How to explain the arranged marriage to non-Indians? How to explain that it coexists in India with modernization and call centers and that women who have the agency to study for an MBA and work full-time also fully participate in the arrangement of their own marriage?
The film A Suitable Girl (2018) is a nuanced and keenly felt cinematic foray into the world of arranged marriage. Not Arranged Marriage with upper caps, as if a generic experience awaits all those who go down this path. Instead, for each of the three women who are followed around by a perceptive camera, there emerges a verite portrait of the complexities of emotions within the cultural context where such alliances are the norm.
The pressure to get married is felt keenly by a woman of a certain age. The filmmakers Sarita Khurana and Smriti Mundhra were at graduate school in Columbia University and worked on a number of films and projects together. “And part of the reason why we bonded and something we talked about was the pressures we ourselves were facing to get married and settle down.” So they decided to make a film about it.
Did they find any challenges as women of color in a profession dominated by white men? “We missed the wave of the diversity initiatives in Hollywood.” Frances McDormand’s reference to inclusion riders was yet to arrive. During the four years that the filmmakers kept this “train running,” they were able to fund the film through private donors and “people who believed in us and believed in the project.” A clear vision for their project guided them, and paradoxically made it harder for them to fund the film. “There is money for feel-good charity work, but we wanted the women in our film to have agency, not showcase poverty porn or pity projects. This actually made it harder for us to fund the film.”
US-based second generation desis, having grown up in third cultures, have a familiarity with the cultural values of their parents. Meet the Patels (2014) had a tongue in cheek look at intra-marriage within the Gujarati community, and also included a critique of the parochial aversion to inter-marriage outside the community. The filmmakers in A Suitable Girl wished to contextualize choices within the cultural values. What makes this film special is the agency and access to the inner lives of these women, hand-wringing included, who transition from single to married women in the course of the film.
Anita, who has moved to Nokha, a small town in Rajasthan after growing up in Delhi and a ‘love marriage’ to Keshav, voices her loss of identity after marriage. She can complain about the ‘idiotic customs and traditions,’ but also feel pride in being part of a couple: “I do it all for Keshav.” She is an active participant in the decision-making, and possibly actively participates in the narrowing of her own horizons.
There is an algorithm in the marriage market for a suitable girl, with inputs for physical attractiveness — slimness and fairness especially, and Dipti is found lacking in a series of meetings. The entire family participates in her search for a life partner, and the collective emotion of a rejection from a prospective groom is captured brilliantly.
The matchmaker Seema, working off spread-sheets and bio-datas, is keenly aware that her own daughter, Ritu, wishes to work after marriage, and that there is more at stake here than for her other clients.
The camera follows, it notices, it even probes. It stays true to the verite form, but supplements with some interviews, and gives the subjects a voice. There are beautiful establishing shots of trains, of camels, of a wedding tent being constructed by tying bamboo poles together. A viewer is transported to India, and the sense that a young woman’s life is not just her own, but situated within an extended network of family and community.
My own story hints at this paradox. When I was 22, my parents seemed ready to get their daughter married and “settled.” I wanted to make everyone happy, but even more, I wanted to flee. During a stilted tea-drinking episode with a prospective suitor, I explained carefully to my mother “Rather than getting married right now, I would like to accept a SPICMACAY Gurukul Anubhav scholarship and go to Calcutta.”
“Society for the Promotion of Indian Classical Music and Culture Among Youth.”
“Since when are you interested in classical music?”
“I’m SUPER interested in classical music. I’m surprised you haven’t noticed.”
I felt bad that I had ruined everyone’s marriage arrangement tea. But I was equally sure they would all get over it.
I had bought myself some time. One month, to be precise. I sent a mental thank you to Kiran Seth, an IIT Delhi professor who had founded SPICMACAY in 1977 and the Gurukul scholarship just a few years prior, in 1986. Catching a train to Calcutta, I arrived at the Ustad Nasir Moinuddin Dagar Dhrupad Sangeet Ashram and found myself in a small household, a gurukul of a famous musician, where meals were cooked by Alaka Nandy, a disciple and accomplished dhrupad singer. There were amazing singing sessions in the mornings that transported you to ecstatic musical realms, and the guru’s riyaaz in a nearby park caused morning walkers to stop in their tracks, transformed by a dhrupad maestro’s virtuosity. I was a bit homesick in Calcutta — everything was humid and smelled of asafoetida — but pleased with this lofty-sounding excuse not to be Mrs. Somebody. Phew. Saved by some ragas.
Eventually, I did get married on a crisp Delhi morning, but it was not to a stranger. As the notes of plaintive shehnai music mingled with the smoke from the altar, I found myself charmed and curious about the Vedic ceremony involving fire, and grains of rice, and a lot of Sanskrit.
You see, I had agency.
A Suitable Girl (2018). Directors Sarita Khurana and Smriti Mundhra. Producers: Smriti Mundhra, Jennifer Tiexiera, Sarita Khurana, Cal Amir. Studio: Marriage Brokers LLC. Documentary.
Winner of the 2018 Tribeca Film Festival’s Best New Documentary Director Award. You can watch A Suitable Girl online at https://www.amazon.com/Suitable-Girl-Smriti-Mundhra/dp/B07BH8YJMQ/
Geetika Pathania Jain is Culture and Media Editor at India Currents.