Cultural Journey Spotlight: An Interview with “A Suitable Girl” Directors Sarita Khurana & Smriti Mundhra

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Join Heartland Film for a screening of “A Suitable Girl,” a documentary that follows the three women over the course of four years as they struggle with beloved family traditions, modern careers, their friends – married and unmarried – all while trying to make sense of their contemporary lives within the context of the ancient social contract of the arranged marriage. Directors Sarita Khurana and Smriti Mundhra will be in attendance for a Q&A and after-party featuring a dessert reception and DJ DesiFusion. Until then, enjoy this interview with Co-Directors Sarita Khurana and Smriti Mundhra that details their filmmaking careers, experience directing “A Suitable Girl,” and their advice to aspiring filmmakers.


sarita-headshotSarita Khurana is a Director, Producer, and Educator based in Brooklyn, New York. Khurana’s critically acclaimed work in narrative, documentary and experimental film has been screened and exhibited internationally. Her work often focuses on South Asian stories, and explores female subjectivities. Migration, memory, marginality, community, territory, gender and sexuality are common themes in her work.

Sarita Khurana was born in London in 1970, immigrating with her family to New York City six years later. She has lived and worked in NY since then, in addition to frequently working in India and the U.K. Khurana holds a B.A. from Oberlin College, an Ed.M from Harvard University, and an M.F.A. in Film – Directing, from Columbia University’s School of the Arts. In 2009, she was named as one of NY Women in Film & Television’s “Emerging Female Directors.” She has been a film fellow at NALIP-Diverse Women in Film, Art in General, the National Film Development Corporation of India, Women in Film-Los Angeles, and Film Independent. Khurana is also the co-founder of Cine Qua Non Lab, an international development lab for narrative feature films, based in Mexico and the U.S. Most recently, her documentary feature, A Suitable Girl, had its world premiere at the Tribeca Film Festival (2017), where she won the Albert Maysles New Documentary Director Award.


 

smriti-headshotSmriti Mundhra has been working in film and television for more than 10 years. She produced the award-winning feature films Waterborne and Bomb the Systemand associate-produced Punching at the Sun. Her short films have played and won awards at more than 50 film festivals worldwide including the Sundance Film Festival, Berlinale, the Hamptons Film Festival, and the Tribeca Film Festival. Her other production credits include Being John MalkovichNurse BettyO Brother, Where Art Thou; and Wall Street 2. She is in production on her directorial debut, a feature-length documentary about Indian matchmakers entitled The Marriage Brokers.


 

HF: What first interested you in film?

Smriti Mundhra: My father was a filmmaker, so he definitely passed his passion for film onto me from a young age. We had a tradition of going to the movies together when I was a kid — films that were way over my head, but he would talk to me about shots, storytelling, dialogue, see v.s. say, all the basics of filmmaking. And this is when I was six or seven years old! I also grew up visiting him on set, going to film festivals, all of those things so I caught the bug very early on. Being a filmmaker is all I’ve ever wanted to do.

Sarita Khurana: I have always looked for ways to tell stories that stemmed from my lived experience, culture & community – initially in response to not seeing these kinds of images growing up. I grew up in New York City, and so much of television and film didn’t include people like me. There were no coming-of-age stories about Indian girls in a Queens neighborhood, or of families that looked like mine, who immigrated from another country and were trying to make a home somewhere else. These images certainly didn’t exist in American film and television where often, if there were people of color on screen, they were Black or sometimes Latinos, and would often be criminals, prostitutes or drug dealers. I remember the first time I saw South Asians on the big screen — we saw Indiana Jones & The Temple of Doom in the local theater. The Indians were wretched monkey brain eaters who ripped the hearts out of their sacrificial victims, and prayed to some archetypal mother figure. I remember my skin burning inside the dark theater, because these representations reinforced the racism of Indians being other, alien and exotic. So much of my interest in film started as a response to wanting to create images and stories that represented my community and myself in authentic, full ways. It’s really quite traumatic to never see yourself depicted as a full human being, or to see yourself fragmented into a stereotype. We often underestimate the power of seeing and being seen, and that’s something I wanted to change.

HF: What are some films that inspired you to pursue filmmaking?

Smriti Mundhra: It sounds cliché, but I have to say Mira Nair’s Salaam Bombay. Indian girls are not raised to think they can be filmmakers, and seeing this film in a theater at 9 years old, and realizing an Indian woman directed it blew the door open for me in terms of seeing a representation of myself in the film industry. I don’t think that should be underestimated — men have the privilege of seeing themselves in every facet of life, in all positions of power, but women, especially women of color, rarely do. As filmmakers, women are rarely considered to be auteurs or geniuses. To see an Indian woman making films that the world regards as seminal, groundbreaking works of art has given me reason to believe that my work could be seen as important, too.

