A suitable connection

A nuanced documentary on arranged marriage will premiere at Tribeca

Updated - April 27, 2017 06:10 pm IST

Published - April 08, 2017 04:42 pm IST

Amrita depicts the anxieties of finding a groom.

Amrita depicts the anxieties of finding a groom.

At times the subjects of their first films are not really chosen by filmmakers. Instead, almost unwillingly, they are thrust upon them, appearing on the horizon as a natural part of their lives.  As in the case of Smriti Mundhra and Sarita Khurana’s A Suitable Girl, a curiously affecting and surprisingly unprejudiced look at the world of arranged marriages in India that is set to premiere at the Tribeca Film Festival later this month in the Documentary Competition section.

The film, by the U.S.-based filmmakers and Columbia University graduates, limns the lives of three urban, middle-class Indian women, Ritu, Dipti, and Amrita as they follow the traditional route to finding a groom. Ironically, it was a question the two filmmakers had also been squaring up to, raised in the Indian diaspora by immigrant parents who still harboured the mores of the India they had left behind.

For Khurana, the pressure to get married came when she was about 18 and had just started dating her first boyfriend. “Aren’t you going to get married to him, they (parents) would ask me,” she remembers. “I navigated this pressure right through my 20s and 30s. According to my parents, my life would not be ‘settled’ until I was married.” Mundhra too sensed the pressure from a young age. The Marwari community to which her parents belong isn’t exactly renowned for being progressive. Her mother, for instance, was married when she was just 16. When Mundhra broke up with a long-time boyfriend, she had to go through a year of poring over matrimonial ads and meeting potential matches three times a week. “ The process was an interesting way to meet new people, but it chipped away at my self-esteem,” she says. “My not getting married appeared to be such a problem for my parents.”

Indian context

No wonder the duo decided that a documentary set in India would be the right way to understand the curious institution of arranged marriage and what it means today to the scores of young people who subscribe to it.

The filmmakers are keen to stress on two things. First, they didn’t set out to make the film with any sense of prejudice. At no point does the film take a stand or make a value judgement about arranged marriages. Shot in vérité, it tries to faithfully and unobtrusively document the trials and tribulations of the three women and gives voices their thoughts and beliefs.

Second, the two wanted to steer clear of an easy, superficial narrative. This meant that they had to struggle with raising money because the film did not fit the typical, identifiable “India” frameworks known to the West. “It’s not poverty porn; it’s not a slum film. It talks about women’s issues with nuance,” they say. The reason they had to depend entirely on independent investors.

Mundhra and Khurana don’t turn arranged marriage into some odd, curious object for the West, but try to trace the complexity of the situation, without bowing to sweeping narratives about the oppressive nature of the marriage or by focusing on easy hits such as child marriage or forced marriage. All three characters in the film are well-spoken, upwardly-mobile, urban and middle-class women coming to terms with the shifting realities of being a woman in India.

They found their three women, as much as the women found their filmmakers. Ritu is the daughter of a professional matchmaker known to Mundhra’s family. She had just returned to Mumbai from her studies in London, and her mother was keen to get her married. Dipti was spotted at a swayamvar event in Bhayandar, Mumbai, where the filmmakers had gone to film for B-roll (supplemental) footage. The duo recalls how Dipti and her family were extremely keen to talk about the anxieties and pressures related to finding a groom.

Amrita was introduced to the filmmakers at a Delhi wedding where they were again filming. Amrita is the only one whose marriage has been fixed when the film begins. The filmmakers decided to document Amrita in her married life, and the other two in their search for grooms.

Eventually, through its characters, the film teases out the many nuances of arranged marriage: the contradictions between the growing education, employment and financial opportunities for women, and the inescapable pressures of “settling down” into matrimony.

Everything can become a bone of contention in these arranged set-ups—the size of the groom’s flat, his income; the bride’s complexion, weight and age; whether she can wear Western clothes or work after marriage. The process itself can appear ridiculous on the outside, but is perfectly normal to those who believe in it.

“We wanted to be as objective as possible without passing judgement,” says Mundhra. “And we wanted to bring the stories of our characters to a natural conclusion.” It was an exercise in patience and diligence that would occupy the filmmakers for the next half-decade. Initially conceptualised as a year-long project, the documentary eventually took almost four years to film, and six to be completed, resulting in 90 sharp minutes cut from 750 hours of footage. It is also a testament to the support of the private investors who continued to back the film through its delays.

Now that the film is set to screen at a prestigious festival, the pair pauses to reflect on how it has affected them personally. Khurana says it did not change her view that marriage is a heteronormative tradition, and that you don’t necessarily need it to become a fully formed person. But she found she was able to understand the logic and process of it. “The matchmaking that happens makes sense. It’s based on factors such as age, social status, education, community, employment, and there’s a logic to it, for which I have respect.”

Myriad variations

Mundhra says she understood the draw of being part of a community and a support system when her father—the filmmaker Jagmohan Mundhra—died and her mother had to go through a major transition in life. She is quick to point out that their time filming in India also gave them perspective on the elastic nature of marriage in India. “Marriages in India -- both love and arranged -- offer many variations of choice and individuality to its participants. It exists in a [broad] spectrum,” she says.

Despite their attention to nuance, A Suitable Girl is an overwhelming testament to the power of patriarchy and the continued struggle of women to gain agency over their lives—and the many power structures that conspire to restrict their movement, their sexuality and life choices.

In a moving scene from the film, Dipti, through her tears, says she will miss her parents terribly: “These things happen only to women. They are the ones who always have to make the sacrifice.” The tears linger for a moment before hard practicality takes over. She must continue down the path she has chosen as much as it has chosen her.

The writer is photographer and founder of The Indiestani Project, a poetography collaboration.

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