Tag Archives: A Suitable Girl

A Tale of Two Civilizations

This weekend I watched two shows on Amazon Prime which were like cultural inversions of each other – Four More Shots Please and A Suitable Girl. They reinforced my beliefs that Indian culture is a tale of at least two (if not more) civilizations, that coexist like planets in the same solar system, occasionally brushing each other like strangers in orbit, but never really meeting.

And, I became even more convinced that the distortive mirrors of Bollywood fail to depict Indian women with the nuanced respect they deserve.

Four More Shots Please is an original Amazon series based in Mumbai, India’s ‘sin and sex city.’ It depicts a quad of ‘liberated, educated, gainfully employed (or not), bar hopping, shot drinking, middle class women who indulge in a fascinating potpourri of X-rated behavior that, unfortunately, is only mildly shocking by today’s standards, (Sacred Games, Saif Ali Khan’s  Amazon series broke the censorship ceiling on Indian shows!) The pole opposite of this show is the alternate universe of A Suitable Girl, an award-winning documentary, that follows the lives of three middle class Indian women as they hunt for husbands with their mamas and papas in tow.       

The protagonists in Four More Shots Please are aspirational young women; the show’s creator (Pritish Nandy’s daughter, Rangita Pritish Nandy) advertises the series as a modern take on Indian feminism. It thrives on its sense of frothy fun as the quad navigates what it means to be young and independent in a patriarchy that they imagine arches like an invisible cobra hood over their female heads. They do represent a certain .1 % slice of middle-class women in India – the ones with privileged seats and the best view of the stadium.

That being said, Four More Shots Please reels one in with its gossipy  and brazen take on issues usually pushed out of sight, like lesbianism, bisexuality, sex and the single Indian woman, and whether no sex for four years leads to a growth of cobwebs over female vaginas.

The Gang of Four includes Damini, an investigative journalist who is  compulsively obsessive about her single sex life – she will not allow any of her lovers to spend the night for fear of contamination. Anjana, a successful corporate lawyer is still fixated on her ex-husband;  she shares custody of their daughter with him, but his new girlfriend is wooing their little girl with teddy bear pancakes – a major source of conflict for Anjana. Umang, a personal trainer, is muscled, tattooed, bisexual and unashamedly promiscuous; she has fled the terrors of an arranged marriage in Ludhiana to work in a Mumbai gym. Finally Siddhi, the most outwardly submissive of the crew, has a chic, body-shaming mother who is obsessed with marrying off her daughter before, (mama predicts), she blows up into a fat-encased balloon.

Female bonding at their local bar is an act of mental striptease and catharsis; the girls talk about their sexuality, their loves, the famously oppressive patriarchy (which doesn’t seem to have stifled their lifestyle in the least), and flirt with the bartender. The screenplay weaves between thoughtful and revealing, with some authentic discussions about issues women can relate to, but pretentious and preachy at others times. It’s exciting to see Indian shows opening the door to taboo topics that range from how single, professional women in India navigate dating and sex in the metropolis, to divorced women dealing with child custody issues when the ex acquires a new girlfriend. 

Along with the clichés there are some genuinely hilarious moments. Siddhi goes on a date arranged by her mother, with a rich, self-absorbed suitor who happens to have a foot fetish.  But when she stands on the seat to stick her head out of the sunroof in his BMW, Siddhi accidentally bashes his nose in as he drools over her feet. The entertainment quotient for this series holds for a while, but slowly, drop by drop, its shallowness and repetitiveness becomes wearisome.

If only there was a backbone of substance to its allegedly feminist message. If only the women weren’t dolled up constantly in the latest fashions, coiffed to perfection, not a hair out of place as they prance on the dance floor, or moan about their ex’s new girlfriend. It seems that (as the series title indicates), the instant, easy solution to all the obstacles in their lives is guzzling shot after screechy shot, delivered by a tattooed, cynical, and sexy barman in a pumped up, floodlit bar.

