[For the next week and half, we will be covering the 2012 South Asian International Film Festival, the biggest film premiere destination for South Asian and Indian films in the United States. Check back with Flixist for reviews of the SAIFF slate. You can read all of our SAIFF coverage here.]
A friend of mine who's just a few years older had warned me about something ages ago: "You know, Hubert, one of these days you'll have a year where you'll just keep going to weddings." That was 2009 -- five weddings. It hasn't really let up since. This year, my younger brother got married. Same goes for two friends of mine. And I have an old roommate's wedding to look forward to next month.
That older friend also warned me that after each wedding I go to, my folks would ask when I'm getting hitched, and that it would get real old real fast. It's happened without fail. My parents now ask me that question without humor or goodwill. Any light in their voice from a few years ago has dimmed considerably, and they sound a little more desperate each time. This is probably because they were around my age when they had me.
That pressure for marriage is more pronounced in The Great Indian Marriage Bazaar, an hour-long documentary on weddings in India.
The Great Indian Marriage Bazaar
There's an odd tension that underlies The Great Indian Marriage Bazaar, and I think it's bound up in a poster of Rosie the Riveter on the wall. Rosie -- with that defiant and determined look, the sleeve rolled through a bicep curl, the fist held tight -- is one of those enduring images of female empowerment and self-realization. "We can do it," she says emphatically. Before that "we can do it" is an implicit "If men can do it, then..."; after the "we can do it," there's an implicit "...and do it just as good" or "...and always could."
Meanwhile, in the documentary, marriage seems to be the only route toward a woman's self-actualization. A steady career, financial independence, it's nothing without a man. In one wedding ceremony, the bride doesn't just take the groom's last name but also changes her own first name. Her whole identity is symbolically changed in order to assert male dominance over her.
There's also an odd generational tension within families, and a larger social tension given the multiple Western influences in a globalized world. There's shaadi.com, for one, a sort of Indian eHarmony, and there's also a discussion of desirability gauged through the values of Bollywood. Co-director Ruchika Muchhala was educated at the University of Michigan and while in India she's under pressure from her parents to get married. They want her wed and with children by age 30. It's so tense a subject that at one point her mother gets extremely upset. She seethes and says that she can't rest easy until her daughter finally ties the knot. She glares into the camera with Ruchika just behind it and then wonders aloud where she went wrong as a mother.
The Great Indian Marriage Bazaar takes a personal approach to this hubbub over weddings. It's a bit like a memoir -- My Year of Trying to Get Married to Appease My Parents. We do get a look at the broader wedding culture of Indian through other women in the film. There's a remarkable statistic toward the beginning of the movie: 40% of the world's marriages are performed in India, and of those marriages, 90% of them are arranged marriages. We learn about a few arranged marriages, and how the practice has changed over the years. Ruchika's own parents had an arranged marriage, so there's some expectation of her daughter possibly doing it the same way.
On that note, there seems to be a tension of classification when it comes to marriage in the film. It goes along with the other tensions mentioned above. A distinction is made between arranged marriage and "love marriage," which to my obviously biased Western sensibilities fills my head with a lot of interesting ideas about the difference between various kinds of unions between people. One of my best friend's parents had an arranged marriage, and they made it work. There's a genuine affection they share, though they haven't placed the same pressure on their children to get married that way.
Arranged marriages have adapted to the 21st century, and we get to see Ruchika go to a matrimonial event. It's a mix of speed dating and mass casting call. Men and women make their introductions and then chat each other up afterwards. Their parents are present with them, there's lots of talk about seeing each other's biodata. This sort of thing isn't really peculiar, though it's odd to hear one interview subject say she's been to a few other matrimonial events without luck. Another woman discusses the slim pickings when it comes to quality men in the country and how most of the available women are too good for them -- they're better educated, more independent, more self-reliant.
As The Great Indian Marriage Bazaar was winding down, I couldn't help but feel a little underwhelmed. There's mention of a skin cream in India whose whole ad campaign is built around making women look fairer skinned. This makes them more likely to receive a wedding proposal. That's where mention of Bollywood comes in, but I also wondered more about the culture of beauty in India. How much have these notions changed over time, and is the West responsible for some changes? Is there a culture of male beauty as well -- metrosexualism, male grooming products, etc. -- or is that pressure never felt by men given the country's gender roles and gender expectations? After we're given the statistic about the percentage of marriages in India, we also hear a report about traffic being backed up because there are 50,000 weddings being performed in the city that day. Was it facetious, was it real? And I'm curious about the average number per day now and if there's a similarly ridiculous wedding industry in India that overcharges people on one of the happiest days of their lives.
There's also an issue with a lack of polish in the documentary. A lot of it plays as a home movie almost, and while that's not necessarily a bad thing, I've been rethinking the look of documentaries and the sort of veneer I prefer in the docs I usually like. This mix of run time and look made me a bit lukewarm on the film as a whole even though I think those various tensions mentioned above are ripe with ideas.
If Ruchika and her co-director Faiza Ahmad Khan revisit the subject of marriage in India, they've got a solid foundation here to build on. They can explore those personal, sociological, economic, and even geopolitical facets of marriage with greater depth. There's a passing reference to religious preferences with spouses which I'm interested in hearing, and I'd also be interested to hear if there are any views of same-sex couples and marriage in India. (The fact I wonder this reveals my absolute ignorance of sexual politics in the non-western world.) If anything, the film has made me wonder what Rosie the Riveter would look like with henna on her fist. I wonder about her biodata.
[The Great Indian Marriage Bazaar will screen at Chelsea Clearview Cinemas on Sunday, October 28th.]