(2017) Documentary (The Film Collaborative) Amrita Soni, Dipti Admane, Ritu Taparia, Seema Taparia, Keshav, Janardan, Kara Devi, Nishu, Neha. Directed by Sarita Khurana and Smriti Mundhra
In recent years there has been more interest in the United States about Indian culture. As more natives of the subcontinent have gone to school here and established careers here, there has been a resulting influx of Indian cuisine, Indian films and music here in the States.
One thing that has remained true about Indian culture is the importance of marriage. The pressure on young people to get married once they reach a certain age (for young women it can be as early as 14 years old) grows more intense the longer it takes for them to find a life partner. A whole industry has arisen in India to help Indian men and women find suitable mates. These marriages are generally arranged, as they have been for centuries, by the parents rather than on the young people themselves.
This documentary focuses on the distaff side of things (a BBC documentary, A Suitable Boy, is forthcoming with similar attention on the male point of view) and in particular three women at various stages in the process. Amrita, from New Delhi, has a nice career in the financial business, an industry where women have actually made some inroads. However, she has found a husband – young Keshav who is taking his bride from urban Delhi to rural Nokha – where she believes her experience will help her father-in-law’s business.
Dipti is a bright young teacher who at 24 is in danger of becoming an old maid. She doesn’t have the svelte figure Indian men are fond of; she’s curvy and a touch on the heavy side but still beautiful. Her attempts to find romance through classified ads have generally gotten her nowhere and she has turned to a swayamvar which is something of an Indian speed dating service to improve her chances – more on that in a moment. Finally there is Ritu, a worldly and beautiful young woman who has a thriving career at Ernst and Young in Mumbai. Her mother Seema works as a matchmaker which one would think would improve her chances but she turns down most of the prospects she is introduced to. Seema isn’t actively looking for her daughter – she feels that it would be akin to a surgeon performing surgery on herself – which raises a few eyebrows amongst their circle of friends and family.
For Amrita, her new life isn’t what she envisioned it to be. For one thing, her father-in-law falls ill within months of her arrival and most of her time is spent doing more domestic chores. Because her father-in-law is a more conservative traditional man, western clothes are absolutely forbidden (although she has a stash of them to wear when she visits her parents) and she is under constant criticism by her new mother-in-law, who refers to her as Keshav’s wife (to which she gripes “I have a name. Call me Amrita”). Despite the fact that her new parents have plenty of money, a beautiful house and servants, she feels that her life has taken a turn for the worse.
The swayamvar is actually an eye-opener for the viewer. The men who attend are asked to share personal details about their lives, their finances and what they’re looking for in a mate. It is almost like a cattle call audition and the event is attended mainly by divorced men who are far from desirable in Indian culture; most of them are much older than what Dipti is looking for. Discouraged, she turns to online dating services but as rejection piles upon rejection, her self-confidence takes a big hit.
Ritu eventually finds someone suitable but he is working in Dubai, which distresses her parents. Ritu will move thousands of miles away from her parents. In fact, in Indian culture, the bride moves in with the groom and often into the home of the groom’s parents. This becomes her family and while she doesn’t cut off all contact with her own parents and family, it is expected that her focus will be on her new family. Accordingly, the weddings – which are elaborate affairs – are a time not only of joy but also of sorrow for the bride’s side of the ceremony.
It is a very different process of finding a life partner (a phrase used often in the film) than we’re used to here in the West. Here, generally the young people search for themselves, relying mainly on physical attraction to select their husbands and wives to be. For the Indians part, they tend to point to our high divorce rate here when defending their own system. One wonders, however, that as the roles of women change in India as they invariably will how this will affect the current system of arranged marriages?
The documentary itself is decent enough, in a cinema verité style following the women over the course of three to four years. One of the objections I had was that often that things were going on that aren’t explained by voice-over or graphic. I have a passing familiarity with Indian culture but there were times that I was completely in the dark about things and had questions; for example, at one point Seema visits a “face reader” with pictures of various suitors for Ritu, all of whom are rejected by the face reader. Are visiting these face readers a common practice? What kind of training do they undergo? How legitimate are they? You won’t find out here. However, it should be remarked that the filmmakers show a very even hand in showing the various emotions of the women they are following; there is no judgment and the audience is left to draw their own conclusions.
The subject is a fascinating one. Arranged marriages are still practiced in India and among ex-pats here in the States and elsewhere. While there are plenty of Bollywood films that cover the process, this is one of the few documentaries that walks us through the process from the bride’s point of view. For that alone it’s usefulness is invaluable.
REASONS TO GO: The stories of the various women are pretty interesting.
REASONS TO STAY: A lot of things go unexplained during the film, leaving the viewer frustrated unless they are fairly well acquainted with Indian culture.
FAMILY VALUES: There are some adult themes.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The two directors shared the “Albert Maysles Best New Documentary Director” award handed out at the 2017 Tribeca Film Festival.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, iTunes
CRITICAL MASS: As of 4/2/18: Rotten Tomatoes: 83% positive reviews. Metacritic: No score yet..
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Love and Marriage in Little India
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
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