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In the documentary, A Suitable Girl (one of our favorites at this year’s Tribeca Film Festival), directors Sarita Khurana and Smriti Mundhra follow three women in India over four years of their lives. One of these women, Amrita, is just a month away from marriage at the beginning of the film. The other two subjects, Ritu and Dipti, spend the course of the movie looking for the perfect husband (of course, with extensive help from their families). It’s an intimate look into not just the lives of these three women, but also into the institution of arranged marriage.  

We sat down with the directors, along with producer/editor Jennifer Tiexiera, to talk about the filmmaking process, the state of so-called “arranged marriage” in India, and working as a woman of color in film.

Eli Sentman (MoviePass): So, this is the kind of movie that leaves you with lots of questions about all the practical filmmaking stuff that must’ve gone into it. How did you find the three main subjects? And how did you convince them to let you document their lives so intimately?

Sarita Khurana: We first found Seema, the matchmaker in Bombaby, who was known to Smriti’s family.  And so, we met her, she’s very charismatic, and we were very interested in filming her just to learn about the matchmaking business. Soon enough we found out about her daughter Ritu who she was also trying to marry off, so we met with her and went from there. As for Amrita, we were at a wedding shooting B-roll–it was one of those big, fancy Indian weddings–and her cousin came up to us and was like “What are you doing?” We told her about our film and she said, “Wow, you really have to meet my cousin. She’s about to do the craziest thing in her life!” So we met Amrita in Delhi, and she was very open and into talking to us. And Dipti, our last character, we also met through a matchmaker. We filmed with Dipti at a matchmaking event and followed up with her and her family afterwards. We just took it one step at a time. They were open to talking to us, we were open to talking to them, and it just kept happening.

ES (MP): So you maybe didn’t realize early on that this was going to be a four-year process?

SK: We thought it was going to be a six-month process!

Smriti Mundhra: It was really nerve-wracking because when you start going down that rabbit hole with your subjects, and it’s a documentary, if one of them suddenly was like “I can’t anymore! I change my mind! I don’t want to be in it!” you can’t just force someone to be in a film. So it was four years of going, “Let us get through this, let us get through this.” The relief we felt when we actually filmed what we knew, without giving anything away, was going to be the conclusion for each of the girls’ storylines, at least as far as our film was concerned – we could’ve passed out with relief. Because the whole time, we were just like “Please God, let them not cut us off.”

ES (MP): Was there a certain point where you yourselves were just like “I really hope these girls find someone soon”?

SM: We had the conversation that it just might be part of the film that sometimes it doesn’t happen.

SK: I think we had said to ourselves, “you know, it’s totally fine if by the end of this film if what we’re showing is that one character doesn’t get married.”

ES (MP): And then once you got through the whole filming process, what was it like actually editing this and putting it all together? How many hours of footage were there to work with?

Jennifer Tiexiera: It was about 750 hours! What I did was, I cut all three stories separately, just to see what the strongest points of each of their stories were and what was true to them. And when you’re about to cut all three of them together you don’t want to same thing to be repeated twice. So it was a lot of writing to be honest. I’m an old-school hand-writer, so I’ve got binders and binders full of writing. Then I’d make the decisions after that. After those first three cuts were done, I worked on editing it together into the final piece. It took about two-and-a-half years.

SK: There was also a ton of subtitling and translation to do. We had an assistant edit team who were putting all that together while we were still filming in India.

SM: Five languages!

JT: So basically there were probably about six to ten people in India at any given time. Smriti had worked out something with the university there, so I was constantly getting things and trying to watch it and bring it into the system. You have five different dialects, you have 750 hours of subtitles — that’s a whole process in itself.

SK: And it was interesting because we intentionally wanted to work with Jen, who wasn’t Indian and who wasn’t coming from inside of the culture, whereas Smriti and I were, because we wanted the film to read. And so we had Jen, as editor, actually asking a lot of questions like “What does this mean? How does this translate?” It actually helped us make a better film because Smriti and I are so inside of things.

ES (MP): You didn’t know what people wouldn’t understand.

SM: Yeah, there were simple things that we just assumed people would get and then Jen would be like “Why are they doing this?”

ES (MP): So on that note, to what extent did you see this as an effort to educate viewers about the arranged marriage process? Because over the course of watching it, I was thinking, “I felt like I kind of knew what arranged marriage was, but it’s actually a little less arranged than I thought it was. But also way more complicated than I thought it was!”

SM: [Laughs] That could be the alternative title for it: “A Little Less Arranged.”

SK: I think it was a big thing. I’m getting really tired of saying “arranged marriage.” It’s not called “arranged marriage” in India.

SM: It’s just called “marriage”!

SK: We don’t go around here and be like “are you having a love marriage?” Our parents both had marriages arranged. But the institution itself has really changed. There’s more choice, and families are more open. At the same time, we know the very static image of marriage in India that people have is: “It’s about child brides! It’s about forced marriages! It’s about marrying a person you only meet once!” That’s’ the view people have of arranged marriage in India. We knew we were fighting that the whole time, making something that’s much more contemporary, much more about what happens in India today. We took that on.

