One of the delights of this year’s Tribeca Film Festival was A Suitable Girl, awarded the Albert Maysles New Documentary Director Award. The jury commented: “For the top prize we chose a film that helped us to rethink the dynamics of love through a moving portrayal of a cultural tradition, with incredible access, heartfelt scenes and its strong vérité style.”
The brief synopsis: “A Suitable Girl follows three young women (Dipti, Ritu, and Amrita) in India struggling to maintain their identities and follow their dreams amid intense pressure to get married…. 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. Documenting the arranged marriage and matchmaking process in vérité over four years, the film examines the women’s complex relationships with the institution of marriage and the many nuanced ways society moulds them into traditional roles and makes it nearly impossible to escape.”
The London-born Sarita Khurana, who lives in Brooklyn, and Smrita Mundhra, who lives in L.A., say in their Director’s Statement: “In making a film about the intimate lives and dreams of young women, we wanted our creative team to reflect that. We’re incredibly proud to say that our core team, from the directors and producers to our editor, composer, cinematographers and graphics arts, is nearly 100% women of colour.”
During Tribeca, Danny had the pleasure of speaking to Khurana, Mundhra, and their L.A.-based editor-producer Jennifer Tiexiera.
Sarita and Smrita, when you two were at Columbia University were you looking to make a film together?
Sarita Khurana: We worked on a couple of short films together in grad school. We went to Sundance in 2010 and saw Peepli (Live), the first Indian film to ever play there. And we started talking about also working in India and movies we wanted to make there. We absolutely wanted to make a film together, and arranged marriage in India was subject matter that we really bonded over.
Smrita Mundhra: This whole process started seven years ago. We’d commiserated a lot about the pressures we felt from our own families to get married and settle down. This is a big looming thing for Indian women in particular; you start to feel pressure to marry at a certain age from your families. For our generation, the hints to marry start dropping when you’re in your early twenties and escalate as you approach thirty. And the world explodes if you turn thirty and haven’t gotten married! So, this project started because we wanted to approach that subject cinematically.
Where did you begin?
SM: I have a family friend who is a professional matchmaker in Mumbai. Her name is Seema and she is the mother of Ritu, one of the three young women we follow in the film. She is of our mothers’ generation. I asked her to tell me from her prospective about what that world is like and how things are changing in India with respect to the way people are thinking about the idea of arranged marriages. That initial conversation was absolutely fascinating and it became a film for us when she told us of how Ritu was returning from studying in the U.K. and she was having anxiety herself about getting her twenty-four-year-old daughter married. From there it was like, “Okay, this is where we start. It was a perfect set up.” So, with that little seed, Sarita and I went to India in the fall of 2010 and started filming with Seema and her family. We also filmed matchmaking events and weddings and interviewed lots of other young people about their feelings on marriage and arranged marriage. And through that process we found our other two subjects, Dipti and Amrita.
Jennifer, when did you come in on the project as producer and editor?
Jennifer Tiexiera: Early on, actually. A mutual friend introduced us. Originally the film was going to be about marriage brokers but in our first conversation we said, “Well, there are also these girls.” I said, “If you’re making that film, sign me up.” That’s when it turned into a film in which Sarita and Smriti followed the girls for four and a half years, shooting eighty to a hundred hours of film, as they navigated the process of engagement and marriage.
What was the appeal for you?
JT: As a westerner, India number one. Also, there were all my preconceived notions about arranged marriage. Even though it seemed like a whole other world, there was much that I found relatable. If you’re Catholic or come from an overbearing family situation, it’s relatable.
As far as I can tell, all three girls come from urban middle-class families and have fairly permissive parents. Since strict parents might not allow you to film anything, is that what you were going for?
SK: We couldn’t make a film about all of India. But very intentionally we wanted to focus on the urban middle-class, with families based in the cities of Mumbai and Delhi. The families and girls chose us as much as we chose them, in terms of allowing us to continually film them. When we did the initial interviews of young people, we’d ask, “What do you think of marriage? What do you think of arranged marriage? Are you in the process? Are you looking for a husband? What kind of family do you have?”
