I really came to appreciate the way in which truth lives in nuance and reveals itself over time~ Smriti Mundhra
A Suitable Girl is a documentary spread across 4 years tracking the lives of three women and their families; as the girls reach a threshold in their lives where they begin to deliberate over marriage and what the rest of their life will look like. Director Smriti Mundhra explains how time and patience is the only key to get subjects of the documentary to truly reveal themselves. She talks about what makes A Suitable Girl unbiased and in a time like today, when the country is moving towards modernisation, what elements of traditions remain intact and how.
What was your thought behind making a documentary on “contemporary” arranged marriages in India? What is traditional marriage v/s contemporary marriage for you?
Our goal was to both explore how young women in India are adapting to the institution of arranged marriage — and also how the custom is adapting to them — but also to dispel the many myths about marriage in India for the Western world. There is still a sense that arranged marriage is only by force, or about child brides, and we wanted to make a film that represents India in a more authentic and balanced way.
What kind of perspective did you gather while researching for 4 years and having 750 hours of footage?
Besides the fact that we shot way too much, I really came to appreciate the way in which truth lives in nuance and reveals itself over time. What someone says to your face during an interview is only one part of their truth. There’s no substitute for time, you need patience and trust if you really want to understand who a person is and what makes them tick. I also have an appreciation for the complexity around wanting to break free of society’s expectations and pressures, but not with the traditions that make us who we are. It’s a fine line.
What are the challenges you face while making a documentary film of unbiased nature?
I don’t think any film can be truly unbiased, but we did work diligently to stay away from stereotypes and sensationalism. We decided from the very beginning that we would be silent observers in the lives of our subjects, and follow their stories wherever they lead. This was not always convenient from a narrative standpoint, but it was well worth it to land at a film that I truly feel is honest and authentic.
The film is about the three women (Dipti, Amrita & Ritu) and their relationship with marriage, family, and society, what was your take away after doing so much research?
Our research was really just spending time with our subjects. Filming both the big moments and the mundane. Showing up every day to see what would happen, without a specific schedule or agenda. The larger themes and messages became clear only when we started editing, and had some distance. But the one big takeaway from me is that marriage is emotional and complex, no matter where in the world you are raised. And also that throwing off the cloak of our traditions is not as easy as it may look to the outside world – our traditions are part of our DNA, for better and worse, and the best we can do is to try and question them and help them evolve.
How did you manage to get the girls to open up, let loose their inhibitions, be vulnerable and openly discuss their personal lives? Was marriage the key concern and central theme of the lives of these three women despite coming from different background and diverse lifestyles?
Again, time was the most valuable ingredient when it came to making this film. We spent four years with these girls and their families, and often times they could open up to us in a way that they couldn’t to their own parents, for fear of disappointing them. Same with the parents — they faced pressure, too! I think we became a means for them to become vulnerable, which is something we all crave. Marriage was definitely a key concern in the minds of these families, particularly at the phase where we entered. But marriage is just a metaphor for change, loss and coming of age. The thing that was really preoccupying our subjects, of both generations, was the idea of facing the biggest change of their lives so far. Losing a daughter, taking on a new identity, trying to find your place in this world – those are big issues to deal with!
Do you have a message for the parents of our country, for the young men and women of our nation?
Yes. My message is to please value a young woman’s potential and ambition as much as you do her marital status. I grew up with similar values to the girls in the film, and I respect and appreciate tradition and community. But too often, it is women who are expected to sacrifice to hold families and societies together. We should try to broaden our thinking and rid young women of these burdens.
What kind of response have you gathered all over the film festivals including Tribeca, etc?
The response to the film has been truly overwhelming. From winning the Albert Maysles Best New Documentary Director Award, to the fact that every single screening we’ve had so far has been sold out or overbooked, proves that we have tapped into something that touches a lot of people. People, especially women of both generations, have come to us after screenings with tears in their eyes, talking about how the film is so close to their own experiences and reveals so many deeply-buried feelings that it scares them. We feel incredibly honored that we have been able to reach people like this.
How did you manage to fund yourself to make ends meet while working on this film for 7 years?
I love that you asked this question, because it is probably the hardest thing next to making the film itself. Documentary films are not typically profitable, and funding institutions are, to be frank, reluctant to support films about other worlds that don’t conform to their deeply ingrained stereotypes. We didn’t want to make a film about oppressed women and child brides, and as a result we had to believe in ourselves when the industry did not. We invested everything we had — emotionally, financially, artistically — to make this film. I was supporting my family and had a baby during post production, so often I just had to wake up early and stay up late to keep the film on track while still managing other responsibilities. It was not easy, but now it feels so completely worth it.
What kind of topics do you intend on exploring in your next project?
I just started my next documentary, which is about the hopes and aspirations of Mumbai’s “invisible” class. I can’t say much more about it but I start shooting right after Diwali and am so excited. I hope I can spend the rest of my career exploring the many wonderful and complex dimensions of India.
What advice do you have more aspiring filmmakers who are struggling to make/ release their film with no budgets?
Find yourself partners who will help you carry the load up the mountain. Filmmaking is an incredibly difficult process, so don’t try to do it alone. And don’t think about success in the industry as a goal. Trust your voice, make the film that speaks to you, and then you will have something you can be proud of no matter what anyone else thinks. Lastly, embrace rejection, because a lot of it is coming your way. Let it fuel you and not deflate you.