Kicking off a season of programing that hopes to create a bridge across the Pacific Ocean, the Center for Asia Pacific Studies hosted a screening of the documentary “A Suitable Girl,” followed by a Q&A with the co-directors Sarita Khurana and Smriti Mundhra on Sept. 12.
The film, which premiered at the New York-based Tribeca Film Festival in 2017 and has since been screened around the world, follows three urban, middle-class women in India as they navigate the complicated mores of arranged marriage in their country. The concept is one that some Americans quickly dismiss as outdated, dehumanizing and sexist. Though the movie did not seem to change the minds of USF’s audience, it still humanized the process and provided a look into the intimate details of arranged matchmaking.
The audience’s rapt attention showed that they saw themselves in the women on the screen, as the process of dating for an arranged marriage has similarities to the awkward field of dating for American college students — albeit with more parental involvement and long-lasting consequences. A scene where the parents of Dipti, a 30-year-old woman excited to be married off, survey the online profiles of her potential husbands with dismay was met with a big laugh from the audience. This signifies that the horror of dating profiles is a universal experience. When a matchmaker blames Dipti’s inability to find a suitor due to her weight, the largely female audience collectively remembered the implicit messaging that they have all lived with — this matchmaker was just making the point explicitly.
Notably, “A Suitable Girl” shows us that there is still room for dignity within arranged marriages. One of the featured women, Amrita, becomes a homemaker against her wishes. Robbed of a career and economic independence, she makes it clear she’s not only a “wife” to the audience. The purpose should be to remind ourselves, if not a documentary crew, that we are more than the roles we inhabit.
In the video chat Q&A that followed the film, the directors were surprised by their subjects’ awareness of their motivations. Co-director Smriti Mundhra remarked that although all parents had different roles, they were all a “product of their own communities, environments and traditions” and performed the actions of arranged marriage for their daughters due to obligations and less out of their own desire. Co-director Sarita Khurana also said that she and Mundhra are collaborating with Netflix on a project that would examine “the marriage industrial complex” in India through a more comedic lens.