To describe a film about marriage as heartbreak can be surprising. But watching young women tearfully saying goodbye to their families and fearing the prospect of losing their individuality is an upset aspect of life in Sarita Khurana and Smriti Mundhra’s new documentary A Suitable Girl. In India, the pressure to find a suitable spouse takes an intense toll on the entire family, and felt long after the vows are said and women leave their own families and join their husbands. In the new documentary (which won the Albert Maysles Best New Documentary Award) even those young people critical of the system say so while going through the traditions of matchmaking and courtship. Khurana and Mundhra’s intimate documentary documents the lives of three very different women on a similar path, presenting a complex and moving examination of arranged marriage in modern India.
Lesley Coffin: How did the two of you meet and decided to do this film together?
Smriti Mundhra: We were both in the MFA program at Columbia University, in the film program. And we are both Indian and had similar backgrounds so we connected right away. We started making shorts together. And we were always talking about the pressure we felt from our family and community to get married, no matter how well we were doing in school and our professions. I didn’t grow up in India, but my family came from a similar community as two of the girls in the film, very rigid and conservative. And I was raised with progressive parents that valued education, but those are hard beliefs to let go of when you grow up steeped in those traditions. Those were ideas we talked about a lot in school.
Lesley Coffin: How did you decide on the approach you’d take to this subject matter?
Smriti Mundhra: We talked about the best way to examine arranged marriages and really had to decide early on if we were going to look at young women bucking the system or the women who had bought into it completely. And at a certain point, we decided it would be more interesting and revealing to look at the women who believed in the system. We thought we could learning more from their stories than if we looked at women who were rebelling against the system.
Sarita Khurana: As Americans, we were able to make difference choices. But we grew up in similar families as the women we profiled in the film, so we felt like we could relate to them even though we weren’t going through the exact same thing.
Lesley Coffin: How did you select the women you would follow?
Smriti Mundhra: We spent a lot of time shooting and interviewing people when we first started. And we met a lot of women going through this process just through word of mouth and talked to a lot of matchmakers. We met Seema early on and found her to be this incredibly compelling woman, and were so intrigued by this matchmaker whose own 20-something daughter seemed a little resistant to the prospect of marriage. So Seema and Ritu were selected early on.
Sarita Khurana: Then we met with another matchmaker, the man who organized the events where three girls are presented to a room of single men. And that’s when we met Dipti and were so charmed by her and her family. And they were willing to open their lives up to us and share so much. And while we were shooting b-roll of a wedding we met Amrita’s cousin who found out about the film and said “you have to talk to my cousin, she’s doing something crazy.” Honestly, we were looking for urban, middle-class women who had been educated and found jobs.
Lesley Coffin: I was really surprised to see how the matchmakers and marriage consultants at work, and hear the discussions about what will make men and women more desirable to prospective matches. The almost transnational nature of the process of finding a spouse was a little jarring. Did you think about why arranged marriage is still so widely accepted?
Smriti Mundhra: As we’ve modernized, marriage is one way to keep the focus on community and family. It’s about how they care for elders, how they take care of the children, it maintains traditional family dynamics. And in India, they aren’t concerned with chemistry as much as compatibility. So you see the matchmakers deciding how compatible people are, and people with a little more money or women who seem a little prettier have more opportunities. But there are also basic things to consider, like whether a person is vegetarian. It would be much harder for a woman raised in a home that cooks meat to move into the home of a man who’s vegetarian. They are trying to build a foundation of compatibility which can become something later on. And the matchmakers talk a lot about that when they describe finding two people who are on the same wave length. I think a lot of young people in India would find American ideas of love to be a little wishy-washy. Americans will talk about looking for soulmates when they talk about marriage. In India they talk about quantitative compatibility which can build a foundation for a marriage and family.
Lesley Coffin: What surprised you while making the film?
Sarita Khurana: We came back with hundreds of hours of footage. And we really thought this would be a much faster process than it was. But it took us four years to see all three girls marry. The time between engagement and marriage was always pretty fast. But the process they, and their families, go through to find a match was so exhausting, even though the process has been modernized with internet sites and professional matchmaking services. It takes years for them to find the right fit, even though they’re putting in so much time and effort. I think we were also both struck by how heartbreaking it was to see these girls saying good-bye to their families. That really struck us at all the weddings, seeing these brides in tears.
© Lesley Coffin (3/29/18) FF2 Media