JT: We saw that early on when we would talk to people about the film. You start pitching it or you start applying to film festivals and all this stuff. And it’s just not what people expect. They expect that drama. They expect oppression, child brides, all of those things that go along with it.

SM: It’s interesting because now that people are starting to see the film and we’re having more conversations with people who’ve seen the film, I’m actually surprised by even how many Indian people assume that the film is about oppressed women or child marriages. I had a conversation with somebody just the other day who’s an Indian filmmaker. And we were just talking about film outreach and things like that, and they were just like “you should talk to all the battered women NGOs” and I was like “okay, that’s not really what the film is about.” And they were really surprised! I think that also speaks to a tendency to think that only these sorts of extreme versions of oppression and struggle are worthy of making a film about. But, actually, we all really believe that there’s something really dramatic and worthy of storytelling in the everyday. And I don’t think that’s paid enough attention to, especially when it comes to films about women in other countries, where we kind of expect everything to be extreme: child brides, slums, this and that. And I think in that way our film is very new and different, in that it really explores complexity and nuance.

JT: There’s a lot of relatability.

ES (MP): That’s one of the things I loved about it! There’re so many moments of sadness, but there’re also so many nice little moments of joy. Especially the scene with Dipti where she and her family finally meet a man who she’s been talking with online. It’s such a sweet scene! What was it like being in the room for something like that?

SK: It was super nerve-wracking. Even though we had an inclination that it sounded good, she’d had such a tough time finding somebody. They were literally meeting for the first time, and they’d talked on the phone, and that was all very positive and everything. But It was just so nerve-wracking!

JT: And it was a much longer-sit down than you actually saw! There was a lot of stuff that actually happened before the final decision.

SM: One of the interesting things about these rituals in Indian culture is that they don’t read necessarily the way you’d expect. And this is something that we always talked about with the weddings that we filmed, where, you know, in Westernized weddings you have these swells of music and the bride walks down the aisle and it’s very dramatic — it’s very narrative in the way it’s set up. But Indian customs and rituals are much more matter-of-fact.

JT: Over hours and hours and hours.

SM: So sometimes that can read on screen as, you know, not very dramatic. And really, to Jen’s credit, she managed to create dramatic moments and tense moments from these hours of footage where people are just sitting around talking about the weather. Of course, you feel that energy in the moment when it’s happening, but the way it reads visually is very different. So we had to recreate that in the way it was cut.

JT: And really find the most powerful moments.

SK: We especially loved that scene with Dipti because she’s the one who you think isn’t going to make it.

ES (MP): I was so worried for her!

SK: And she’s the one who most doesn’t fit into the conventions of “suitable.” She’s dark-skinned, she’s 30, she’s of a lower economic class.

ES (MP): And she also seemed like she was the one who was most interested in finding a husband.

SK: She romanticizes marriage, you know, and she’s a little bit desperate about it because she’s hitting this age where it’s getting worrisome for her family. And I think that’s why that moment was so excruciating.

JT: Her storyline, I have to say, that was just easy. All the emotion and the access that we got to her — she just had her heart on her sleeve.

SK: And as for it being relatable in certain ways, with the internet even people in the United States are finding people in different ways than they did even a decade ago. So I feel like there’s some overlap there where a lot of people are finding people online. There’s more of a conversation than there was even a decade ago about how people find partners.

ES (MP): And the internet is exactly what Dipti eventually uses to try and find a husband.

JT: It’s not that different! What’s happening in India is just not that different. There’s the big cultural and societal differences, which I think are so beautiful and important to understand, but at the same time, it’s all easy to get.

ES (MP): In a way it almost felt like the process leading up to the marriage was more familiar to westerners than what happens after the marriage.

SM: Yeah, definitely. For me, the details are, you do things one way in one culture and another way in another culture. But it really comes down to a sense of belonging and really wanting to belong to something. In India, the way you belong is by becoming part of a community through marriage. After marriage, a range of things can happen. Not everybody has a situation like Amrita where your life completely turns upside down. But for everything that we tried to portray about arranged marriage, in an unbiased way, the one thing that I feel hasn’t changed, whether in India or other societies around the world, is that women are expected to sacrifice. They’re expected to fall in line and adjust. And Indian women are just expected to sacrifice the most in order to fit into society. You see that in an extreme kind of sense with Amrita, but we’ve all experienced it in small ways and large ways, and I think the other girls in the film have also experienced that. You leave one identity, you leave a family and a home you’ve known forever, to join another family. And while we’ve been lucky enough to have that space between parents, home, and married life to find our own identities, it’s still constant work for women. There’s a lot of stuff that’s just ingrained in you from a young age and I think that’s especially true in Indian culture.

ES (MP): With translating and everything else you talked about, it sounds like the movie was even more work than I originally thought after watching it. I read that your crew was almost entirely made up of women of color. What was it like assembling everyone? How important was it for you to have so many women of color on board?

