Marriage in India is so often either exoticized as a colorful, romantic Bollywood affair, or demonized as an antiquated, misogynistic injustice. Filmmakers Sarita Khurana and Smriti Mundhra set out to paint a more nuanced portrait with their documentary, A Suitable Girl, which will premiere in the World Documentary Competition this Saturday, April 22, at the 2017 Tribeca Film Festival.
Khurana and Mundhra—whose families are from Punjab state and Mumbai, India, respectively—met at Columbia University’s School of the Arts/MFA Film program and worked on several short films together before embarking on this project. A Suitable Girl follows three young Indian women and their families for more than four years as they navigate the process and pressures of finding husbands.
“It’s not like how our parents met,” Khurana said in a phone interview with Rewire. “My parents were arranged; they met once before their marriage day, and it was a done deal. Now, there’s a lot more individual choice and agency, but at the same time families are still involved.”
“The tradition is strong, but it’s also very elastic,” she added. “Arranged marriage doesn’t look one way. Families range from being quite conservative to quite open, so young people go on dates a lot more before they make that final decision on their own, or sometimes with their families, too.”
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For Khurana and Mundhra, their subjects—Ritu, Dipti, and Amrita—embody “the new India.”
“Educated, financially stable, and raised with a mix of traditional and contemporary values in the urban cities of Mumbai and New Delhi, they have access to the world in ways their mothers did not,” the filmmakers explained in the press release for the film. “Yet their lives take a dramatic turn when the pressure to settle down and get married hits.”
Before they found their three central characters, Khurana and Mundhra interviewed hundreds of young singles in India, to get a sense of how they’re feeling about marriage in general, and arranged marriage in particular. Initially they set out to take more of a big-picture approach to the topic of marriage in India, following a matchmaker and exploring the process. But the three women they found were so open with them, and their stories so compelling, that they ended up focusing instead on their personal journeys.
Mundhra said they explored the societal expectations from the women’s perspective because women are still the ones who face the most pressure, who give up the most, to make themselves suitable for marriage. Two of the young women in the film are highly educated, but they drop their career aspirations when it’s time to get married. They move away from home and their families to live with their husbands’ families.
“Even though men also face that pressure [to get married], ultimately women have to do a lot of the conforming and sacrificing,” Khurana said. “It’s still an institution that’s built on their backs.”
Amrita’s storyline confirms many Western fears about women in India losing agency. In an interview shortly after her engagement, featured in the documentary, Amrita explains with a smile that she’ll be able to use her MBA after marriage. Her future husband plans to involve her in his family business, she says, so even though she’ll leave her job in foreign exchanges at a major bank, she’ll get to keep working. But then we see her after her wedding, moved from her home in bustling New Delhi into her husband’s family’s house in a rural village. Her elderly father-in-law got sick shortly after she arrived, so rather than joining the family business, she stays home to help take care of him and the house. She’s dressed in a traditional sari, and explains that her mother-in-law tells her which one to wear each day, pointing to a high shelf where her jeans and t-shirts are packed away, where she can’t even reach them.
Her story is an almost too-perfect embodiment of the downsides of the marriage system: personal ambitions and autonomy cut short in service of her husband’s career and family. Amrita doesn’t directly say anything about being sad or disappointed with how her marriage has turned out, but her face says it all, even as she tries to smile through it. It’s hard to watch, especially after seeing her optimism just a few scenes earlier, and when contrasted with the other storylines that prove that it didn’t have to be this way.
Ritu, whose mother is a matchmaker, finds a union that will allow her to stay in the city and keep working. We don’t get as much detail about her story, but there’s definitely a clear sense that hers will be a much more modern marriage, where she’ll maintain some autonomy.
Dipti’s story is the most nuanced, and most clearly illustrates the crushing pressure to find a husband or become obsolete. When we meet her, she’s 29 years old, which is portrayed as tragically old. She and her parents are hard at work finding her a husband. They peruse online profiles and attend a matchmaking event, where they’re told that Dipti will need to lose weight if she wants to find a husband. She meets one young man whom she’s smitten with; she explains that she likes him due to their mutual like of sweet lime juice. But he doesn’t respond to her parents’ follow-up to their meeting. Her parents explain that it’s because they’re not rich, and marrying Dipti wouldn’t raise the suitor’s standard of living.
It’s a hard road for Dipti, illustrating the prejudices women face because of caste, class, appearance, and age. She falls into a depression, not wanting to get out of bed. She wonders if she’ll ever get married, feeling like a burden on her parents. But in the end, she does get engaged, and her adorable smile about it is infectious. Her fiancé, a soft-spoken man around Dipti’s age from a decent family, comes to visit. He stops on the way to pick up her favorite cake, presenting her with a handmade card, and it feels like any other love story with a happy ending.
“There’s a huge binary that’s been set up by the West between arranged marriage and love marriage,” Khurana said. “That does a disservice to understanding the complexities of what actually exists there, what women have to navigate, and what families have to navigate.”
The initial interviews the filmmakers conducted as part of their research showed an openness among young people in India to finding love and marriage through more casual means: meeting someone at work, falling in love, and getting married. But, the young people they interviewed said, if this doesn’t happen for them by the age of 24 or 25, they’ll turn to the more traditional methods.
“Some young people do fall in love on their own, and they still present [their relationship] as an arranged marriage to the community because that’s more digestible,” Khurana said. “There’s an opening to love marriage, but the tradition is strong.”
“One thing that hasn’t changed much is the expectation that people should get married,” Mundhra said. “In order to have a place in society and in the community, you have to get married.”
There are people in India who never get married, and more and more divorcées, but they exist on the fringe, explained Khurana and Mundhra.
“There are single straight people, there are queer communities, but society is built on that institution,” Khurana said. “Here [in the United States], at 46, I can go out with my friends and still participate fully in a social life. But [in India] it’s expected that you show up at a social event with your husband or wife.”
In the end, Khurana and Mundhra accomplished what they set out to: They’ve presented a messy, complex, varied portrait of the modern Indian woman’s experience finding a husband. They don’t varnish over the very real problems with the system, like these women losing agency and the fact that their societal value is so inextricably linked to their ability to find husbands. But they don’t fetishize their struggles either; they don’t demonize the traditions or shy away from showing the happier moments that make the whole process feel much more universal, like just another expression of the complexity that is love and partnership.