Vikram’s Big Fat Sikh Wedding

Vikram Chatwal and Priya Sachdev arriving at the Fantasia party in Udaipur.Photo: Jessica Craig-Martin

Sometimes it takes a father to know when a young man is ready to step into adulthood by stepping to the plate of holy matrimony. This was the case with Vikram Chatwal, the 34-year-old scion of a sprawling, multicontinental hotel-and-restaurant chain, Hampshire Hotels, controlled by his father, Sant. The family owns eleven hotels in Manhattan, including the Majestic and the Dream in Times Square, which has a Deepak Chopra spa and a Serafina restaurant.

Chatwal is the president of the boutique division of his father’s company, as well as “creative consultant.” But it’s strictly a day job. He’s also a Bollywood actor, better known for dating Gisele—he got a G tattooed on his arm—and hitting New York nightclubs in a red or white turban with P. Diddy and Naomi Campbell.

“I thought, Let him live life, and one day he’ll settle down,” said Sant, a major Democratic fund-raiser who is close to the Clintons, sitting in a guarded hotel suite in Bombay, wearing a red turban and white flowing shirt and pants. To Sant, however, the day when Vikram would choose a wife and settle down wasn’t coming fast enough.

Raised in an Upper East Side penthouse and sent to the United Nations International School and the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School of Business, Vikram now lives high above Central Park in Trump International in an airy condo filled with African and Indian art and drives an Aston Martin. “Vikram would say, ‘I want to charter a plane for Kate Moss,’ and I’d say, ‘Who’s Kate Moss? Okay, charter the plane.’ I gave him a car and a driver and a cook,” said Sant.

Vikram’s decadent lifestyle was beginning to raise eyebrows outside the family circle, too. When Vikram’s younger brother, Vivek, was married four years ago at Tavern on the Green, Bill Clinton’s toast included a pointed barb about Vikram’s drinking.

So Sant began to work on his son. Vikram, at first, wasn’t wildly enthusiastic about the idea of getting married. “There are a lot of sacrifices, and it’s not easy at all,” Vikram says. “It’s a job, the amount of energy it takes. But you can’t avoid the family and the culture. You have to accept it.”

In other words, a father knows best—especially a fabulously wealthy father whose traditions dictate that he find his son a bride. So the search was on.

Two years ago, Sant called up Raja Dhody, an old friend in Bombay who was married to an Indian socialite named Queenie, a former Miss India educated in London who Sant thought was a good model for the kind of wife Vikram should have. Raja immediately thought of a well-educated model with lovely manners whom he’d met on the social circuit in Bombay. But Raja had a hard time remembering her name. Sant pressed the issue. “I called again and said, ‘I am very upset you can’t get me the number of this girl. I’m going to call the chief of police in Bombay!’ ”

Queenie finally tracked the girl down. Her name was Priya Sachdev, and she was 25 at the time. Like most models, Priya really wanted to act. But she had also studied at the London School of Economics and worked as an investment banker for a year, just like Vikram. Her dad ran a garment-export business and a large auto dealership. Queenie Dhody went over to Priya’s parents’ house and took a picture that she quickly e-mailed to Sant, who liked what he saw. He dubbed Priya “The Park Avenue Project,” a code name he shared only with his staff and his wife.

As it happened, Vikram and Priya had already met, briefly, at an Indian wedding. Queenie and Raja held a dinner party to rekindle their acquaintance. “We connected,” says Priya. “He was very honest, and we had so much in common.”

Priya, for one thing, was far from a shrinking violet. “I’ve been an actress and a model in Delhi, so it’s very natural for me to be in front of the cameras,” says Priya, stretching her Angelina Jolie lips into a perfect, shiny smile.

“She was always the most popular girl in her class,” says her younger sister, Charu. “And she was always planning these elaborately themed birthday parties. Priya is all about recreation and drama.”

But Priya is also relatively clean-living. “I had a very sheltered life,” she says. “It’s lovely to hear about Vikram’s exciting and crazy experiences. It’s nice to live through his eyes. It opened me up.

“Vikram has sobered up so much, and I think he really wants to settle down.”

Though they had a few dates, Vikram didn’t seem to be in a great hurry. So Sant ordered him to India for a month, to adjust his attitude. Sant even canceled his son’s flight back to New York to make sure the couple had ample time to get acquainted.

