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

Tomorrow We Disappear


Sometimes we all feel like puppets on a string.

Sometimes we all feel like puppets on a string.

(2014) Documentary (Old Friend) Puran Bhatt, Maya Pawar, Rahman Shah, Dilip Bhatt, Krishnan the Juggler. Directed by Jim Goldblum and Adam Weber

Florida Film Festival 2015

The slums of India tend to be among the worst in the world; poverty in India is as abject as perhaps anywhere else on the face of the planet. Children play on exposed electrical cords, the smell from fly-infested canals filled with standing algae growth and from excrement and filth in the streets can be horrific.

The Kathputli Colony in New Delhi is at first glance much like any other slum until you take a closer look. The inhabitants are mainly folk artists, street magicians and contortionists, all carrying on Indian street arts that are quickly disappearing. They have lived here for generations, passing down their art to their children and making a meager living performing in the streets of Delhi.

A developer has purchased the land that the slum sits on from the Indian government and proposes to build a multi-use skyscraper with high end apartments, a shopping mall, restaurants and entertainment. It will be New Delhi’s first skyscraper, something the entire city can be proud of.

However, to the residents of Kathputli, it is troubling. Part of the deal that the government of India made with the developer is that those being displaced by the project must have proper housing built. A temporary relocation camp has been constructed to house the residents while their final homes are being built.

Three residents of the colony take differing viewpoints about their displacement. Puran Bhatt is India’s premiere puppeteer, having toured the globe promoting the distinctly Indian version of this art and having won a National Award presented to him by India’s president no less. He is the most famous person living in Kathputli, and he is very troubled by what he sees as a direct threat to the colony, the traditions that live there and the unity of its residents. He fears that this will signal the end of these valuable and culturally defining art forms that are already becoming scarce on the Indian cultural landscape.

Rahman Shah is a street magician who is finding it increasingly difficult to make a living. Corrupt police officers expect bribes in order for him to perform and often the amount they ask for is more than he takes in during a performance. His sons worship him as young sons will worship their fathers, eager to follow in his footsteps and yet he is still pessimistic about the future of his art. He feels that it is being pushed out of the way by corruption and indifference and will eventually disappear from view entirely.

Maya Pawar is an acrobat who sees the change as something positive, an opportunity for the colony and its people to grow and flourish. She is concerned that the desperate poverty of the colony actually inhibits the creativity of those who live there, and better living conditions will allow them to devote more time to their arts. She doesn’t feel the same connection to her art that Puran and Rahman do; she’d be just as happy teaching school as she is performing acrobatic feats.

The residents band together for protest marches and while the developer tries to assuage their concerns, when they tour the temporary relocation camp it feels like their worst fears have come true; the dark and ugly flats, hastily built with shoddy workmanship, are not places to live so much as they are places to die and what was promised to be a transitional place to live for a year or two looks to be their homes for much longer than that and given the corruption that often exists in these matters may certainly end up as permanent dwellings if the developer reneges on his promises.

The first part of the documentary is actually quite powerful as we get to meet the colorful people of Kathputli and see the pride they take in their home and their art. As poor as their lives are, they decorate their little corner of the world with bright colors, electric light from rickety jury-rigged wiring, and a sense of humor that they maintain even in the worst pressures being brought to bear on them. There is a sense of change overwhelming the people of the Colony and most aren’t quite sure how to react or what to do. It is heartbreaking in some ways and in others an interesting study of a traditional lifestyle being decimated by the needs of modern life. Whether modernization is a good thing for the inhabitants of Kathputli is certainly open for debate.

The trouble is that in the second part of the documentary, things fall apart a little bit. We get a lot of shouting matches between colonists and developers, and amongst the Kathputli residents themselves. The sense of unity that the residents had is disintegrating which might account for the more chaotic feel of the second half. It feels though in some ways that the story has lost its momentum and we’re just watching things deteriorate which is an unsettling feeling for the viewer; it might well be what the filmmakers were going for in order to give the audience a sense of what the people of Kathputli are going through, but it left me feeling like the movie just lost its momentum.

The story is ongoing and the people of Kathputli continue to fight relocation; late last year police raided the colony, beating colonists in an attempt to intimidate the hold-outs to move into the relocation camp (these events took place after filming of the documentary had been completed and aren’t referred to by the filmmakers). The story remains in a bit of flux, which often real life stories tend to be. This isn’t something that will be settled quickly which you get a sense of from watching the film, although you don’t really see beyond the developer’s promises just how much the government is arrayed against the colonists. I would have liked to have gotten a better sense of that.

The first part of the movie does tend to trump the second; the people are so extraordinary, so indelible that you won’t soon forget them. Whether or not you agree with their stance regarding the relocation of the colony (and I tend to be skeptical that the developer and the government will keep their promises), i think you will agree that should these artists and their art disappear from view it will be a terrible blow for India and their cultural heritage.

REASONS TO GO: Compelling story. Residents of slum are interesting people you want to get to know better.
REASONS TO STAY: Loses steam during the second half. We get very little sense of the forces arrayed against them or the corruption surrounding them.
FAMILY VALUES: A few mild bad words.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Debuted at the Tribeca Film Festival a year ago.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 4/12/15: Rotten Tomatoes: no score yet. Metacritic: no score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Hamara Shahar
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT: Proud Citizen