By Twinkle Ghosh

“A Suitable Girl,” takes a sharp look at India’s ongoing clash between modernity and tradition when it comes to female independence (or its lack thereof). This heartbreaking documentary by Sarita Khurana and Smriti Mundhra covers the lives of three single ladies struggling to cope with the ubiquitous burden of finding a spouse. 

For all three, marriage is something that is ‘expected’ of them from peers, parents, and acquaintances alike — kind of a social obligation to which they must conform. The alternative? They would be thought of as having “something wrong” with them. The documentary proves to be a sombre lament for a part of the world still clinging to its restrictive past, at great cost to its present female population.

Stirring in its examination of deep-rooted sociocultural sexism, and the toll it takes on entire families, the film exposes a culture that strips women of their right to choose their own lives. And it is a culture that, to a lesser extent, also denies men their agency. 

In Delhi, 30-year-old Dipti burns the midnight oil searching for a mate with the encouragement of her doting parents (of course), to little avail — a situation that one dating-service employee blames on her weight! On the other hand, 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 in Delhi is coming to a sudden halt 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.

Dipti’s failure to find a man through newspaper ads and online dating sites leaves her with deep shame and self-loathing. While for Ritu, the struggle is one between her wish to live a modern life of her own choosing, and the societal demand that she wed. The girl candidly admits that she will eventually have to bow to this rule, even though she concedes what Amrita soon learns too: that marriage in India habitually requires women to undertake a role akin to a servant.

The film doesn’t take the obvious route of “good vs. bad” in regard to the practice as a whole. Instead, it approaches the topic from a personal perspective. It presents 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. The documentary is striking in its generous storytelling, shedding light on the unequal sacrifices that girls are required to make in a marriage and focusing on the diminished female agency within Indian unions.

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. 

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