Will you marry me?: On a new high

Marriages may be made in heaven, but wedding proposals are finding feet in Dubai, with its easy access to venues, planners and conveniences

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By Lekha Menon

Published: Fri 22 Oct 2021, 6:59 PM

Last updated: Sat 23 Oct 2021, 5:14 PM

A confession: I am what you’d call a ‘closet romantic’. I secretly adore the cheese and fluff that define a good, mushy romance though I pretend to sneer at the schmaltzy shenanigans of lovers. OTT gestures and cloying proposals usually evoke a ‘meh’ response from me — yet, whenever I revisit Runaway Bride, I swoon when Julia Roberts goes down on her knees to make an honest man out of Richard Gere.

Recently. however, my usual indifference to sentimental PDA received a slight jolt when I viewed a ‘proposal video’. It started with the doors opening to a heavily carpeted, plush private theatre. The camera panned through the floors, decorated with candles and flowers before zooming into an empty auditorium where it cut to the shot of a bucket of bubbly. Soft music added to the heady ambience as a nattily-dressed gentleman and a gorgeous woman entered the viewing room. It wasn’t hard to guess what happened next. He stood up with a flourish, made a beautiful speech and then swept her off her feet with a dazzling ring and a question that flashed on the cinema screen in bold letters: ‘Will You Marry Me?’

No prizes for guessing her answer. A loud ‘Yes’. The happy couple went on to celebrate their special evening with every minute of their loved-up moments captured on camera for posterity.

Honestly, I was a convert by the end of the video. What’s not to like about a man going all the way to pop the question to the woman of his dreams? However, I realised I was a bit late to the party as in the rosy universe of romance, lavish proposals have been trending for a while, perhaps even more than jaw-dropping weddings that have become de rigueur for several families these days.

And millennial men are pulling all the stops to come up with creative ideas to make their significant others exclaim the simple three-letter word ‘Y-E-S’. “I absolutely had a vision for my proposal,” says UK resident Matthew Johanson, a self-confessed ‘hopeless romantic’ who organised the afore-mentioned cinema proposal for June, his then Dubai-based girlfriend. “I wanted to propose in the most amazing way that would reflect how I felt about my [future] wife.”

Initially, Matthew had planned for a surprise engagement in London, where June was due to travel, hiring the top floor of The Shard, a 72-storey skyscraper, for the special occasion. But when her trip fell through due to some reason, Matthew changed his plans, shifting the location to the UAE. A frantic Google search led him to The Big Proposals, a Dubai-based proposal planning company, and with their help, over lots of WhatsApp conversations, intense discussions and rehearsals, the perfect proposal was hatched. As June’s reactions proved, his efforts hit bull’s-eye. “I wanted to show that she is my entire world, the love I have for her is beyond all measure,” he gushes.

The Proposal Planner

The moment when a man asks a woman to be his wife, is an intimate, wonderful occasion in a couple’s life and almost every married man or woman has a story about how the deal was sealed for them. However, new-age proposals are not just about emotions, but also about scale, quirks, glamour and creativity. And how do men execute these splendid, Instagram-worthy episodes that enchant their would-be brides? Enter the proposal planner! The desire to have a proposal story that would rival the best of romcoms has sparked the rise of a relatively new sub-genre of event planners who help men (and on rare occasions, women) spice up the most important question of their lives.

Rhiannon Downie-Hurst, entrepreneur and co-founder of The Big Proposals, that managed Mathew’s big night, attributes the rise of this trend to the impact of social media. “Also, we have noticed an increase in more elaborate requests post Covid. Since couples are having smaller weddings, the gentlemen proposing are willing to spend that little extra on their proposals,” she says.

Rhiannon’s company was formed when she and her partner Tasneem Alibhai saw a gap in the market for a high-end proposal planning company. The duo’s first proposal was executed in a hidden room in a restaurant that involved a bit of acting from the staff, some plot twists and a huge surprise for the bride-to-be. Ever since, they have organised over 30 bespoke proposals, with a “100 per cent yes rate”, each of which oozed the wow factor.

Their clientele hail from varied nationalities but bring their own cultural nuances to their requests. “South Asians want more elaborate proposals with full videography and emotions. Western expats love beach proposals and classic setups. Arabs are a mix of both and are extremely romantic. But, of course, every client is unique in their own way despite where they come from,” observes Tasneem, adding that the inquiries have only been increasing since their launch.

Gauri Chadha, co-founder and creative director of The Big Night, an events firm, believes that proposals are no longer private affairs where a man and woman vow to spend the rest of their lives together, primarily because of the nerves, the unexpected reactions and the element of surprise that make it all very special. “It’s the time when a couple actually begins their journey to the wedding, so why not make it grand and unique?” she says. Why not indeed!

The location makes it special

A key element of making a memorable proposal is the location with cities like Dubai — with its social media-friendly venues — being a hot favourite. And it is here that securing the services of a proposal planner becomes useful. Rhiannon and Tasneem, for instance, work closely with their clients, figuring out the couple’s desires and personalities before recommending ideas. “For example, if a lady is shy and doesn’t like to be at the forefront of attention, we will sway our client away from any public proposal concepts,” says Rhiannon. Not surprisingly, five-star hotels on the Palm with beautiful beaches and private dining areas, as well as venues with access to Burj Al Arab or Burj Khalifa views and idyllic picnic spots are in high demand.

