In one of the early scenes in A Suitable Girl, Smriti Mundhra and Sarita Khurana’s engrossing documentary on arranged marriages in India, Deepti Admane, is celebrating her 30th birthday in her parents’ flat in Bhayandar, a Mumbai suburb. The camera pans over the small living room where her neighbours have gathered, and though there are two chocolate cakes to be had, there is a heaviness in the air. There has been no response from the prospective groom who’d seen Admane a few weeks ago. Admane’s guests look into the camera and wish her a happy birthday, but every one of them, even her barely-teenage neighbour, hopes that she will find a husband soon. It is yet another instance, the film captures the quiet desperation of a woman of marriageable age, the frustration of her parents, who are trying every avenue to find her a life partner, and the society around them that reinforces the idea that a girl is a half-formed thing, unless and until she marries.
The name of the documentary is not inspired by Vikram Seth’s novel, although most viewers at the 19th JIO MAMI Film Festival, where the film was screened, were certain of it. “It’s in reference to the ubiquitous thing girls are raised to be,” says Mundhra, 37, who studied film at Columbia University.
About seven years ago, Mundhra and Khurana, 47, who became friends at Columbia, flew down to Mumbai to shoot a “a film about the marriage industrial complex”. “Marriage is not between two individuals, but two families. Smriti’s family knew Sima Taparia, a matchmaker in the city, and we thought we’d talk to her, and other matchmakers, and look at the phenomenon of the arranged marriage through personal stories. We interviewed astrologers and matrimonial detectives but we kept going back to the women we’d met, because it was a far richer story,” says Khurana. The filmmakers travelled to swayamvars in Gujarat and Maharashtra, and other places in north India. They met Admane at one of those events.
Joining her in the documentary are two other women, Taparia’s daughter, Ritu, and Amrita Soni. Taparia constantly stresses about her daughter’s prospects, while the 24-year-old is focussed on her career in finance. Soni, a big city girl who weds her childhood sweetheart and moves to a small town, several hundred kilometres away from Delhi, finds that more than love, a marriage is all about adjustment. “For a lot of women, the story is a tragic nightmare. But for an older generation, that chapter really resonated with them. If it speaks to the conformity of women, it also speaks to their resilience,” says Mundhra.
Both women were drawn to the subject because of their personal experience of the arranged marriage system. “In South Asian communities, it seems that you cannot have a sexuality outside of marriage. So as soon as I said I was dating somebody, the question of marriage arose. I spent a lot of time going on awful dates, just to appease my family, so that I could breathe a bit. When I hit 40, I thought it would stop, but no. Even if you’re educated and are financially independent, traditional values are so ingrained that families keep trying,” says Khurana, who remains happily unmarried.
“When I was 28, my mother became the CEO of my life, and I went along, because all the pressures of getting married got to me. In the course of 18 months, I met nearly 100 men, in the US, UK, India,” says Mundhra, who met her partner a few years later. “He’s not Indian, so my mother wasn’t thrilled in the beginning but now she’s come around and thinks I chose well,” she says.
Their encounters in the marriage market enabled Mundhra and Khurana to approach their subjects with a great deal of empathy that flows throughout the film. They shot their interactions with all three women and their families in a cinéma vérité style for over four years, and ended up with footage that went over 700 hours.
It was then left to their fellow producer and editor, Jennifer Tiexiera, to trim it down to a 97-minute documentary. “We’ve screened the film at different locations in the US and it resonates with women across religions and communities. Because societies are always trying to measure a woman’s worth. Who is she if she’s not married, and later, if she’s not a mother,” says Tiexiera.
At the end of the sold-out screening at MAMI, a young man rose to ask, “Could you please tell us young men how we can help and make things better for women?” “That was the best question ever. If our film can start a conversation about entrenched traditional systems surrounding marriage, then we’ve been successful,” says Khurana.