Were you looking for three subjects?
SK: Pretty much. A lot of young people really opened up to us and told us their experiences and gave us their opinions. Inevitably, it would come up in conversation: “Oh, my family is going to go to this event,” or “We’re going to write up a matrimonial ad for me,” or “We’re going to meet this guy.” We’d say, “Oh, that sounds great. Can we come over and talk to your parents?” We wanted to take the next step with them. It’s such an intimate process that while a lot of people were happy to give us that initial interview, moving forward was difficult for them. The conversation would end when wanted to move forward with them. But the three characters we have in the film were very open with us. It wasn’t like, “Oh, we’re going to film with you for the next several years.” It was one step at a time. We wanted to understand what was going on in their lives and then take the journey with them.
Often documentary filmmakers start out by filming five subjects and then get it down to three. Was that the case with you or was it always just Dipti, Ritu, and Amrita?
SM: We pretty much did just three. We did the initial interviews, but we didn’t pursue anyone else in earnest. They were the only three girls we filmed over a long period of time. We found them in our first shoot and they each had a story they wanted to tell in some way. They understood what we were doing and what the documentary was about, and they wanted to talk. Seema, the matchmaker, also wanted to talk, about how her business was changing with the new generation. She wanted to come across as the authority on the subject. As we were talking to her about that she revealed a deeper layer and spoke about her daughter, Ritu. Seema was feeling stress and pressure herself from her mother-in-law and people in her own community about finding a man for Ritu. She really wanted to explore that with us. Dipti and her parents were in a different place. She was on the cusp of turning thirty and was having no luck finding a man. She and her parents were so supportive and loving to one another but felt they were failing each other. They have a strong family unit, but to us coming in and going through the process with them, was like counseling them in a way. They revealed things to us that they maybe wouldn’t say to each other. Amrita was already engaged when we first met her. So, we knew she was going to get married. Initially she was like, “Look, everyone thinks I’m crazy for doing this. I’m not crazy for doing this, for marrying this guy and leaving my job and moving to a small town. I’m going to be able to do this on my own terms. Just watch!” As we filmed with her, we saw that rosy picture break apart a bit, as did her resilience in trying to stay true to herself and her expectations.
With Amrita, I’m sure you wanted to shake her and say, “Go back to work if you want to be happy!” But did you allow yourself to have a rooting interest with all these young women and did you have to remind yourself that you can’t give them advice?
JT: It’s a huge testament to Sarita and Smriti that in the field and back here, when the three of us were editing the picture, that they were able to constantly make the decision to not judge the choices of their subjects. It could have gone the other way, because especially in the United States we have so many preconceived notions of what arranged marriage is. I think the movie worked because they refrained from shaking Amrita or the other girls.
SK: But we did have honest conversations with them. Amrita moved to a rural area and moved in with her groom’s very conservative family, and we were the only people she felt she could talk to. We said, “Look, Amrita, you thought when you came to his village that you were going to work and have a full life. Is this how you thought it was going to be?” We had intimate conversations with Dipti, too, and asked her, “Why don’t you think you’re getting married? What does it mean to you to turn thirty and not be married? What if you don’t get married?”
SM: But there was never a situation when we told them, “What you’re doing is crazy.”
When you were talking to the three girls, could you sincerely say that you knew what they were thinking, and you could relate to them?
SK: The pressure they feel is not very different from the pressure that Smriti and I grew up with in our families. There is an expectation, not just from your immediate family, but all your relatives that you’ll get married. It’s interesting that I could be forty and still be considered “a girl” if I’m not married. It’s the expectation of their daughter’s marriage that provides safety and security for any parent. So, I grew up with that. We both had experiences of being set up in the Indian community.
