In A Suitable Girl, India and Indians are difficult to understand, progressive and regressive ideas jostle for space, and cultures and generations are in a state of constant collision.
Finding a life partner isn’t easy. Three Indian girls are finding it out the hard way. Dipti, Ritu and Amrita – the protagonists of the documentary A Suitable Girl, playing at the 19th Mumbai Film Festival – are perceptive and modern strivers of a post-liberalised India that promises new freedom. Dipti, a resident of Bhayandar, a far-flung Mumbai suburb, is a schoolteacher. Ritu, from Delhi, with a master’s degree in banking and insurance, works for EY. Amrita, living in Delhi as well, holds a MBA degree. They are in their 20s, facing the full force of an eventuality that would change their lives – marriage.
An arranged marriage in A Suitable Girl is neither underlined nor enclosed in quotes. It is what it is: a lived reality for millions of Indians who, following their parents’ footsteps, consider it a simple and straightforward way to settle down. This ubiquitous and long-standing tradition is so deeply entrenched in our consciousness that this process where the parents, and not the people getting married, call the shots, ceases to be remarkable. Or at least, not remarkable enough to be filmed and examined. Which is why it’s not surprising that this documentary has been helmed by filmmakers (Sarita Khurana and Smriti Mundhra) who spent their formative years, and continue to work, abroad.
Khurana and Mundhra spent four years shadowing the central characters of A Suitable Girl, shooting 750 hours of footage, ultimately distilling it into 97 minutes of a riveting, heartwarming and often very funny documentary. Early in the film, the characters and their lives’ stakes are introduced with impressive economy. Dipti is nearing 30 and has been groom-hunting for several years without any success. Ritu, at 24, is not too keen on getting married. Amrita, who enjoys ‘Saturday brunches and partying’, has recently gotten married and is about to start a new life. Instead of getting carried away by big themes – the overbearing dictates of patriarchy, the loss of identity, the mindless conventions of the Indian middle-class – Khurana and Mundhra primarily concentrate on the small vital moments in their characters’ lives: moments that make them people, that are immensely relatable, that often cut close to the bone.
At one point in the film, Dipti celebrates her 30th birthday with her parents and neighbours. The cake is small, round and chocolate-y, dotted with numerous candles. “You need to blow out all candles at once,” her mother says. The setting is a living room in a modest building in Bhayandar. The celebration is low-key and dignified, muted even. On the dining table rests a plastic bottle of Coca-Cola. Her parents consider the celebration flashy, likening it to her 21st birthday. Later in the film, when Ritu’s parents ask her about her choice of groom, she stays silent, continuing to eat – a dissent devoid of voice, not resolve. When Amrita gets married and moves to her in-laws’ home in Nokha Gaon, a small town in Bikaner district, she realises that the new house has new rules. In it, her old life is locked in a wardrobe, which hides her ‘western clothes’. The Saturday brunches have been replaced with cooking for her husband and in-laws. She doesn’t, or rather, cannot hold a job. She cannot go to the market. Wearing a pallu, moving from living room to kitchen, she’s a new prisoner in the house.
It’d have been easy and convenient for the filmmakers to treat their ‘characters’ (an unfortunate term for real people in non-fiction writing and filmmaking) as symbols, as stand-ins for the different ‘Indias’, but they resist that route, choosing to simply tell their stories with a lot of flair, empathy and humour. Khurana and Mundhra are mainly interested in observing and understanding their protagonists and, in the process, telling a compelling story. They’re less interested in sweeping generalisations, easy judgments, and contrived and misleading social commentary. By not patronising Dipti, Ritu or Amrita, A Suitable Girl makes them recognisable and real, their concerns and conflicts essential and significant.
It’s not as if the film doesn’t care about the thematic underpinnings, but they are never served to us; they organically arise from the different stories in the documentary. As a result, A Suitable Girl seamlessly arrives at the theatre of contradictions hosting these stories: India. In A Suitable Girl, India and Indians are difficult to unwrap or understand, progressive and regressive ideas jostle for space, and cultures and generations are in a state of constant collision.
Ritu is financially independent, talks passionately about finance, and yet the implication is that she’s incomplete without her husband. Similarly, when Dipti is rejected by a potential groom because, according to her father, his family’s social status is less than theirs, he hints at the possibility of dowry filling that void. Amrita’s marriage is a blend of love and arranged, but months later, her husband informs her with a trace of guilt that she won’t be allowed to work. In the world of A Suitable Girl, a girl is still defined by her looks and body type; a guy is still defined by his paycheck. Here, an educated broad-minded family consults an astrologer, who predicts prospective grooms’ futures by checking their pictures on a cellphone, before fixing an alliance. Here, it’s easier to lose identities than form new ones.
But that doesn’t mean it’s a perpetually bleak story. The filmmakers, at least, don’t see it as one. It also contains possibilities of reinvention, of finding love and solace after a series of disappointments. No country can be defined by or contained in one film. A Suitable Girl makes no tall claims, pushes no sly agendas. Instead, it opens a few doors and tells you to observe, listen and absorb the sights and sounds of India hiding in plain sight.
A Suitable Girl will be screened at Regal on October 16 (6:50 pm).