In America, marriage is thought of as a union that brings families together, but according to “A Suitable Girl,” in India, it’s a time of great loss for women and their parents and siblings. A stark look at that country’s ongoing clash between modernity and tradition when it comes to female independence (or lack thereof), Sarita Khurana and Smriti Mundhra’s heartbreaking documentary focuses on three single ladies struggling to cope with the pervasive pressure to find a spouse. Stirring in its examination of ingrained sociocultural sexism, and the toll it takes on entire families, the film seems likely to appeal to a significant audience following its premiere at this year’s Tribeca Film Festival.
In Delhi, 30-year-old Dipti spends her days and nights searching for a mate with the aid of her doting parents, to little avail — a situation that one dating-service employee blames on her weight, and which causes her great dismay. While Dipti clamors for a spouse, 25-year-old Mumbai native Ritu is more concerned with her career at Ernst & Young than a wedding, which disturbs her “marriage consultant” mother, Seema. As for Amrita, her carefree life of partying and dancing in Delhi is coming to a sudden end due to her impending nuptials to a man who promises to allow her to continue working … once they relocate 400 miles north, to his remote hometown.
For all three, marriage is expected from peers, parents and acquaintances — a social obligation to which they must conform, lest they be thought of as having “something wrong” with them. Dipti’s failure to find a man through newspaper ads and online dating sites (as well as via face-to-face meetings in which parents negotiate her potential union in front of her, as if she were cattle at market) leaves her feeling deep shame and self-loathing. For Ritu, however, the struggle is one between her wish to live a modern life of her own choosing, and the societal demand that she wed. Ritu candidly admits that she’ll eventually have to kowtow to this dictate, even though she recognizes what Amrita soon learns, too: namely, that marriage in India invariably requires women to assume a role akin to a servant.
That means cooking, cleaning, wearing constricting sarees, caring for parents-in-law, and forgoing any sense of identity in the process. Indeed, in “A Suitable Girl” — shot over three years — marriage is presented as a form of slavery, with a woman forced to abandon her home to assume a deferential position in her husband’s residence. Directors Khurana and Mundhra editorialize their position not through narration or sound bites but through revealing closeups of each of their three subjects. In those images, especially at Ritu and Dipti’s weddings (which are set to a mournful piano), the sorrowful eyes of both the brides and their mothers speak volumes about the way in which, for so many Indian women, their preordained futures are ones of meek servitude.
The resulting portrait is of a culture that strips women first of their right to choose their own fate, and then of the very family they’ve previously relied upon for guidance and support. And it’s a culture that, to a lesser extent, also denies men their agency, as epitomized by Ritu’s hubby-to-be bluntly admitting to the camera, in front of her, that he wished he had been born a European, so that he could have delayed getting married and had the option to choose someone other than Ritu as his lifelong companion.
In such a corrosive environment, where women are judged only by their looks and meekness, and men are deemed worthy by the size of their bank accounts, misery naturally reigns. Employing intimate up-close-and-personal aesthetics that convey women’s damned-if-you-do, damned-if-you-don’t circumstances, “A Suitable Girl” proves a somber lament for a part of the world still clinging to its restrictive past, at great cost to (particularly) its female population.