How do young women in India struggle to maintain their identities and follow their dreams amid intense pressure to get married? Indian American filmmakers Smriti Mundhra and Sarita Khurana attempt to showcase some of those trials and tribulations in their documentary, “A Suitable Girl,” set to get its world premiere April 22 at the prestigious Tribeca Film Festival in New York.
The film, featuring a score by award-winning Indian American singer-composer Gingger Shankar, follows the journey of three young Indian women named Ritu, Dipti and Amrita, who represent 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. Yet their lives take a dramatic turn when the pressure to settle down and get married hits. Career aspirations become secondary to the pursuit of a husband, and the women struggle with the prospect of leaving their homes and families to become part of another.
Mundhra and Khurana, who hold an MFA in Film from Columbia University, arrived in Mumbai in September 2010, looking for answers to questions such as how do these young women navigate societal expectations of marriage with their own desires for agency, identity, and ambition; what impact do these seemingly conflicting paths have on their relationships with their families; and what does the institution of arranged marriage reveal or conceal about the real opportunities women actually have in a democratic India?
Exploring the complex subject of arranged marriages stemmed from personal experiences of the two women filmmakers, who grew up within the Indian diaspora which, like their Indian counterparts, attaches a certain pressure to “settle down,” which mostly means getting married at a certain time and age.
“I actually went through a whole experience with my mother in my late 20s when she set me up with a matchmaker and made me join other matrimonial sites,” Mundhra, who won the SXSW Audience Award with “Waterborne” and also co-produced “Punching at the Sun,” told India-West. “Over the course of a year, I went through a hundred of these arranged meetings with guys from all over the country.”
But the “most remarkable thing” for her, Mundhra said, was that from that experience it started to make sense to her.
“I met a lot of interesting people and I saw a logic to and so I was curious to explore it,” she said.
What makes this documentary a one-of-its-kind is the fact that it followed the three lead women for four years as they went about their daily lives in India, documenting the milestones in their lives, and their journeys to matrimony. Showcasing the arranged marriage and matchmaking process in vérité, the film examines the women’s complex relationships with the institution of marriage and the many nuanced ways society molds them into traditional roles and makes it nearly impossible to escape.
However, the film steers clear of passing any judgment on the old fashioned Indian way.
“We tried to be very objective about it,” Mundhra, also attached to the film as a screenwriter, explained to India-West. “We didn’t want to pass judgment because we see a lot of value in them, but it’s more difficult and complex and sacrifices are made by women to be a part of it.”
Mundhra stressed that while no judgments have been passed on the concept of arranged marriages, as women, one particular aspect of the process troubled them.
“We did have a strong point of view about the way these patriarchal institutions run and how women are expected to make the sacrifices, and that is true not just in India but everywhere in the world,” Mundhra told India-West. “Though the world has opened up in so many ways in the last generation or two, there are still many ways women are expected to sacrifice and are being held back by patriarchal institutions.”
Mundhra said she realized, however, that one cannot view the concept as a black and white issue.
“It’s not like it’s all good or all bad. It’s a complicated thing. And that struggle is what we tried to explore,” she added.
By choosing women who have degrees, careers and financial independence and raised with a broader view of the world than any generation before, but who believe in the traditional arranged marriage system without any reservations, the film aspires to show the real deal without turning an arranged marriage into some sort of a spectacle.
“It’s very difficult in particular in our generation to be a woman in a traditionally patriarchal society,” Mundhra, daughter of late filmmaker Jagmohan Mundhra, told India-West. “We were interested to see how these women from upper middle class brought up in cosmopolitan cities in India… how they negotiated coming back to the traditional role.”
One of the leading ladies, Ritu, who is the daughter of a professional matchmaker known to Mundhra, had recently returned from the U.K. after completing her studies, and was anxious about opting for an arranged marriage. Mundhra said they zeroed in on the other two after they were fascinated with their compelling stories during the course of the filming.
The film puts the narrative in the hands of the subjects themselves, as told to two women who can relate to their story at every step. Mundhra noted that as filmmakers they wanted to dispel the notion that an arranged marriage equals a forced marriage.
“That’s a limited view of India that is seen in films and especially in documentaries, where it’s usually about child brides and slums and oppression, etc.,” Mundhra noted. “We wanted to explore how complex arranged marriages and cultural institutions in India are. We wanted a film to show modern India, about middle and upper middle class people, and these generation of women who are really changing, as opposed to the ‘Slumdog Millionaire’ kind.”
With “A Suitable Girl,” filmmakers Mundhra and Khurana have achieved what many documentarians can only attempt, taking a topic that many outsiders misunderstand and laying it beautifully bare, reads the film’s description on the Tribeca Film Festival’s website.
The film, which premieres April 22 at the festival, will also be screened April 24, April 25 and April 29.