At long last, love...

By Sarah Lang

Will they, won't they, who'll try to stop them? Shortland Street fans can finally breathe easy. After an obstacle-course courtship and an aborted secret wedding, the soap's cutest couple Shanti (played by Nisha Madhan) and Scotty (played by Kiel McNaughton) will tie the knot in a one-hour special airing on July 21.

In line with Indian tradition, the wedding spans four days, plump with bright saris, traditional dance and rituals, a little superstition and, in true Shortland Street style, some unexpected hijinks.

Before her onscreen nuptials, Madhan - who has played sweet-but-stubborn nurse Shanti for a year - knew next to nothing about traditional Indian weddings. "I used the very reliable research source of my mother. I grilled her for at least an hour about her own wedding, and all the little customs.

By the end, she was lying down, having to answer more and more of my questions," laughs the 25-year old. "The one thing I asked her that she couldn't answer, which I found really interesting, was 'what's it like dreaming of not one but four days of absolute lavishment?' It was just natural for her to expect it, but it wasn't for me."

Looking decidedly more casual than her conservative character in jeans and black hoodie, Madhan - who was born in Qatar in the Middle East and moved with her family to New Zealand at 13 - comes across as a real Kiwi girl.

Chatting about her onscreen wedding, she says "like" and "you know" a lot, as well as using other Downunder expressions you wouldn't hear coming from Shanti's mouth: "You know, what really shits me about Indian weddings is how brides spend a whole day preparing: and putting on yards and yards of material, all this jewellery, all of this make-up."

But there was no escaping the time-sucking tradition: she spent two-and-a-half hours being preened solely for Day Three's wedding ceremony. And almost another hour arranging her succession of four stunning saris (all stomach-baring, as is traditional: "I just took it easy on the beer for a while!") Shanti had never looked more beautiful.

"It was really surreal looking at myself. I was like 'wow, I look like my aunties and my mum in their wedding photos'." As many Indian weddings held in New Zealand mix traditional with trendy, there were no hard-and-fast rules about how to portray this wedding.

But as Shanti is from a Gujarati family, Shortland Street chose to weave Gujarati wedding customs through all four days of festivity (each of which has its own Indian name). To make sure cultural details were correct, Sapna Samant (an ex-GP who runs her own consultancy company Holy Cow Media) has been on call to Shortland Street as its "Indian screen adviser". As well as answering any questions, she checked over scripts either giving the thumbs-up or advising a few tweaks.

"For instance, it's fine for guests at an Indian wedding to keep chatting throughout the marriage ceremony, but it's a no-no to wear black," Samant informs. She was also on set at the wedding: taking a twirl as a guest, lending the groom her scarf, and looking on as Gujarati rituals were performed. Laughs Madhan: "I was so clueless as to what any of it was. It was a Gujarati wedding, and my family is Punjabi, so none of what I heard from my mother was in it!"

Unlike most brides (and actors) Madhan didn't enjoy being the centre of attention during filming. "What a silly thing for an actor to say!" she admits. "But I didn't like being stared at, because people weren't looking at me - they were looking at a picture of an Indian bride. And there was a little bit of expectation, like 'Are you enjoying your wedding?!' and I'd say 'No, it's not my wedding, it's a character's wedding'." It was still a job to me: I was simply showing up, putting on my costume, reading my lines and acting with my fellow actor, and you know, creating two characters who were in love.

"But," she explains "because the two characters had been through so much at one point they got together and broke up within two scenes - it was so satisfying to finally reach that moment." By the end of five intense days of wedding filming (over a two-week period), Madhan was physically and emotionally drained. "It was really exhausting. You'd think that I wasn't doing much just sitting there, but I had to eat a lot more than usual just to keep my energy up." Energy she'd need.

Come each Friday after wedding filming, Madhan caught a bus or plane to meet the rest of her band The Hot Grits, which was touring the North Island to promote the release of first album It's too Drunk to be this Early (Madhan, who has been a member for a year, plays keyboard). Then post-gig it was back to Auckland and into Shanti's scrubs for Monday morning.

Playing such a traditional Indian character has been both a challenge and a blessing, says Madhan, who considers herself "an international" kind of person. "It's been wonderful to learn a little bit about what it's like to grow up with such a strong sense of pride and culture.

When I started playing Shanti, I really got a sense that if you come from a strong culture into a completely different culture you tend to try to cling on to your own little bits of culture to place yourself in the world." And yet, Madhan doesn't want to pigeonhole Shanti as simply a traditional Indian girl. "She's a girl who's trying to find independence, follow her heart, and be in love with the man she's in love with, you know?"

Madhan, who waxes lyrical about co-star McNaughton, is trying to stop herself texting him to see if his third child with actress wife Kerry has been born yet. Before Shortland Street, she knew him by sight as a fellow student (two years ahead of her) in Unitec's Bachelor of Performing and Screen Arts. "Honestly, the only thing I thought about him was 'that person does stunts'.

I'd always see him flipping off chairs, running up a wall and flipping backwards." (In fact, McNaughton did stunt work for Shortland Street before scoring the Scotty role.) Now that they're good mates, she doesn't mind those romantic scenes. "It's a great way to end the week of work, don't you think? If you haven't got it in real life I'm pretty grateful to have it in my fake life. It's probably the longest relationship I've ever had."

Madhan's currently single. Juggling acting and band commitments with the theatre company Phundmi Productions (geddit?) that she co-runs with best friend Leisha Ward-Knox leaves "no time for a boyfriend. But then you know, it's a Catch 22. I didn't have a boyfriend, so I filled my spare time with other projects and now I don't have time for a boyfriend."

But while Shanti had to wriggle out of an arranged marriage to be with Scotty, there was never any hint that Madhan would be presented with a betrothed. "I remember one time Mum saying 'Please don't make me arrange a marriage for you', because she didn't know where to start.'" As for another traditional Indian wedding one day, this Kiwi girl reckons one round is enough for her. "I can't wait to get out of the saris and back into the nursing scrubs."

Shortland Street's wedding screens as a one-hour episode on TV2, Monday, July 21.

You must remember this

There's nothing quite like a Shortland Street wedding and there have certainly been a few over the last 16 years.

1993: LEONARD DODDS AND GINA ROSSI
Ditzy cafe owner Gina (Jo Davison) and shy, nerdy doctor Leonard (Marton Csokas) tied the knot in style. The very modern couple even decided to reinvent their surname, becoming Mr and Mrs Rossi-Dodds.

2000: RANGI HEREMIA AND DONNA HEKA
Few relationships on Shortland Street have been as rocky as that between paramedic Rangi and medical assistant Donna. First they hated each other - then they didn't. Then they discovered they were half-brother and sister - then they weren't. The couple's surprise wedding marked the show's 2000th episode but sadly, their happiness was not to last. In 2001 a widowed Donna discovered Rangi had been leading a double life and had been killed by the husband of his mistress. She left the show with new companion Dr Victor Kahu (Calvin Tuteao) later that year.

2002: NICK HARRISON AND WAVERLeY WILSON
After a tumultuous eight-year courtship, hospital business manager Nick Harrison (Karl Burnett) and daffy receptionist Waverley Wilson (Claire Chitham) were finally wed.

2006: MAIA JEFFRIES AND JAY COPELAND
The homegrown soap broke new ground two years ago when it featured a Valentine's Day civil union ceremony between lesbian couple Maia Jeffries (Anna Jullienne) and Jay Copeland (Jaime Passier-Armstrong). The pair split up after it was revealed Jay had cheated - with a man. Jay later became the third victim of the 2007 Shortland Street serial killer, Joey Henderson (Johnny Barker).

- Herald on Sunday

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