SM: Extremely important.

SK: But it happened very organically.

SM: Yes, with us it happened organically. We were lucky enough to be plugged into a lot of circles where we knew a lot of women of color: composers, assistants, cinematographers. So we had access. These people were visible to us, it wasn’t like we have to find binders full of women [laughs]! These people were visible to us, and we knew they were extremely talented. It was an easy decision to bring those people on to the film. Our film is nuanced, it speaks to something really deep down in a lot of people. And I’m not saying for every role this has to be the case, but there’s a specific connection, where if you’ve experienced the macroaggressions of sexism or if you’ve felt pressured by society — there’s something layers deep, and it may not necessarily even manifest itself in the work, but it has an impact, and I think that really helped us, even if it wasn’t something we were specifically seeking out in bringing our crew together. It’s something that really enriched the film, and it all went into the sauce.  

SK: Women of color filmmakers are the least visible. We get the least funding, the least institutional support; it takes the longest to make a film because the institutional support is often not there.  

SM: We’re very grateful to have gotten the support that we have from Women in Film and Film Independent and some other organizations. But making a film like ours, we had to get through not just filming it, but several cuts for people to actually see the value in it and feel convinced we had something.

JT: And we needed to have several cuts to make the film that we wanted. And going back to your question, I feel like a lot of times when I get involved in projects or I get called, it’s a white director or a white producer, usually a male, and they’re struggling because they want a woman’s voice — and I just happen to be a woman of color working in post-production. But by that point, it’s a little too late. The footage is there, and they didn’t hire women when it came to the DPs or the ADs. And the more you can just be aware of that process in the beginning, if you are going down that road, to try to tell a nuanced story — I always feel like that’s a really important conversation to have with directors or filmmakers. If you’re going to try and tell a story, involve as many people who have lived that story as possible, from the beginning; the longer you wait, the less people will relate. I think that’s why we’re having such a great response to the movie now, because everyone had their hearts on their sleeves while they were filming, or while they were writing, or while they were shooting. And I think the ultimate product shows that.

ES (MP): It would be so much different if it were just some white dude out there filming all of it.

JT: And that happens more times than you think. I can’t tell you how many times somebody’s like, “We just want a woman,” and I’m like “A woman? One woman?”

SM: Hitting a quota.

JT: I just have to be like, “Okay, let’s see what I can do.”

SM: And just to go back to what I was saying about how difficult it is for women of color or non-American stories to find institutional support here when they’re not about extreme cases — that was hard for us. I really truly believe that if we made a movie about child brides we would’ve had funding much earlier on. It’s a much harder sell to tell people we’re making a film about India and women in India except —

SK: Except it’s not going be about Islam, it’s not going be about poverty.

JT: And nobody needs your help or your sympathy. Nobody needs it! It’s just a fly-on-the-wall experience for you to see something different. You don’t need to watch it and write a check.

SK: Documentary here is already set up to be mostly about social issues. So if you’re not doing that overtly, when it comes to finding funding it’s just that much harder. But on the flipside, we believe in telling these kinds of stories and challenging the viewer.  

JT: And ultimately, I feel like that’s what the original purposes of documentaries were.

SK: And not to generalize, but I think as women of color we have to fight to tell certain kinds of stories. That’s something that bonds us. You want different kinds of representation on screen. You want to challenge the stuff that’s out there because the stuff you’re getting doesn’t speak to your experience. And so I think that’s always bonded us in terms of the kind of movies we want to make. That was reflected in our team.

ES (MP): Is it a relief to finally be done?

SM: Ask us tomorrow night after the premier!

SK: It’s been insane. A year ago we were almost at Tribeca. We were asked to submit, and you know, we had a pretty decent film, but in our hearts we just felt like we weren’t there. So we took one more year.

SM: Do you remember we had that conversation where I texted you and was like, “Shit. We need another year.” To be here, it’s like we almost can’t even fathom it. People are going to see it at the theater and it’s out of our hands.

ES (MP): Are you going to have nightmares about that one last change you could’ve made?

SM: Well Jen made sure that we can’t! She sent the movie to the colorist right after we locked picture.

JT: There’s always going to be something. And to be honest, when we did finish, it was the first time that I felt like we were truly done.

SK: Yeah, we weren’t being nitpicky.  

JT: Well, at the end we were being nitpicky. [Laughs] The last three weeks we were.

SK: It really teaches you some deep lessons about perseverance and making work that you believe in. It takes a lot.

MP: Is whatever you work on next going to be short and simple? Something that won’t be four years in India and another three years of editing?

JT: My husband calls it my “dirty documentary habit.” I’m just like “well, what’s next?”

SM: I think whatever inspires us next is going to tell us that. I don’t necessarily have a mandate. Of course, I’d love to say I want to do something quick and simple next before I dive into another long thing, but I don’t know. What if I find some amazing material tomorrow that I can’t stay away from? I’m not going to limit myself. If it takes seven years so be it!

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