Clockwise, from top left: Vikram Chatwal in his barat, a traditional wedding procession through the streets, in New Delhi; the Oberoi hotel in Udaipur; Vikram and Priya dancing at the henna ceremony in New Delhi; record producer Nellee Hooper and friends at Fantasia.Photo: Jessica Craig-Martin

“His father got involved and tried to push it,” says Priya. “I think that kind of scared Vikram. It would have been nicer if we just dated without the parents, but then the parents got involved and they were always part of our relationship.”

“Vikram is not focused,” says Sant about the project’s slow progress. “Priya thought that Vikram was not attracted to her. I told her, ‘You’ve got to have patience.’ She said, ‘Whenever I hug him and we try to do something, the problem is his heart is not there. I don’t feel the vibration.’ I said, ‘Listen, Priya. He has been with hundreds of girls. It will happen.’ ”

Sant asked Vikram what was wrong, and he said she was immature. “I said, ‘That’s the best quality! You don’t want to marry your mother!’ ”

Priya stayed cool under pressure. “If they had their way, we would have been married a year ago,” says Priya, who was born in New York. “But this is not an arranged marriage. It was meant to be. I believe in destiny.”

After a year of dating, Vikram proposed—with a ten-carat diamond—and for much of the past three months, most of the long-distance communicating was about the big event. “I can’t even tell you how many times we wished we hadn’t planned anything,” says Vikram.

Indian weddings usually last a few days and always feature plenty of bling and relatives. It’s not unusual to have hundreds of people at the festivities, which end with a big parade through the streets called a barat. Men carrying lights on their heads flank the crowd, and there’s always a marching band. Sometimes the groom picks up the bride on an elephant.

Sant being Sant, and Vikram being Vikram, excess was by no means frowned upon. Or, as Sant puts it: “Because of Vikram’s lifestyle, my aim was to do the most outstanding wedding that ever existed.”

“Priya thought Vikram was not attracted to her,” says Vikram’s father, Sant. “I told her, ‘Listen, he’s been with hundreds of girls. It will happen.’ ”

The wedding would last a week, with ten parties spread out over three cities and something over a thousand guests. Three chartered 737s and a small air force of private jets would transport a substantial slice of the international jet set. From Manhattan, there were Maritime Hotel co-owners Sean MacPherson and Eric Goode, real-estate developer Richard Born, fashion photographer Sante D’Orazio, and a gaggle of models. Art-dealing playboy Tim Jeffries, record producer Nellee Hooper, arms heiress Petrina Khashoggi, actress Patricia Velasquez, and banking and oil heir Matthew Mellon led the London contingent. Royals included the son of the late shah of Iran, Prince Nicholas of Greece, and a handful of Indian maharajas.

“It’s the biggest wedding I’ve ever done,” says New Delhi–based Vandana Mohan, who has been planning Indian weddings for almost twenty years. Her duties included overseeing fourteen special hospitality desks set up at each hotel and a fleet of 70 private cars for the three-city tour. Fifty thousand kilos of flowers were shipped in from Holland, Bangkok, and Calcutta, and 3,000 candles were burned. They went through 65,000 meters of fabric.

Each event also had an elaborate buffet, carefully tended for hours. “For an Indian wedding, there is no timing,” says Mohan. “We had to make sure there was still food for everyone at 2 a.m.”

The only thing they couldn’t plan was the couple’s compliance. “The biggest challenge was hoping it would actually happen,” said Sant. “They had a lot of differences of opinions. But with no fights, there is no love.”

The wedding itself was a stupendous, mind-bending, superrich caravan—all being filmed for a documentary for the Discovery Channel. Monday was Queenie and Raja’s party in Bombay, Tuesday was the white party at a palace in Udaipur, Wednesday was Fantasia, a masked ball on a small island. By Thursday, no one could remember what day it was.

What’s known as Indian Standard Time meant that everything got going at least two hours late, every night, so midnight was the right time to show up. In Bombay, India’s—perhaps the world’s—biggest movie star, Shah Rukh Khan, arrived about 2:30 a.m. and stayed until the crack of dawn, which made the 6 a.m. wake-up calls for the first charter to the northern city of Udaipur particularly brutal. Vikram and Priya would be arriving on a private Falcon Jet later in the afternoon. Vikram’s parents gave up their room in the hotel so security could use it as a makeshift vault for the millions of dollars’ worth of wedding jewelry.

