A Suitable Girl


In India, marriage is almost compulsory and the pressure to be a bride enormous.

(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
NEXT:
The 15:17 to Paris

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Obvious Child


Life can be cold even for the very cute.

Life can be cold even for the very cute.

(2014) Comedy (A24) Jenny Slate, Jake Lacy, Gaby Hoffmann, David Cross, Richard Kind, Polly Draper, Gabe Liedman, Paul Briganti, Cindy Cheung, Stephen Singer, Cyrus McQueen, Emily Tremaine, Ramses Alexandre, Julie Zimmer, Ernest Mingione, Stacey Sargeant, Amy Novando, Crystal Lonneberg, Suzanne Lenz. Directed by Gillian Robespierre

One of the results of unprotected sex can be a pregnancy that is unplanned for and unwanted. Women have several options open to them, although not everyone wants it that way.

Donna Stern (Slate) is a budding standup comic who works in a used bookstore by day. She is a classic New York underachiever, one who has vague goals but is in no particular hurry to get to them. She’s been seeing Ryan (Briganti) for years now and is somewhat ambivalent towards marriage or at least, it’s not a subject that comes up.

Her standup routine is full of the juices of life. Lots of farting, the state of women’s panties at the end of the day, skid marks and the fluids of sex. It isn’t for the squeamish which might explain why she’s still in a somewhat rough and tumble Brooklyn bar providing free entertainment for Williamsburg hipsters who are too cheap to pay for it. When she talks about the sex life with her boyfriend as being somewhat routine and predictable while he watches her set, that’s the last straw. That and, oh, him having been sleeping with her friend Lacey (Tremaine) for several months. He dumps her in the unisex graffiti-covered bathroom that looks like something that veteran CDC doctors would run screaming into the night from which I suppose is as appropriate a place to get dumped as any – considering her act, getting dumped in a bathroom has no irony whatsoever.

She also finds out that the bookstore she has been working for has lost its lease and is going to close its doors forever in about six weeks. No job, no money, no boyfriend – things couldn’t be worse for Donna. She takes solace in her support system – her close friends Nellie (Hoffmann) and fellow comedian Joey (Liedman), as well as her Dad (Kind) who works as a Henson-like puppeteer for a successful TV show. Her cold fish Mom (Draper), divorced from her Dad and a very successful business school instructor, tries to motivate her daughter to find new work without much success.

Donna’s next standup gig is an utter train wreck as she ascends the stage completely off-her-ass drunk and proceeds to go into a drunken rant about her break-up that is as unfunny as it is awkward. The only plus of the evening is that she meets nice-guy Max (Lacy) at the bar, continues to get drunker and ends up at his apartment for a night of mindless, meaningless sex. She leaves the next morning without leaving a note.

Not long afterwards she discovers that mindless, meaningless sex can get you pregnant too, even though she was pretty sure they’d used protection in the form of a condom. She’s not really 100% sure on that point – not that it matters because a condom really isn’t 100% protection against pregnancy either. The thing is, she is preggers and the one thing she’s sure about is that she’s not ready to be a mom. She’s not ready to be pregnant either considering her uncertain future, her lack of funds and job and without a partner to help her out. An abortion seems to be the best choice for her given the circumstances.

Once this decision is made, she’s unsure that she wants to tell her mother about it, sure that her mom will see this as yet another failure in life by her disappointment of a daughter. Also, she keeps running into Max unexpectedly and he clearly likes her. A lot and she thinks she might like him too, even though he’s as gentile as a Christmas tree in Rockefeller plaza and she’s the menorah at the top that burns the whole damn tree down.

Some will see this as a movie about abortion but as film critic Mick LaSalle of the San Francisco Chronicle points out, the better movie would be about the woman having that abortion and Robespierre wisely realizes that. The decision for Donna is a simple one from a practical standpoint but emotionally she’s unsure of what to do, how to feel and she asks Nellie, who’s had one, whether she thinks about it (she does but she doesn’t think she made the wrong choice).

Slate, who was on Saturday Night Live for a season and famously dropped an F bomb in her first episode, does a star turn here in the role of Donna. Donna uses her sense of humor as something of a shield against her own vulnerability and has no filter whatsoever. That endears her to those willing to put the effort in to get to know her. She is far from perfect although she is cute as a button. To my mind, Slate has far more upside than a lot of actresses who have come from standpoint and should easily join the ranks of Tina Fey, Amy Poehler, Kristen Wiig and Maya Rudolph as graduates of SNL to stardom, although I think the big screen would be far more appropriate than television as a medium for her talents.

She gets some good support from Liedman (her sketch partner in real life) and Hoffmann and Lacy, who was a regular on The Office makes a fine straight man. I like that Robespierre chose not to give us the glamorized indie version of New York where people work in creative jobs, live in amazing lofts they couldn’t possibly afford and eat out and hang out at hipster clubs every night while showing up to work fresh as a daisy the next day. The places Donna and her friends can afford to hang out in are mostly pretty dingy and Donna’s apartment is tiny and far from glitzy. This is the life someone in her situation would be leading for real.

Inevitably there is going to be some politicization of the film’s subject matter but be assured there’s none in the film whatsoever. The conservative religious right tend to portray abortions as something done by sluts without any sort of care or consequence but that’s not what happens here. Donna while vulnerable and impaired has unprotected sex which might be characterized as a foolish mistake but she is not someone who seems inclined to sleep around – in fact, she has a scene with veteran comic David Cross in which she turns him down for sex.

What really makes this film worth seeing are a pair of scene near the movie’s end. The first is when Donna is having her abortion and has been given a sedative to relax her. As the procedure begins, we see a tear rolling down from her eye. Even more powerful is the scene that follows when Donna and the other women who have just undergone the procedure sitting in the recovery room and exchanging glances. No dialogue is said but the looks on their faces say it all – this was not a decision entered into lightly and the consequences are absolutely on all of their minds.

In an era when a woman’s right to choose is under concerted attack from Tea Party politicians and where choices to have abortions are becoming much more scarce in Red States, a movie like this becomes much more necessary and meaningful. While I’m not sure this will change any Right to Lifers minds on the subject, it serves as a vivid reminder that for all the hysteria and noise generated by that group, women in general are not ignorant of the consequences of their ability to make that choice – and that it is a hard choice even if the practical side is easy. From that standpoint, this is an essential film and while I found the nature of Donna’s comedy unappealing, I loved the character in a big way because of her flaws and imperfections. Donna is the kind of woman you probably know already. If you don’t, it wouldn’t be a bad idea for you to find this movie either at your local art house or soon when it comes to home video and get to know her.

REASONS TO GO: A realistic look at the effects of unwanted pregnancies on real women and the choices they must face. Slate shows that she is ready to be the next great film comedienne.

REASONS TO STAY: Unnecessarily scatological. Too many awkward moments.

FAMILY VALUES:  Plenty of rough language and sexuality.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The movie’s title comes from the first track on the 1990 Paul Simon album The Rhythm of the Saints.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 7/9/14: Rotten Tomatoes: 87% positive reviews. Metacritic: 75/100.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Punchline

FINAL RATING: 6.5/10

NEXT: Transformers: Age of Extinction