cherthala, a rural town about an hour’s drive from Kochi. Photographer Shine Sidhardh and his team of six set up their equipment at the edge of a small pond, while the newlyweds lay in a traditional coracle called uruli. Water was sprayed on Bichu and Indu through a hose. Shine yelled instructions. The couple posed happily. The entire photo shoot took about four hours in the oppressive August humidity, but the couple was ecstatic with the results. “We couldn’t have asked for a better setting for our wedding album,” said Bichu, an information technology professional. “All my friends are doing it, and this is the trend these days.”

The photographs were shared widely on social media and they went viral. “I’ve been getting calls from relatives and some random people asking me how we got them,” said Bichu.

There has been a marked change in the way wedding photography has evolved in Kerala over the years. It has gone from the hurriedly-taken staid images during the traditionally short Hindu weddings in the state, to couples going to extreme lengths to have their wedding photographs clicked outdoors. The ultimate goal: to ensure they go viral. The settings include the state’s backwaters, beaches and the houseboat, and everything is an elaborate staged drama. “Couples these days want pratyekatha or something that stands out,” said Shine, who has been a wedding photographer for more than a decade.

Photographer Shine Sidhardh and his team at an outdoor wedding shoot. Photo credit: Shine Sidhardh.

Bichu and Indu’s photo shoot was hard, says Shine. The pond was admittedly in the backyard of his home. “But we had to make sure the boat didn’t move around and the lighting had to be right,” he said. “We had to capture their best expressions in that artificial rain. It was nothing short of a film set. In fact, it was like making a short film.”

Indu says the effort was worth it. “We wanted a special memory of our special day. It’s a once-in-a-lifetime event. So why not do something that stands out, that people talk about.”

Moved by movies

Waseem Ahmed is the co-founder of Made in Mono, a collective of wedding photographers specialising in pre-wedding photo shoots. He is based in Chennai but travels to Kerala often. “Malayali weddings are a real challenge because they’re very short,” said Ahmed. A Hindu wedding in Kerala can last anywhere between five and 15 minutes. In comparison, a Tamil Brahmin wedding can last up to six hours. “So the content collection time is limited,” he said. “If you miss the moment, it’s gone. That’s the reason why posed shots outdoors are so popular in Kerala.”

Shorter wedding times aren’t the only deciding factor. “Majority of the people in South India are influenced by what they see in films,” Ahmed said. “Weddings are now more detailed, a reflection of what people see in cinema.”

Cinema was certainly an inspiration for Indu. “When Bichu talked to me about the idea of taking photographs in the middle of a pond, I was really excited,” she said. “I felt it would be something out of a Malayalam film. And it was.”

A photo from Indu and Bichu's photo shoot that was shot with a drone. Photo credit: Shine Sidhardh.

Wedding business is big business in India. An Assocham report in 2017 said the industry is worth about Rs 1 lakh crore and growing at 25% to 30% annually. Of this, estimates put the size of Kerala’s wedding industry at around Rs 10,000 crore.

Gold is an integral part of this business. According to the 2011-’12 survey by the Ministry of Statistics and Programme Implementation, the monthly per capita expenditure on gold ornaments was the highest in Kerala at nearly Rs 400, with approximately 200 gm to 1 kg of gold bought per wedding.

Wedding shoots, involving a photographer and his team of a minimum of five assistants, don’t come cheap. “Affordability is not a problem for people,” Ahmed said. “Photographers charge lakhs of rupees these days. It comes down to what a client wants. The pricing is very random.”

In Kerala, on average, a photographer who comes with a recommendation usually charges between Rs 5 and Rs 10 lakh for a three-day wedding. He ends up taking around 10,000-20,000 images, of which the client gets around 2,000-2,500. Charges for an independent photographer range between Rs 70,000 and Rs 1 lakh per day. In smaller towns, this figure can vary from Rs 35,000 to Rs 50,000 for a day for a post-wedding shoot.

Photo credit: Sajeev Varghese.

Ahmed says there is “a real difference” between North and South India when it comes to wedding pictures. “In the North, people want a lot of pictures of the partying, and uncles and aunties dancing – of the family and all the aish (revelry) at the wedding,” he said. “In the South, the vibe is ‘yes, we want photographs of the people who came to the wedding’ but the focus remains very much on the bride and groom.”