The 20,000 kilos of white flowers were for the night’s elaborate white-and-silver theme party, complete with a painted elephant roaming the courtyard. It was Valentine’s Day, under a full moon: perfect, except for one puzzling fact. “White is not an auspicious color,” said the wedding planner. In India, widows wear white.

Priya's dance number at Fantasia.Photo: Fredrik Renander for New York Magazine

By midnight, Priya was dancing with a Bollywood star under the spotlights.

“Let’s bring Vikram, the prince of tonight, up on the stage!” yelled the bandleader as Priya shook her bared, perfectly flat belly for the cameras.

“Vikram? Are you there? Let’s bring him up here! The prince! Vikram?”Vikram finally emerged in a white turban, stepping cautiously on the stage. He slowly spun around once.

The next day, at the pool party in a 1760s fort, Priya was dancing again, this time in a shimmery silver dress adorned with peacocks, the national bird of India, an animal that mates for life. Vikram seemed sedate, until Jeffries took a running dive into the water. Vikram stripped off his shirt and dove in, still in his white linen pants, while Priya and his mother danced on to the relentless house music accompanied by a tribal band.Vikram slipped on a friend’s big black sunglasses and floated on his back, à la the famous scene in The Graduate.

By February 18, a giant sign welcoming William J. Clinton, the guest of honor, had been hung like a bull’s-eye by the entrance to New Delhi’s Sheraton, and a red carpet was rolled out in the lobby.

Downstairs in a hotel conference room, Jeffries was not pleased that the red turbans would clash with his new green Indian jacket. “There are no other colors?” he asked twice, before giving in.

Once the turbans were tied, slightly akimbo, Vikram’s friends and family headed outside to begin the barat. Between the horses, the marching band, and the mob of photographers, guests had to watch out or be stampeded. A bus got trapped in the parade—a captive audience of angry Indians on their way home from work.

Finally, after innumerable cocktails and groggy awakenings and turban-wrappings and flower arrangements, everyone was ready for the actual knot to be tied. Under an off-white tent in New Delhi, the couple performed the traditional Sikh wedding ceremony, walking four circles around a holy book that represents the four major vows of Indian marriage: duty to family and the community, mutual love, the achievement of detachment in the midst of family life, and human love sublimating into the love for God.

“This better work out,” said Deepak Chopra, wearing a pink turban, a blue oxford shirt, and khakis. India’s prime minister showed up. “No one is going to do this kind of party again.”

That night, Vikram asked Bill Clinton to get onstage and take the microphone for a few remarks. “I have one thing to say,” he said. “I was thinking as I read this program, because I was not able to get here until very late last night, that all the people my age who lasted the whole week should receive some sort of medal.

“Whether a wedding lasts a week or 30 minutes or something in between, the really special thing is what we feel for the bride and groom, what they feel for each other. They look very beautiful tonight, and I hope their whole lives will be as they are at this moment.”

Sant beamed. It really couldn’t get any better. “Bill knows women, so I said, ‘You tell me your honest opinion,’ ” Sant said later. “He said, ‘I spent an hour with Priya, and you’re very lucky. Priya is a very amazing girl.’ ”As the last event wound down, Sant was finally ready to relax. “My vision was fulfilled,” he said, bringing a hand to his chest. “I promised Vikram the most amazing wedding, and I did it.”

At that moment, Vikram came out of the hotel bar with some friends. Sant looked over at him and raised an eyebrow. “In my next life,” he said, “I want to come back as Vikram with me as a father.”


Matchmakers Queenie and Raja Dhody host a party in the ballroom of the Inter-Continental Hotel. Star attraction: Shah Rukh Khan, the “Brad Pitt of India.”

Mughal-court-inspired white party with painted elephant and 50,000 kilos of jasmine strung around an ancient palace.

Pool party at an ancient fort with painted camels and a tribal band. Fantasia with fire dancers, and mermaids in an island palace where the Bond movie Octopussy was filmed.

Henna ceremony, where guests are painted with the dye, a symbol of prosperity and happiness. Party favors: glass bangles, bright scarves, and plastic bindis.

New Delhi
The traditional grand procession, known as the barat, through the streets with a marching band, horses, dancing, and men wearing chandeliers on their heads. Bollywood entertainment at the Taj Palace Hotel.

At a traditional Sikh ceremony in the morning, the couple is finally married. Bill Clinton makes a speech at the black-and-white ball in a tented hangar. The dance floor is full until dawn.

Vikram’s Big Fat Sikh Wedding