When I was 13, I believed that I should have an arranged marriage. After overhearing me tell an incredulous friend about how the traditional Indian system worked, my eighth grade social studies teacher asked if we would open our debate to the class in the suburbs of Pennsylvania. Always enthusiastic to share my distinctly Indian-American point of view with white people, I prepared a list of bullet points meant to refute every misconception about the tradition and my culture held by a room full of American teenagers.
Though I was born and raised in America, most of the adults I knew growing up were Indian immigrants. The couples met each other through some form of an arranged marriage, in which their older relatives networked to find eligible bachelors and connect them in formal family-supervised meetings. I was captivated by the story of my own parents, who knew each other for just a few hours before making a mutual, unwavering commitment to each other. Back then I thought it was romantic, like a Hollywood rom-com where Ryan Gosling fixates on a feisty red-haired woman, deciding she is absolutely “the one.” When I was in high school, my older cousin visited India as a single man. By the end of winter vacation, he was engaged. I still remember the excitement of that visit: adults brokered meetings behind closed doors, gossiped about each potential suitor, and felt the electric spark of new possibilities. I immediately liked the woman I would soon affectionately call Bhabhi, or sister-in-law. Though no one ever pushed the idea on me, I assumed that one day my parents would help me find a husband, too.
Yet at 30 (and unmarried), my views have radically changed. Eager to have sex and to feel the fluttery excitement of love and lust, I began dating when I was away at college. But due to my upbringing, I also assumed that my first serious boyfriend would be my last. By 24, I was engaged to my college boyfriend—a gentle, handsome, smart man who had earned my parents’s unsolicited blessing for marriage upon their first time meeting him, six months into our relationship. But I was so focused on marriage that I never asked myself: Is this what I want? With little knowledge of what would make me happy—and only understanding that I was deeply unhappy—I broke off the engagement two years later and began to think about what I wanted out of life without that being shaped by another person’s desires, expectations, or needs. My world, and my future, opened up wide.
As a result, arranged marriages were a part of my cultural upbringing that I mostly put out of my mind until I saw A Suitable Girl, a documentary that premiered at the Tribeca Film Festival this year. The film—directed, produced and edited by a team of almost exclusively women of color—follows Dipti, Ritu and Amrita, three Indian women in their mid-to-late 20s, for four years as they begin the process of searching for a husband. They are part of a generation forging a new identity that straddles traditional values and modern ones, where women are increasingly likely to pursue work beyond the home. A Suitable Girl successfully demystifies the process of arranged marriages—dispelling the kind of Western “otherizing” and exoticizing I experienced in school—while simultaneously casting a critical eye on how it uniquely affects women. As directors Sarita Khurana and Smriti Mundhra write, “It’s not a film about child brides, female infanticide or slum life, but rather the deep-rooted, systemic and nuanced sexism a woman faces from the day she is born.”
Though more Indians are dating now than ever before, so-called “love marriages” are still uncommon—especially among the middle and lower classes. A Suitable Girl depicts the diverse forms arranged marriages take, breaking down stereotypes and creating an intricate portrait of an ever-evolving practice in one of the most populous countries in the world. The arranged marriages depicted in the film play out more like a family matchmaking service, where parents and aunts and uncles make connections and the prospective bride and groom make the ultimate decision. For example, after putting unsuccessful ads in a local newspaper, Dipti, a teacher, creates a profile on Shaadi.com. She and her parents scan the site together, except instead of looking for dates as one might on OKCupid.com, their hope is to organize a meeting between the two families and secure her a husband. Alternately, in an arrangement that feels more familiar to Americans, with the blessing of their families, Amrita decides to marry a former classmate with whom she later developed a friendship.
Arranged marriages, in its various forms, are common throughout parts of Asia and the Middle East in traditional cultures that value the needs of the collective over the rights of the individual. To outsiders, one of the most off-putting aspects of arranged marriages—aside from making a seemingly split-second decision about your life partner—is the filtering process families use to find eligible bachelors. Men and women reduce each other to caricatures, where women are to be fair-skinned and youthful, and men are to be wealthy with secure jobs. Ritu’s parents filter candidates by astrology sign, caste system, income, education, for example—criteria that makes the process seem uniquely discriminatory and superficial, but is not much different from the traditional ways many Americans privately assess potential partners based on factors like appearance and job stability.
