In theaters in New York and Los Angeles now and available for rental or purchase on iTunes and more, one of the directors of A Suitable Girl walks us through making the film.
The documentary A Suitable Girl tells the story of three young women in India who are entered into arranged marriage, forced to enter their new lives while also holding on to their own aspirations. The film follows the three over the years as they each manage to adjust to their new lives and more. The film is directed by Sarita Khurana and Smriti Mundhra, and we were luck enough to speak to Khurana about the filmmaking process and what went into making a film so personal to the lives of the girls involved.
The Knockturnal: What do you want audiences to know about A Suitable Girl before they see it?
Khurana: I think audiences should get ready to have their ideas about arranged marriage and India challenged! The documentary follows three women in their 20’s through their matrimonial process – one of them has just gotten engaged, and the other two are starting their search for a husband. The film is told very intimately – we had incredible access to our characters and their families, so the film is not a polemic about what arranged marriage is, it’s really the story of these women and their families navigating the up’s and down’s of this process, and through that lens understanding the inner workings of the institution of marriage and its pressures on women.
The Knockturnal: What was the most difficult aspect of the shoot? How did you overcome it?
Khurana: Initially, we thought we’d shoot for six months and be able to tell our story. We ended up filming for almost four years, and that required a lot of back and forth between India and the United States. We made eight separate shooting trips, that usually lasted anywhere from three weeks to seven months at a time. Neither of us anticipated that our lives would be completely upturned in making this film, but the story took over and we were committed to it in all its complexity. Working so intensely on this film allowed us the access and intimacy we found with our characters. It was challenging, but worth every step. We ended up with over 850 hours of footage by the time all was said and done. While we knew the outline of our stories, creating all the scenes and streamlining the process to really integrate three characters was a ton of work. It took us about three years to edit the film with our producer/editor, Jennifer Tiexiera.
The Knockturnal: What went into the process of selecting the young women followed by the film?
Khurana: In terms of finding our protagonists, a lot of it was through word-of-mouth, going to matchmaking events, meeting matchmakers, and just generally talking to young people we’d meet while we were in our first phase of shooting in India. We were clear that we wanted our subjects to represent the urban middle-class, but there was no way we were intending to represent all women across India. The urban middle-class was representative of many of the changes taking place in India – from new economic and education opportunities for women to a new consumerism and mobility across the country. We were interested in this cross-section of young women, in their 20s, who were ‘coming of age’ in the decades after India’s economy opened up, and were now negotiating between new opportunities and expectations, while also navigating cultural and traditional expectations of themselves.
We met Seema (the mom/matchmaker in the film) because she was known to my co-directors family in Mumbai. We talked to Seema to learn more about the matchmaking industry in India. Very quickly, we also learned that she was also trying to get her daughter, Ritu, married. Seema herself was quite charismatic and open about the in’s and out’s of her business, and we were drawn to their joint story. Soon after, we met Dipti through another matchmaker, who organized the Swayamvar event in the film. We interviewed Dipti and the other women prior to the Swayamvar, and once the event was over, asked Dipti and her parents whether we could do a follow-up interview. Dipti and her family were very open with us, about their frustrations with trying to get Dipti married, and their hopes for her. Little by little, we continued to film with them. Lastly, we met a cousin of Amrita’s at a wedding in Delhi where we were shooting some b-roll for our film. Her cousin asked what we were doing, and when we told her about our film, she suggested we meet Amrita, who had just gotten engaged, and according to her cousin, “was about to do the craziest thing in her life!” When we spoke to Amrita a few weeks later in Delhi, she was also very open in sharing her story with us.
The Knockturnal: With two directors behind the camera, how did you collaborate on the making of the film?
Khurana: I think we complemented each other quite nicely in terms of making the film. Often I would be behind the camera with the DP, and Smriti would be interacting with the subjects. Or vise versa. We would also mix up who would do the interviews with our subjects since we’d each have a different connection with our characters. This allowed us to navigate all the tasks of directing with our full attention. Since a verite documentary like this requires consistent producing and directing, we also shared the producing tasks. Ultimately, it’s great to have someone to talk to over the seven years of making this film – sharing ideas, challenging each other, talking through things that didn’t make sense or made complete sense and helping to shape the film together was very valuable. Without a doubt, collaboration also has its challenges, and we were no strangers to that. You have to negotiate far more than if you are working as one director, but I think our negotiations led to a very nuanced and complex film.
The Knockturnal: How long did you have the idea to make this film, and how long did the filmmaking process last?
Khurana: Smriti and I met in film school, at Columbia University’s School of the Arts in 2006, and worked on several short film projects together while at school. Through our friendship, as two Indian women, we talked about our own lives and families, including the pressures we felt by our families to get married. Exploring this topic in a wider, less personal sense felt like something we were both interested in, as a way to move away from the issue through the ‘closed’ family lens, but open it up outside of ourselves. We wanted to explore the topic on its own terms, where the fluidity of the institution was apparent, where the breath of women’s experiences were varied. We started filming in September of 2010, shot for four years, and edited for 3 years, to complete the film in April 2017. A seven-year journey!