SM: Just prior to filming this documentary, I went through an encapsulated version of this. I had broken up with a boyfriend and was feeling very vulnerable, edging toward that abyss of being thirty, and my mother – who was very supportive of my breaking up with this guy although he kind of met the checklist criteria for marriage – said, “Okay, now that’s done, we’re going to find the person you’re going to marry.” After that, there was a year or matrimonial newspaper ads and online profiles to set up dates for me. Your family and the community are involved in finding someone for you. It didn’t work out for me, but I really learned that the arranged marriage process is not that bad. Because you can reject people – as happens in our film in India, too. Young people do have a say in this process. In the West, there is a tendency for you and your spouse to find everything in your marriage between the two of you. In India, a marriage is the coming together of two families and building a community around that marriage. Ultimately that community and family is going to support you throughout your life and support your marriage. Though I have feelings about arranged marriage, it made sense to me why people opt into it, including young people. Because wanting to belong to a community is really powerful.
I see that all three young women want to marry to please their parents, but my guess is that they would have married on their own.
SK: It’s expected that everyone gets married in India in a much more intense way than even here. The society also demands that women should marry by a certain age. That’s how the society is built. Even without the family pressure, the expectation of marriage is always there. There isn’t the societal structure in place to support unmarried people in the same way that is here. Ritu is a good example of this. She wanted to pursue a career and didn’t want to get married right away, but she realised that to actually pursue that career she needed to get married. She wouldn’t have an acceptable social status if she didn’t marry.
Then will the married Amrita be able to go back to work some day because of her social status?
SK: Probably not, not outside the family business.
JV: What makes their stories inherently relatable is that we have that pressure here to marry, too. It’s not as extreme as in India, but there wasn’t day that went by when I wasn’t married when I wasn’t asked when I would get married. Now that I’m married, I’m always asked why I don’t have kids. So that constant pressure from outside is the connection western audiences will have with these Indian women.
You interview little boys in the film and they want their sister Dipti to get married.
SM: Yeah, they already know what is expected. While we made a conscious decision when both filming and editing to not cast judgment on the process or value of arranged marriage in Indian society, one of the things we were conscious of was the internalised sense of patriarchy and sexism that exists not just in India but in many societies. The scene where those little kids say their birthday wishes are for Dipti to marry says that. Even when you’re a little kid, boys or girls, you’re raised with this notion that you get married at a certain time, you have kids at a certain time, and…
SK: …that’s your worth.
SM: Yes, but it’s also how you fit into society. It’s difficult to find a place within society where you belong if you don’t fall into that family structure. I think that’s something a lot of people deal with in different ways in different cultures and something we really tried to tease out through these particular stories.
Can you picture a conversation between the three girls?
SM: They’ve never actually met. I’m trying to picture it.
SK: I can see Ritu and Amrita talking because they’re both educated and from a higher class than Dipti.
And the mothers?
SM: That would be tough. Maybe Ritu’s mother and Amrita’s mother could talk because they’re from similar communities. Their families are similar. Dipti’s family is from a totally different community and socio-economic class. They’re lower middle class. I don’t think their paths would ever cross other than their coming together in our film.
Jennifer, the film is structured so that you always go in order from Dipti’s story to Ritu’s story to Amrita’s story and back to Dipti’s story. But at the end, when there are two weddings, you mix their stories. Was there a lot of discussion about doing that?
JV: You have three different people with almost four years of an arc, and all had to represent part of a bigger story. Once I felt I had established who they were and their paths, I let it go at the end. It was more about the arcs of their journeys versus being so meticulous. Viewers already had been invested in the paths of these characters so I gave them credit for being able to accept that it is not so rigid at the end.
SK: We did try having both Dipti’s wedding and Ritu’s wedding be intact, with one coming after the other, and it felt really repetitious, with too much celebration.
SM: There was something more powerful juxtaposing them against each other. Even though these are supposedly the biggest moments of these girls’ lives, they have such different emotions.
A Suitable Girl is releasing in US cinemas in 2018. The Australian International Documentary Conference is on in Melbourne March 4 – 7, 2018