Red is for the dark of reality. White and blue make up the bright of dreams. Honor (2018), a short film about forced marriages, packs a punch in under six minutes. It is effective storytelling at its best. Skillfully juxtaposed shots from just four scenes convey the heart and depth of this unspoken issue. The film is currently doing local festival rounds and has won multiple awards in LA and New York.
Simmie Sangian, writer and producer of Honor, plays the lead role of Serena, a 17 year-old British-Indian (Sikh) girl. She is pushed into an arranged marriage and feels caught between her girlfriend and parents. Simmie delicately portrays the conflict of a girl who must choose love or honor. Will she fulfill her parents’ wishes, or stay true to herself?
“There is a culture of silence and I wanted to be the voice for the victims. Girls are too scared to talk, or be who they truly are. Everyone thinks forced marriage only happens to girls in places like India and Pakistan yet it happens in United Kingdom and United States,” says Simmie. “It is just not talked about as much since we imagine these to be safe places, where girls are free and get an education. But they are forced to drop out of school and married off. They feel ashamed; their family puts them on a high pedestal.”
Similar to some migrants and conservatives, Indian parents hold on to dated values at odds with locals in their adopted country. They create a closed world inside their homes, contradictory to the open world outside. “Parents are still stuck to old tradition. As people living in a first world country with equal opportunity, girls have as much freedom as the boys. We all can figure out who we are without any restrictions,” says Simmie. “We would have no forced marriages if girls had a choice or parents could meet in the middle.”
The actor skillfully captures her character’s bare anguish. Especially when the disheveled bride sheds her gold jewelry in front of the mirror. The shot is superbly captured, in its thought as well as execution. The symbolic red of the Indian wedding outfit, usually associated with happiness and hope, appears a shaded black against the dimly-lit background bringing out its gloomy side. The celebratory bright gold ornaments look dull and bear the heavy weight of tradition.
In stark contrast, we see shots of Serena’s romantic adoration for her girlfriend Alex captured with an even, soft touch. Simmie had a clear idea of how she wanted it portrayed. “The honeymoon with the husband had to be dark and scary… almost tacky. The girlfriend’s section had to be dreamy, with the flowers and white and blue.”
Alex is played by co-producer Morgan Aiken, who is also the co-director of Honor with Kankana Chakraborty. “I wanted the film to be short and impactful. The crew was amazing and I knew most of them. The guy who played my husband is my school friend,” says Simmie. “I didn’t want strangers because it was such a delicate subject. I wanted people who cared about the script. I trusted Morgan and Kankana.”
The relationship aspect was woven in from her own experience. “LGBTI community has a bigger voice now but it is still uncomfortable to discuss it in Indian culture. I had a girlfriend and didn’t feel like I could tell my parents – what if they got mad or angry? They don’t have anything against them, my mum is a high school teacher but still…” she admits.
They are supportive of her career choice. She says, “Children are usually pushed to be a doctor or engineer in our community, I am grateful they didn’t. I wouldn’t be in Los Angeles without them.”
The film also shows the other hidden aspect of forced marriages: sexual assault. “It is rape, if you don’t want to be married. People overlook that, even parents. They are so keen on societal approval that they forget what’s going to happen behind closed doors,” says Simmie. “I hope my film affects those parents and makes them think twice.”
Honor is supported by Girls Not Brides, an NGO committed to ending child, early and forced marriages. All 50 states in the US allow marriage before 18, with parents’ consent, and 22 of them don’t stipulate a minimum age. Similarly, in UK, the minimum legal age is 18 to be married in England, Wales and Northern Ireland but an exception exists between ages 16 and 18 with parents’ consent. Forced marriages in England and Wales are criminalised.
Hamida Parkar is a freelance journalist and founder-editor of cinemaspotter.com. She writes on cinema, culture, women and social equity.