One could argue the point behind Sarita Khurana and Smriti Mundhra’s documentary A Suitable Girl is to give as unbiased a look at traditional arranged marriages in India as possible. At no point do Khurana and Mundhra judge, condemn, or celebrate their three subjects. First there’s Dipti, a 30 year old teacher desperate to get married who’s spent the last 3-4 years searching for a husband. We watch her attend a “swayamvar,” an invasive cross between a speed dating service and an auction where marriage candidates have their personal information announced to a waiting crowd. The men and women can then arrange meetings with each other through their parents if somebody on the stage piques their interest. When the swayamvar fails, she turns to internet dating. There’s Ritu, a worldly young woman from Mumbai whose mother runs a matchmaking business. After returning from studying abroad in London, her mother nudges her into helping her with the family business. Before long Ritu begins her own search for matrimonial bliss. Finally there’s Amrita, a self-described movie freak and shopaholic. At the start of the film we learn that her marriage has already been arranged; her friends are shocked when she tells them that she’s moving from the big city of Delhi to her father-in-law’s rustic home 400 miles away in Nokha, Rajasthan. Her acclimation to her new life is bumpy. After being married for a few months she confesses to the camera that she resents being referred to solely as her husband’s wife. “I have a name,” she says, “Call me Amrita.”
However, Khurana and Mundhra’s handling of the subject is neither broad or specific enough for their strict cinéma vérité approach to succeed. The film begins with a stoic voiceover that announces: “When a girl is born, it is understood that she has to get married one day.” From there it explains that every Indian woman is expected to get married, move to her in-laws’ place, and largely give up their old family. They follow up this sobering observation on Indian culture by focusing on three subjects from very similar economic and social backgrounds. All three women are educated professionals from middle-class homes of good standing. And crucially, all three women are allowed to have the final say in their partner. We’re left with a stunted perspective of arranged marriages: if anything, the film seems to argue that the whole process of parental matchmaking is an endurable hassle that inevitably leads to happy marriages. It’s completely at odds with little moments of power scattered throughout the film where the ugly sides of arranged marriages poke through. Notice how most of the men attending Dipti’s swayamvar seem to be divorcees and how more than one leer at her overweight figure. There’s a fantastic scene of tension where Amrita’s mother-in-law sternly chides her for not putting mango powder on the cauliflower. The silence that follows as Amrita chews quietly next to her husband in response speaks volumes. But the film never gets as provocative or insightful again.
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