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Modern Bollywood Tropes Reimagined in: A Match at TIFF 2023

(Photo: TIFF)

Directed by: Jayant Digambar Somalkar

Cast: Nandini Chikte, Taranath Khiratkar, Sangita Sonekar, Suyog Dhawas, Sandip Somalkar, Sandip Parkhi, Swati Ulmale, Gauri Badki, Mansi Pawar

As I was browsing through films to watch at TIFF, ‘A Match’ caught my eye, due to the familiarity I have with Indian and Bollywood cinema. From watching films produced in the 1980s all the way up to 2023, I have observed the evolution of Indian cinema and how arranged marriages, the role of women, religion, and more have changed but also remained stagnant in many ways.

While reading the film description, I noticed that the heroine, Savita, is a third-year BA student in Sociology. As a current fourth-year BA student in Sociology with Indian ancestry, numerous questions scattered through my mind as I wondered how different my life could have transpired if I were placed in similar shoes as Savita, which was far from impossible. What kind of social norms would I have had to abide by while actively learning about the social constructs of the patriarchal society I would be surrounded by? How would I have navigated the witnessing of my friends and family following these social norms while I was learning they were not natural or inherent? Somalkar directs an authentic, sublime, and powerful film that carefully answers each of these questions that were brewing in my head.

As much as Savita learned the sociological theories behind women empowerment in her class, she could not put this into practice as she was surrounded by family, friends, classmates, and fellow Dongargaon villagers who internalized the belief that everything, including education, comes secondary to the one main goal a young Indian girl should aspire for: finding a match. This was the farthest idea from Savita’s primary goal. She hoped to take her final exam to graduate from her Sociology program in her final year, but leading up to her exam, her mother made her skip her exam to meet a potential ‘rishta’ (suitor). This was heartbreaking, as she was set back a year in school, and the suitor she skipped her exam for rejected her. This made me wonder: if these social norms weren’t in place, would her family still think this way? Would they have wanted her to continue school if society wasn’t so overbearing?

Savita was rejected by numerous ‘rishtas’ as many complained her skin was too dark or her rural family was too poor. The one man who displayed the slightest bit of interest in her was her lecturer, as he seemingly understood that women could have rights in their society. He offered her a proposal, but the dowry was quite costly due to his privileged position as a lecturer. The dowry is a payment to the groom’s family by the bride’s family. Due to this, her impoverished cotton field-owning father sought to take out loans to afford it, which he was unable to acquire. He even went to the lengths of selling his cotton field to try to afford it, which was still not sufficient. This traditional societal ritual for Indian marriages overrode the lecturer’s knowledge of “women empowerment,” as he still needed to abide by societal norms by accepting this conventionally high payment, despite his feelings for Savita. One unanswered question I had during the film was: Is it socially and legally acceptable for a student to be with their professor in this village? In Canada, this is strictly forbidden, so I was intrigued to know if this is ethical in Indian educational institutes.

While Savita was experiencing strong pressure from her parents to find a match, the villagers around her intensified this social pressure. One of her best friends successfully found a match and quit attending university with Savita. During her friend’s wedding, Savita’s father was bombarded with questions by uncles in the village about when Savita’s wedding would be next. Viewers see how modern digital technology can facilitate deviance from the norm of arranged marriages, as Savita’s other best friend was in romantic communication on WhatsApp with a boy working at a store near their bus stop. The conversations with the boy were perceived as dishonorable to the girl’s family, as was evident when her mother discovered the messages and publicly embarrassed her daughter in front of the village. For Savita, witnessing these occurrences reminds her of her expectations in her small, concentrated village: get married. Marriage in this society is not just a matter of getting married; the process of finding “a match” as a “candidate” must be through a formal, standardized interview structure, not through an online messaging platform.

Somalkar does an exceptional job of displaying not only how the social pressures surrounding arranged marriages impact women, but also men. Savita’s brother was in a secret relationship with a girl he loved for a long time. According to the social norms in the village, Savita’s brother was unable to marry his girlfriend because, in a family, the daughter of the family should be married prior to the son, and Savita was not married yet. This norm disadvantaged him because his lover’s wedding got fixed with “a match,” and he never got to marry her. As a result, he coped with his heartbreak through alcohol abuse. For Savita’s father, the social pressure became extreme due to his inability to afford a dowry for his daughter, and the constant questioning regarding when she would marry from fellow villagers caused him to drink farmer pesticides and lose his life.

This film was immensely touching in the way it sophistically describes the tragedies that occur in villages like Dongargaon, India. Following the film, Somalkar said in the Q&A that, “I have two sisters; one went through the same process. I wanted to portray the nuance and details, rituals, and traditional processes of the village.” This was done very effectively, and I found it fascinating how the film was shot in the village he grew up in and included a non-actor cast, meaning all characters lived in the village and knew the director personally. Interestingly, the lecturer whom Savita admires is a real lecturer, which I would have never expected.

One thing I kept my eye out for as an avid Bollywood film watcher was the regularity of majestic songs, which differentiates Indian cinema from other global film industries. The editor of the film, Abhijit Deshpande, indicated in the Q&A that “romance is always in slow motion in Bollywood, like the awkward silence in the first meeting when they are sitting (the lecturer and Savita), with good background music.” The use of a soft blend of Western and Indian folk music in the background effectively contributed to the disharmony of the film’s events.

A Match truly puts into perspective what my life could have looked like if my ancestors had never migrated from India during times of British colonization. As a Sociology student like Savita, I could only imagine what it would be like to skillfully learn about women’s empowerment in my textbooks but be unable to embody it in my day-to-day life.

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