It’s been a seven-year road to Tribeca for directors Sarita Khurana and Smriti Mundhra, and their resulting documentary is a labor of love – moving, layered, and deeply personal. A Suitable Girl follows three Indian women – Dipti, Ritu, and Amrita – over the course of four years, as each of them gets married for very different reasons. Although it manifests in various ways, the cultural pressure to marry is a weight that hangs heavy on all of their lives. But A Suitable Girl doesn’t actively condemn; it lays out a nuanced portrait of a cultural phenomenon and allows you to draw your own conclusions.
Dipti has dreamed of getting married for a long time, but she hasn’t had any luck through traditional matchmaking sessions; people remark on her physical appearance. But Dipti is well-loved by her family, as we see at her thirtieth birthday party. Her parents cherish her, and she tries to put on a good face for their sake, but she begins to be depressed by the fact that she hasn’t found her “life partner.”
Ritu is an ambitious girl who lives in Mumbai – she’s highly educated with a career in finance that she wants to pursue. Her mother, Seema, has a career as a matchmaker, and she points out the double standard in these operations: women have to be “fair-skinned, slim, soft-spoken,” beautiful; men should be wealthy. People question Seema about the fact that her own daughter is still unmarried. Ritu feels the generational pressure acutely, and though she wants to remain unmarried, she sets up a match. “I know I have to do it. I know I have to get married,” she says.
Finally, Amrita is a career girl in the big city (Delhi), who has “complete freedom” – she wears Western clothes, spends time with friends, and has an MBA. However, she’s chosen to marry and move to a small town with her new husband. She holds fast to the fact that she’s been promised a spot in the family business; however, when she gets there, she has to take care of her father in law, learn to cook, and wear only sarees.
The documentary ends, as it started, with weddings. Dipti, tired of in-person matchmaking, turns to the internet; she begins messaging back and forth with Karthik, then talking on the phone. He tells her that he wants to marry her, and they (and their families) finally meet in person to approve it. They are both sweet-tempered and quiet; “he has a golden heart,” she grins. Ritu’s own engagement to Aditya takes a surprising turn: he never wanted to marry, either, but feels compelled to by cultural pressure. “Somebody who has the same wavelength as me is the most important thing, at the end of it.” They end up working together in Dubai, both pursuing their careers.
Amrita, however, grows lonelier. She’s overjoyed to take a trip back home to see her family and to talk finance with her friends, but when she returns, it becomes clear: she’s never going to work in the family business. Managing the household essentially becomes her job, although job is a generous word; most people in town don’t know her name. “I’m doing everything for Keshav,” she says. “My world revolves around him.”
It seems fitting that Amrita has a daughter, at the end, because a large part of the documentary is the bond between mother and daughter. All three women are deeply loved by both their parents, but the documentary opens on images of girls and mothers – “after she gets married, we lose her.” Traditionally, that’s how it has to happen; sons stay put, but daughters go to live with their husband’s family. All three women leave their hometowns, and their support systems, when they get married. “It’s a dream come true,” says Dipti, “but what will I do without [my mother]? Things happen like this only in girls’ life.”
A Suitable Girl does everything a good documentary should do: it informs, enlightens, and – most of all – makes you care about the subject. I learned a lot about the shifting-yet-stationary landscape of marriage in India, from wedding planners to matchmakers and astrologers. But its biggest strength is in the personal. By the end of the documentary, you feel like you know each of the women – you worry for them, cry with them, and rejoice with them. They do the best they can with the pressure they’re unfairly placed under, and not one of them allows themselves to be crushed.