There are merits to the Indian approach: While there are no official national statistics, the Hindustan Times estimates the divorce rate in India hovers at 13 in 1,000—which has skyrocketed from one in 1,000 in the past several years. By comparison, in the United States, some 30 percent of people married in the 1990s had divorced by the 2000s (though, according to the New York Times, that rate has been decreasing as people marry later). Studies also suggest that arranged marriages produce the same levels of satisfaction as love marriages among Indian-American couples. The Indian culture’s answer to the universal question on love and marriage—how do you know who “the right one” is?—is that you don’t. Instead, you approximate the best you can based on the information you have and you’ll learn to love your mate. It’s not very romantic, but there’s an appealing logic to it.
These are the facts and opinions I recited to that room of dubious white 13-year-olds in a classroom nearly two decades ago, not yet knowing what it felt like to hold a boy’s hand, let alone to fall in love. But in my household, dating was nearly as taboo as it probably was for Dipti or Ritu or Amrita. While my parents never suggested that they would one day help me look for a husband, it was still implied that dating was something only the predominantly white kids in my school did. When Indian people dated—if they dated—it was for the purpose of finding a husband. Though I privately longed to chase and be chased by boys who liked the girls with golden hair, I clung to the stats on divorce with insufferable self-righteousness throughout high school as a form of self-preservation: Partially, I wanted to assert my Indian-American identity in a world of whiteness. But at a deeper level, it was easier to pretend that not dating was my choice rather than to admit that the future I wanted for myself might cause me to clash with my family and my culture. Though Dipti, Amrita, and Ritu were brought up in a different (and far more conservative) culture than I was, while watching A Suitable Girl I wondered if they had ever stifled the same desires I once did.
While both men and women give up a high degree of self-determination to marry a near-stranger, the film depicts the unique sacrifices that fall on women: As Ritu’s mother explains in the beginning of the film, it’s “fixed” by birth that one day the girl will leave home to live with her in-laws and husband. For Ritu, the sacrifice comes in the form of quitting her job, taking a new one, getting married (despite her reluctance to do so), and moving from India to Dubai to live with her equally reluctant husband. Amrita quits her job in finance, agreeing to work in her husband’s family’s business after marriage—which eventually turns into cooking and cleaning their home and taking care of her ill father-in-law, who also demands she give up Western clothing for traditional Indian saris. “You lose your identity when you get married,” she says. “And that’s one thing I never wanted to do. More than 80 percent of people who come to my home would not even know my name. They just recognize me by Keshav ki wife. And that’s one thing—yes, I am Keshav’s wife. And I’m proud to be. But I do have a name. So you can call me Amrita.”
Though it’s not discussed in the film, I wondered what consequences a woman might face if she refused the conditions being dictated by her parents or her in-laws, if any—in the worst cases, she may face ex-communication, domestic violence, and verbal or emotional abuse. In conservative families where there’s a stigma against divorce and expectation that women should serve the men, survivors may be trapped and unable to seek help. As one 1996 study on Indian women who experience domestic violence in America noted that “As immigrants, these women were under added pressure to uphold the standards of ‘cultural family values’ in a foreign land. They expressed a strong desire to be true to their culture, which does not allow disintegration of marriage under any circumstance.” As I grew older, several of my friends and I saw this form of manipulation and abuse play out in arranged marriages.
However, that is not to imply that domestic violence is more common in an arranged marriage—the data on that is mixed, and according to a survey administered to 160 South Asians in Boston in 2000, the rate of domestic violence in arranged marriages is roughly the same as non-arranged marriages. It is also too reductive to dismiss the entire culture and assume that Western approaches to marriage are superior. As Anukripa Elango, a college student in India who created a viral parody that lampooned the sexist double standard of arranged marriages, said, “Sexism and patriarchy is everywhere. It is just that it exists differently in different places, and this is one way it exists here [in India].”
While A Suitable Girl focuses on one of the most difficult transitions in an Indian woman’s life, many of these couples do go on to be form loving and stable marriages. And if happiness is a self-fulfilling prophecy, perhaps the concept behind arranged marriages makes sense. But it’s also true that women bear the brunt of the sacrifices involved in sustaining these marriages. Ritu, Dipti, and Amrita live in a changing world where women increasingly have more opportunity—both before marriage and after—but still lack the ultimate choice: whether they want to participate in the system of arranged marriage at all. As someone who grew up oceans away, connected to India only by language, skin color, and family folklore, I let the idea of arranged marriages go as soon as I realized it would shrink my world, not expand it. Yet for me, A Suitable Girl created a window into an alternate present that easily could have been mine.