This was indeed the case when Ganesh M Prasad, an engineer in Kuwait, got married to Aswathy S Kumar in September. “We had a traditional Nair wedding,” said Ganesh. “But other than that, we both wanted to do some adventurous photos.” Their post-wedding shoot happened at the Kattadi beach in Alappuzha. Kattadi is the Malayalam name for Casuarina trees, and the beach has been named after the abundance of the light and dark green trees that grow there.

“We did the shoot a few days after the wedding reception,” said Ganesh. “We wore the same clothes we wore that day.” He was dressed in a suit, while Aswathy was in a maroon lacha. The couple is currently living apart while they wait for Aswathy’s visa to Kuwait to come through. “I love looking at these photos of ours and that keeps me going,” she said.

Photo credit: Sajeev Varghese.

It’s not just locals who are opting for extravagant shoots. A couple from Hyderabad, Pratibha MV and Eswar K, contacted Sajeev Varghese, founder of Kerala Wedding Photography in Kottayam, for their wedding photos in November 2017. The wife was keen on doing the shoot “on a houseboat in the middle of the majestic Lake Vembanad, standing on the deck,” recalled Sajeev.

Photography in tourist spots in Kerala requires permission from government authorities. “We had to clear it with the municipal corporation,” Sajeev said. “But to click photographs the way Pratibha and Eswar wanted, we had to hire another boat. It was quite risky clicking away in the middle of this massive lake with a couple in their wedding outfits.” Looking at the pictures though, it’s hard to imagine they took six to eight hours to shoot.

Couples from the Middle East also come to Kerala to get their photos shot, because they’ve either heard of this trend through their Malayali friends who live and work in the Gulf, or they themselves have visited the state as tourists during the monsoons. “Mallikah and Yousuf came all the way from Lebanon so [that] their wedding pictures [could be] something totally different compared to their friends,” Sajeev said.

Growing popularity

The reason why an increasing number of people want their post-wedding shoots in Kerala is because of the state’s dramatic landscape, says Vinay Aravind, a photographer in Chennai. “Back in the day, it was a lot of staid pictures,” Aravind said. “Then we moved on to the candid trend – unscripted documentation of an event. These days, in Kerala, it’s all about staged [photos]. There’s dramatic lights, things like throwing colours. It’s so elaborate.”

Technology also seems to be playing its part. “Earlier, lighting for wedding pictures meant you had to plug them in,” said Aravind. “Now lights are portable…Drones are in right now. Whether you have a sense of composition or not, anyone can use a drone. Drones give you perspectives you’d never get otherwise.”

Sajeev used a drone for Pratibha and Eswar’s wedding, and Shine used one for Bichu and Indu’s. “These days, there’s also software to add special effects,” Sajeev said. “Post-production work can take up to a month before we give the photos to the client.”

Custom-made Jenga bricks at Sangita Santhosham and Sandeep John's wedding photo shoot. Photo credit: Vinay Aravind.

While some couples opt for over-the-top images, there are some who like them dramatic yet understated. Photographs meant the world to Sangita Santosham, a psychologist and singer from Chennai, when she married Sandeep John, an Anglo-Indian, in Kodaikanal. “After all is said and done, all that’s left are photographs as memories,” said Sangita. “An aunt of mine who has a carpentry unit, got these giant Jenga pieces. It added such drama to some photographs while still [being] subtle and vintage. People saw the pictures on social media and quite a few got in touch.”

Sometimes though, the photographer himself becomes part of the pratyekatha. Vishnu, a 23-year-old photographer from Thrissur, hung upside down from a tree to capture a top-angle shot of the newlywed couple. He is part of Whiteramp, a wedding cinematography company based in Kochi. “I’ve been practicing acrobatics since I was a boy,” said Vishnu. “And I’ve taken photos before while hanging upside down. But this time I wanted to see what would it look like if I was in the frame too.” The result? It got Vishnu the nickname vavval or bat, and the photographs went viral.

Vishnu hanging upside down to take a photo. Photo credit: Vishnu.