When non-Indians ask me if I had an arranged marriage, I sometimes slyly reply: “in a sense.” I’m an Indian American born and raised in the United States, married to someone who grew up in India. But it was our mutual friend, a white woman from Oregon — not our families — who played matchmaker. When I explain this to them, I know it is not the answer they expected. It does not fit their perception of arranged marriage. Neither of my two siblings had arranged marriages, nor even did my Indian-born parents. For me, arranged marriage is both familiar and foreign.
“A Suitable Girl,” a new documentary film, which premiered at last week’s Tribeca Film Festival, follows Amrita, Ritu and Dipti, three young, middle-class women in India, as they approach their respective arranged marriages. The film’s directors, Sarita Khurana and Smriti Mundhra, who are both Indian American women and won the festival’s award for new documentary director, are trying to overturn stereotypes about arranged marriage. “One of the things that we’ve been ‘battling’ has been the old-school and biased notion that all arranged marriage in India is somehow forced or associated with child brides,” Khurana said. She also noted that arranged marriages might not be built on romance, but that doesn’t mean these couples lack feelings for each other. “The reality is more fluid,” Khurana said. However, women often do get a raw end of the deal; whether or not a marriage is arranged, women “are the ones to compromise the most, expected to ‘adjust,’ move cities, give up or negotiate their careers, leave their families,” Khurana explained.
At the center of the film is the conundrum of how young Indian women reconcile the modern aspects of their lives, including their educations and budding careers, with the tradition of arranged marriage. Ritu, for example, is passionate about her career in finance, but she is also the daughter of a professional matchmaker. So no matter how committed she is to her career, it is certain that she will marry — and that her marriage will be arranged.
Meanwhile Amrita, who works in business, is the first woman in her family to work, and she believes that after her wedding, she will continue to work in her husband’s business, but that intention is quickly upended. Her experience is quite common. In a recent study of Indians age 18 to 34, for example, close to 60 percent of the married women surveyed didn’t work, and 41 percent of respondents either fully or somewhat agreed with the statement: “It’s not right for women to work after marriage.”
Finally, there is Dipti, a primary school teacher nearing her 30th birthday who is growing increasingly desperate to find a husband. After traditional matchmaking methods don’t work for her, she hesitantly turns to online dating. Dipti’s reticence echoes the study’s findings about Indian youth’s attitudes about dating and marriage. Of those married, 84 percent had an arranged marriage, and 53 percent of respondents disapproved of dating before marriage. But Dipti’s experience also suggests that those attitudes might be shifting.
On these women’s paths to arranged marriage, frustrations abound. Leads for eligible bachelors dry up; someone else has snapped him up! Viable suitors change their minds after meeting. And in the case of Ritu, viewers see her clash with her family, as they each have different priorities for what they want in a suitable husband. She’s looking for intellect and someone who’s on the “same wavelength,” while her parents are more focused on wealth.
Though these women ultimately have a choice over their prospective mate, they still feel pressured to get married. Despite the major changes and modernization India has undergone in the 70 years since its independence, cultural norms toward marriage haven’t changed much. “None of them thought [remaining single] was an option, or could imagine their lives as unmarried women in Indian society,” Khurana said.
As Ritu’s parents search for her prospective husband, she matter-of-factly notes that marriage is compulsory: “It’s not about what I am ready for or what is expected out of me. I know I have to do it. I know I have to get married.” Her fiancé, who lives in Dubai and also works in finance, feels similarly: “I don’t know why people get married,” he said. “But yes, I know it had to happen. … So, if not to her, somebody else.” Meanwhile, Amrita confronts the realities of what she has gained and lost through her marriage. “You lose your identity when you get married, and that’s something I never wanted to do,” she said in the film. And despite her initial misgivings about online dating, Dipti said her “dream came true,” in marrying her husband.
While Khurana and Mundhra sought to dispel narrow notions of arranged marriage, making this film challenged their views as well. “I really began to understand why young people in India overwhelmingly opt-in to the system,” Mundhra said. “I think it comes down to a sense of belonging. … Being a part of a larger community does provide support, sustenance and meaning. In India, marriage is key to belonging in society.”