Two Indian-American filmmakers peel back the horrors of “arranged marriage” in their native culture in their incendiary new documentary, “A Suitable Girl.”
Sarita Khurana and Smriti Mundhra probably glanced over their shoulders back at the divorce-happy USA, which they call home, and took a sober, sympathetic view of the nuts and bolts of this practice, which lingers in India long after most of the rest of the world abandoned it as “unromantic” and rights-restricting and backward.
One “Suitable Girl” might kvetch about “our idiotic traditions we keep following and following.” But she’s bought in and accepted it.
Amrita is her name, a happy go lucky Delhi 20something with an education, a job and a lovely life of “complete freedom.” Except when it comes to the chance meeting, courtship rituals and sexual gamesmanship that most of the West accepts as “normal” for finding a mate. She’s scheduled to be married to Keshev, and we follow her through that wedding and the suddenly confining life (“Every day I have to wear a saree!”) of being an Indian wife — cooking, caring for in-laws, etc.
It’s no wonder we see her weep (above) on her wedding day. Tears of happiness? Or the acknowledgement of what she’s giving up thanks to “traditions?”
Dipti is a plump 25 year-old from a lower middle class family who is trying everything to close a deal. She goes over the personal ads, filled with appeals for husbands and wives. Her mom notices a particular word turning up in all the men’s “Seeking a suitable girl” ads — “beautiful.”
“In your next ad, say you’re beautiful!”
“Why would I do that?”
“A Suitable Girl” is largely about Dipti’s struggle, a young woman increasingly desperate to marry, suffering from depression when hope seems lost. She tries Indian speed dating, which is very polite, quite formal, and a bit like a job fair where everybody’s particulars are barked out for all to hear.
“Twice-divorced, monthly income of,” as each potential groom is introduced.
Then there’s Ritu. With her deep, confident voice, MBA and a mother who is a matchmaker (Seema), you’d think she’d be the catch among catches.
But Seema (below) is at a loss. She consults a “face reader” psychic who dismisses potential pairings with just a glance at their photo on a phone. Seema, all organized and efficient, running a business where marriages are “deals” with “$500,000, USD” or even “$1 million (USD)” are offered for the right “beautiful” bride, cannot figure out who would want her smart, successful, independent and pretty daughter.
The filmmakers give this entire process a serious, patiently immersive treatment (The film is a little slow.) that bottom-feeding American TV avoids with its sexed-up/hook-up competitions “The Bachelor” or “The Bachelorette.”
Their film was years in the making, but its “conclusion” seems premature. This whole “And they all lived…ever after” feels a bit off. We leave Amrita seemingly accepting the frustrations of her myopic new life and Ritu re-located to a far off land with her arranged-spouse.
Neither feels like we’ve seen the end of her story.
But “A Suitable Girl,” in English, Hindi and “Hinglish” with English subtitles, is still a fascinating look into a custom that the movies and TV have only touched on and mentioned with a raised eyebrow of mild dismissal. The phrase “A Suitable Girl” is so endemic to Indian culture — a famous novel of that title covers some of the same ground, the BBC has the male version of this, “A Suitable Boy” in production– that you can’t even parse the sexism of the language.
Because maybe “they” are on to something. Because maybe a culture with an entire industry devoted to matchmaking, putting clients in front of vast numbers of potential mates isn’t as arbitrary as the random chance we in the West all romantically accept as the norm.
Leaving us on our own can lead to dating disasters, to “The Bachelor,” or worse. As if there’s anything worse.
MPAA Rating: unrated, adult themes
Cast: Dipti Admane, Amrita Soni, Ritu Taparia, Seema Taparia
Credits:Directed by Sarita Khurana and Smriti Mundhra. An Amazon release.
Running time: 1:30