It’s hard to believe that A Suitable Girl exists in the same dimension as Four More Shots Please.

In this absorbing documentary, we meet three, young, middle class husband hunters. They range from Dipti, a plump schoolteacher who lives with her parents in a cramped flat on Mumbai’s outskirts, to Ritu, a financial advisor at Ernst and Young, whose family owns a swanky apartment in an upscale, Mumbai building. There’s Amrita from Delhi, who is already engaged, but hopes fervently that she’ll be allowed to put her MBA degree to some use after marriage. 

A Suitable Girl won the Best New Documentary Director award at the Tribeca Film Festival, in Manhattan.

The documentary follows the real-life experiences of arranging a daughter’s marriage over four years and does so with a lot of empathy and humor. Much of the humor is situational – like the Swayamvara organized by the Rotary club in Dipti’s neighborhood, where dozens of hopeful bachelors present themselves to three women (including Dipti), and their families. The bachelors are seated in rows of chairs arranged like a schoolroom, with the girls and their mothers and fathers on a stage up front. They rise one by one and nervously announce their names, ages, and occupations, while the young women studiously write down the names of suitors who look promising enough to interview further. 

Ritu’s mother is a professional Alliance Consultant (a euphemism for the modern metro matchmaker,) who refers to families by the amounts they are willing to spend on weddings – ‘the 500,000-dollar party’ or the ‘100,000,000-dollar party.’  Clearly worried about finding a match for Ritu who is slim but not fair, she sighs, “All the boy needs to do is have money, but the girl must be slim and fair.”

Amrita marries a boy she has liked since 10th grade in a lavish wedding, but her ambition to use her MBA is thwarted; her middle class marriage shows her running her in-law’s kitchen, cooking traditional food and displaying her massive sari collection – now she only wears saris prescribed by her mother-in-law for each occasion.

After the shot drinking, swearing, and sex-life discussions in Four More Shots, I couldn’t help noticing how different the two worlds depicted in these two shows were, and yet, in many ways, how similar. While the women in A Suitable Girl are clear that their identity will be defined by marriage and family, and don’t actively resist their fate, the girls in Four More Shots seek the same type of validation, but, from their peers. They want to be seen as emancipated norm smashers and fearless feminists, but the norms they chase are superficial -drinking, smoking and sex. 

When Damini confronts her mother about a remark on on women and glass ceilings, what sounds like an adult tantrum blows over – no boats are rocked, no ceilings shattered. When Umang encounters a Bollywood Diva at the gym, she backs off from reprimanding her for breaking a gym rule because she has a crush on her. Siddhi doesn’t resist her mother’s attempts to arrange her marriage, but neither does she try to get a job to demonstrate her independence. Her rebellion is sly and sluttish – she launches a website where she strips for strangers and revels in their drool over her curves.

The women in Four More Shots Please rage about gender and workplaces biases but do little else for systemic change. In real life there actually are compelling stories of women turning patriarchy on its head.

In Ranikhet, for example, Mala Srikant, a divorced, retired army doctor started a knitting circle for poor, illiterate women, often with abusive, alcoholic husbands. They learn to knit to supplement their meager incomes and along the way, they’ve learned self-confidence, financial independence, and the power of talking about shared taboos and pain. Their grassroots feminism is turning the oppressive patriarchy of their Uttarakhand villages into a matriarchy as they become the financial support of their families and stand up against unjust customs.

If the producers of Four More Shots Please hadn’t projected their show as a bold, feministic statement, I would have no problem with its lightweight forays into the world of social privilege and mild cultural oppression. While A Suitable Girl wins four stars for authenticity, Four More Shots Please has a long way to go, before it lives up to its reformist platform. 

Jyoti Minocha is an DC-based educator and writer who holds a Masters in Creative Writing from Johns Hopkins, and is working on a novel about the Partition.

Edited by Meera Kymal , contributing editor at India Currents

 

Looking for A Suitable Girl?

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.”

“What’s SPICMACAY?”

“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.