Dr Asma Sayed

An academic living in Canada; she researches and writes about South Asian literature and cinema

Website: awaazmagazine.com/

Navigating Through the Web of Arranged Marriages

Reviewer: Dr Asma Sayed

A Suitable Girl, a documentary film directed by Sharita Khurana and Smriti Mundhra, provides a glimpse into the extremely complex practice of arranged marriages in India. The two filmmakers followed the lives of three young women–Dipti, Amrita, and Ritu–for the four years leading to their arranged marriages. The film moves forward without any voice-over narration. The camera follows the three women and their families and the audience is left to decide what they make of traditional matrimonial customs which work for some but not for all. As the women make decisions about their life partners, viewers come to understand their dilemmas and the sacrifices they face. As the film showcases, living at the intersection of complex Indian social dynamics where caste and class, religion, filial duty and gendered expectations, as well the desire/pressure to marry and mother, which often runs up against the goals that educated women have to pursue a career, is not easy.

All three women are educated and working in their respective fields in Indian metros, Delhi and Mumbai: Dipti is a kindergarten teacher in Mumbai and eager to marry; Amrita, working in Delhi, is a party-loving young woman; and Ritu, quite unsure about getting married, is an executive in a multinational in Delhi and she is unwilling to give up her career for matrimony. While Dipti, unmarried at the age of thirty, lives a simple lower middle-class life with her parents, both Amrita and Ritu are in their mid-twenties, from the upper middle-class, and have access to good housing, cars, and an engaging social life. As astrologers and priests are consulted and matchmaking happens via the internet and mobile phones, the old and the new collide; the impact is also visible in the way the women juggle between their desires for an independent life while trying to keep their parents and grandparents happy by getting married in a traditional way.

Dipti, at thirty, has passed what is considered in India to be her prime marriageable age. She, and her parents, are desperately looking for a partner for her. However, in a society where marriages are arranged based on outward appearances and financial standing, Dipti, with her lower middle-class status and her dark skin, does not have much to offer. Many prospective grooms turn her down. She, and her mother, ritually go through matrimonial advertisements in multiple newspapers. They also seek help from astrologers and spiritual leaders. After numerous failed attempts, Dipti feels depressed but feigns being happy for her parents’ sake.

Amrita, an outgoing woman agrees to get married to a young man who owns a business and is open to the idea of her working in his firm. Nonetheless, after they marry, circumstances change. Amrita is unable to work outside of the home. She, however, out of her love for her husband and his family, and in recognition of what she considers her duties as a wife and daughter-in-law, does not seem too upset about the change of trajectory, or if she is, she does not say so.

Ritu is in a particularly interesting situation. Her mother is a matchmaker who helps find life partners for young men and women in her community, but she has a tough time finding a suitable match for her own daughter. Moreover, Ritu is not too keen on getting married; in fact, she wants to ensure that she marries somebody who values her education and will not expect her to give up her career. This is no easy task. Nonetheless, after checking many prospective partners, their families, incomes, and horoscopes, Ritu finally agrees to a match. The irony is that the man she is about to wed has no desire to get married. Both similarly concede to the tremendous pressure they find themselves subjected to by their families.

While all three women’s lives seem to end on a happy note as they all find matches that are relatively suited to them, they must also compromise: Dipti is forced to move away from her parents, to whom she is very attached; Amrita gives up her job and desire to work in her husband’s firm, instead focusing on looking after his family and managing a household in a small town; and Ritu agrees to get married and move to Dubai although she is not fully sure about what the future holds for her.

All the three women make choices that lead to their marital conditions, but viewers are also left wondering about those ‘choices’ they make in the face of significant socio-cultural pressure and to conform to typical norms and boundaries. If it were acceptable to do something other than choose marriage in their communities, would these women have chosen these same partners and futures? The film makes no comment on the autonomy or value of their choices, but it does leave the audience with a sense of completion as it shows how each woman moulded herself to her new life. As such, the film throws light on the continued battles women have to encounter in a country struggling to maintain a balance between age-old traditions and contemporary lifestyles.

The film also subtly hints at other underlying issues that women face in India. The prospective bride’s good looks and other qualities and qualifications–light complexion, slim body, post-secondary education, to name a few—play a large role into whether the bride’s family is required to contribute financially toward their son-in-law’s future. In a rapidly growing capitalist society such as India, when even the most intimate alliances become marketable, one does wonder about the sanctity of human relations.

The 95-minute documentary was released in 2018 and has screened at multiple film festivals; it recently became available on Netflix. In the end, the women in the film represent hundreds of thousands of women in India who must put up with the tradition of arranged marriages willingly or unwillingly. The courage of the three women, and their families, who allowed film crews to follow them and document the most important and intimate matters of their lives for public consumption is commendable. The raw emotions on the screen let viewers become immersed in the lives of Dipti, Amrita, and Ritu to feel the frustrations, joys, and challenges alongside them.


Dr Asma Sayed is a professor of English at Kwantlen Polytechnic University, Canada.

Last modified on Wednesday, 06 November 2019 17:35

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