Over the last two years, the company has provided creative, logistical and emotional support to help clients — “typically mid-high networth men travelling to Dubai on business or on holiday with their partners” — make that “aww”-inducing proposal. From simple picnic desert proposals to dramatic setups on the beach with huge lit letters, proposals in front of the Burj Khalifa to a hilltop event at Hatta with mountain views — the sky’s the limit for men with love in their hearts and a willingness to open their purse strings.

If not ostentatious, proposals can also be quirky. Take for instance, the “mind proposal” that Gauri recently helped organise at a private dining cabana on a beachside at the Palm Jumeirah. The couple in question was taught to read each other’s thoughts and during this demonstration something incredible happened. “The would-be bride could actually hear her boyfriend’s voice in her head, asking her to marry him even though he’s standing a few feet away and her ears were covered,” she says, adding, “You can imagine her reaction to this.”

Beautiful proposals also require some important accessories, most notably a great photographer and videographer to shoot every shock, surprise and smile. Some people may baulk at the idea of a third person being present at what is supposed to be an intimate date but, as Gauri says, to experience this special moment and not have it documented is like “having pizza without cheese”.

The Love-Arranged Proposals

Perhaps it’s to create memories that last forever that men are willing to travel the extra mile before the walk to the altar — even if it means arranging a proposal after the marriage is fixed! Indians seem to be leading this trend of couples enjoying a glorious proposal much after the families have given them their blessings.

Just ask Rachita Rakani, a fashion designer from Mumbai who got the shock of her life when her boyfriend Harsh organised a flash mob in Dubai as he asked her to marry him. Rachita and Harsh, who had started dating after meeting in Dubai through common friends, and decided to get married. But what’s the fun of a big, fat Indian wedding if it’s not preceded by an impressive proposal?

A few months later, when Rachita was in Dubai again, Harsh secretly organised a special dinner at a hotel rooftop, roping in her friends and relatives. “We were having dinner when suddenly a flash mob appeared and started performing Bollywood numbers. Two songs later, I saw Harsh, otherwise a very shy guy, emerging out of nowhere, dancing with the troupe with perfectly synchronised steps, asking me to marry him. Since we had met in Dubai, he was keen to propose in the same city. I couldn’t believe he actually connected with a Bollywood choreographer, learnt the dances over video calls, organised a flash mob and flown into Dubai for a few hours just to propose!” says the now happily-married Rachita.

For many Indian millennials, fed on a diet of Bollywood and Hollywood romances, proposals have become significant because it’s the only occasion they can own. A wedding, with all its rituals, centuries-old traditions and involvement of families, relatives and guests, can’t really be customised. Hence, the proposal provides the way to have a more bespoke experience in their love life.

Mumbai-based Niyati Mehta and her husband Chaitanya took their love story to a whole new level when they proposed to each other one year apart, once in Dubai and then again in Turkey. The couple had been dating for nearly seven years when Chaitanya formally asked her to marry him. The families had approved but the duo had their own ways to make their union memorable. Chaitanya first planned a Dubai proposal for Rachita, booking the entire presidential suite of the Palazzo Versace. “I was in the UAE on a trip. One evening, I was asked to reach the hotel and what do I see? A beautifully done up suite and ‘Will you marry me?’ written in rose petals with candles, lights, music and the works! He had planned this entire proposal with the help of my family.”

The story isn’t over yet. A year later, they flew to Cappadocia, Turkey, for a family member’s birthday and that’s where Niyati decided to return the favour. This time, she proposed to him in an almost similar manner at a gorgeous luxury property, the Museum Hotel, in the company of friends and relatives. “To be honest, my wedding that took place later with nearly 1,000 guests was a lot of fun but I have sweeter memories of my proposals,” says Niyati.

Women are becoming more demanding and vocalising their needs. As Rachita says, “Women want their partners to show emotional connectivity.” So if that means organising a flash mob, flying to a foreign destination, buying a glittering rock and spending a few thousand dollars to make her shed happy tears, so be it! A grand proposal can cost anything between Dh7,000 and Dh25,000 but more than the price, it’s the touch of class and some celeb-like glamour during this once-in-a-lifetime moment that men are looking for.

The amusing flipside is that, for once, the pressure is on men to give their ladies the proposal of their dreams. Rhiannon says they have seen men get nervous and hit the wrong spot. “But it’s fine, for photos we can always re-enact that moment when the nerves are less frazzled!” she laughs.

For those wondering about how to meet the huge expectations, Matthew has a piece of advice to handle ‘proposal pressure’. “A meaningful or grand proposal does not have to be costly. What is most important is that you take the time to really understand your partner, what they like, what would mean the most to them and you use this to put together something beautiful. After all, a proposal is something that will stay with you both as a memory forever and it’s one to share with family and friends, even the grandkids!”

(Lekha Menon is a journalist and editor based in India.)

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