“You loose yourself, your identity, when you get married.”
That’s what a young woman, Amrita, tells us towards the end of Sarita Khurana and Smriti Mundhra’s new film, A Suitable Girl. In it Kuhran, deftly explores the tradition of arranged marriages across three women— Dipti, Ritu, and Amrita— who embody a whole spectrum of class, looks, and geography.
We see Dipti, who is 30, unemployed, and living with her parents, struggle to find a husband. Every year she gets older is like the ticking clock on a time bomb, her life plagued by doubt and insecurity about her ability to be loved (her failure to find a husband is explicitly linked by a match maker to her weight— men want skinny, fair skin, the traditional aesthetic markers of beauty which we see exist cross international boundaries).
Ritu, meanwhile, couldn’t be more different. She’s 25 and successful, still young and beautiful. A financial analyst, she’s prolonging marriage for as long as possible so she can keep working (much to the chagrin of her marriage consultant mother).
Amrita, meanwhile, is, at the beginning of the film, the only persona actually married, but even then, her story is mediated by an intense loneliness. Her husband initially promised she could keep working, but of course its not long before he admits the truth— her job is to watch the house, take care of his sick father, and eventually raise their children. She might have found herself in an enormous mansion, married to a successful business owner, but to Amrita the ensuant wealth has done nothing except cut her off from her friends and family.
Marriage might reflect a way out for some of these women, but in A Suitable Girl, we are forced to reckon with the cost. Like Khurana’s film, Amrita statement about loss is largely ambivalent. Loosing yourself can speak to the romantic, Aristotelian idea of marriage as the union of halves forming a whole. It can also just as easily be read as a more tragic loss. By the end of the film Amrita and Ritu are both displaced, hundreds of if not thousands of miles away from their family, while Dipti is soon to follow.
But we also see the psychological toll this takes on a women. At one point Dipti is so despondent at her lack of a husband that she has stopped eating altogether. Confined to a bed, she wishes for a man to rescue her from this life, to take her far away. It’s heart-wrenching, which makes it all the more conflicting when just such a man, Kartik, comes along and sweeps her off her feet. For Dipti, at least, marriage does really represent happily ever after.
What’s most fascinating, however, is the subject at the periphery of these three women’s story. It helps of course that all Ritu, Dipti, and Amrita all come from different socio-economic backgrounds. But behind their class status lurks a lingering caste and class anxiety which is deeply tied to the institution of arranged marriages to begin with.
As A Suitable Girl reveals, institutionally enforced arranged marriages are not just psychologically punishing for the women involved, but also cost a whole lot of money.
There’s the speed dating, the astrology, the hair and make up and headshots. Dating websites, the travel expenses, not to mention the price of a wedding itself. Behind the arranged marriages exists a whole cottage industry of businesses which profit directly from the practice. While the central exploration these women’s struggles is deeply engaging, these peripheral stories help subtly flesh out modern India by contextualizing the ways in which these families cling to tradition even as the country around them is in the midst of explosive economic modernization.
Khurana, however, wisely stays away from broad proselytizing or polemnics. As a result A Suitable Girl never feels like an indictment of the practice, letting the girls actions speak for themselves The closet to them we get are the moments were the camera lingers on hands flexing, or the mask of a smile dropping when Ritu or Amrita think nobody is looking. These small, quiet moments say more than words ever could, but like A Suitable Girl, are ambiguous enough that the audience is left to decide what they might mean.
Of course, there are no easy answers here. But neither should there be. India, like much of the rest of the world, is experiencing a moment of great social and economic upheaval. Like Dipti, Ritu, and Amrita, there’s a sense that it too might be loosing its identity. And like for them, there’s no telling what comes next.
We screened the film at the 2017 Tribeca Film Festival.