Francis Ford Coppola’s The Conversation had a big impact because that’s a film I watched with my dad at least twice a year, and we dissected every aspect of the filmmaking. Barbara Kopple and Frederick Wiseman’s films opened up the world of documentaries to me, and I saw how powerful vérité filmmaking could be. And lastly, my dad’s film The Sandstorm had a big impact. It was his most personal project, and it taught me the importance of finding your voice as a filmmaker and using it.

Sarita Khurana: The first film is Charles Burnett’s Killer of Sheep, which had this incredible immersive and compassionate feel for its characters’ lives, depicting their day-to-day complexity and struggles.  The film centers on Stan, a working-class African-American man in Watts, Los Angeles, who works in the local slaughterhouse. I was struck not only by the story – depicting working-class life, urban LA, and race and sexuality.  I was also deeply struck by the style of filmmaking, which had a documentary aesthetic to it, and made me lose myself in the world of the characters. Shot in black and white, it’s compositions really struck me – a child wearing a mask standing against a barbed wire fence; Stan and his wife slow dancing in the kitchen; the violent images in the slaughterhouse which were more than just a metaphor of Stan’s life. I think this is where story, art, and emotion really came together for me –depicting a world where the character’s world was beautiful, complicated, and messy. I wanted to make films like this.

The second and third films are both British films, which gave me a window into seeing South Asian culture in a more complicated and nuanced way and what could be possible in telling our stories. These were Gurinder Chadha’s Bhaji on the Beach, a coming-of-age story set in the UK about a group of Indian women who take a daytrip to the seashore in Blackpool. The familiar culture, and conflicts between the aunties and the younger women, between traditions of one’s home country and one’s diasporic country, were illuminated for the first time. Equally, Stephen Frears’ My Beautiful Launderette, based on a screenplay by Hanif Kureishi, really opened up my vision. The film centers on Omar, a young Pakistani man in his 20’s, and his sexual coming of age, with one of his best friends, a white working-class man named Johnny. The two try to set up a launderette, and make a living for themselves. All the while, Omar’s family is also in an out of his life, whether it’s his alcoholic father, or his very successful uncle who has a white British mistress.  I think these kinds of films – especially from the UK, where there was a more established South Asian community (than the U.S.) showed me a world that I experienced, but never saw on screen. Whether it was the coming-out of a young man to his Muslim family, or the intergenerational struggle between families and their children, or the camaraderie between Indian women, these films made me feel like I was on screen.

HF: How was the beginning of your filmmaking experience?

Smriti Mundhra: It was thrilling. I started out as an intern when I was 15, 16 years old, working for Spike Jonze, and I worked as an assistant on his first film Being John Malkovich. After that, I worked for the Coen Brothers for two films and Neil LaBute. Having access to legendary filmmakers and the studio system at such a young age was incredible. But when I was 22, I moved to New York to produce my first independent film, and I haven’t gone back to the studios since. There is something electric about being an indie filmmaker and being fully in control of your voice.

HF: What are some of the obstacles you’ve faced as a filmmaker?

Sarita Khurana: I think the biggest obstacle has been institutional support and funding and screening of my work. I think it’s still quite difficult to have a complexity of culture on screen, have women be the central character, and depict a world that doesn’t fit into a binary of representations.

HF: How can audiences better support female filmmakers?

Sarita Khurana: Audiences can come see the films that we make, or that have female lead characters. They can also help advocate for a diversity in funding and institutional support of who’s not just in front of the camera, but behind the camera as well. This includes advocating for a diversity of filmmakers across race, gender, class, sexuality, and culture.

HF: Any words of inspiration for aspiring filmmakers?

Smriti Mundhra: Try to learn from the best but stick with your gut. The most important thing in this industry is a unique voice, so take risks and develop yours — once you figure out who you are, what you believe in and what you want to say, the rest is comparatively easy.

HF: What was the inspiration for “A Suitable Girl”?  Where did this story begin?

Sarita Khurana: My co-director, Smriti, and I met in film school and worked on several short films together. As two Indian women, we found ourselves talking about our own personal experiences & pressure of marriage within our own families. We were curious about what this looked like in India today, how young women were dealing with these same pressures and how they navigated them. A few months after we talked about the idea, Smriti was in Mumbai for a family trip, and she met Seema, the matchmaker who’s featured in the film. After talking with Seema for a bit, we just knew the time was right to start making this film, as we had found our first entry into the world of matchmaking and marriage.

HF: What were some of the challenges you faced while making this film?

Sarita Khurana: There were so many challenges! Initially, we thought we’d shoot for six months and be able to tell our story. We ended up filming for almost four years, and that required a lot of back and forth between India and the United States. We made eight separate shooting trips, that usually lasted anywhere from three weeks to six or seven months at a time. Neither of us anticipated that our lives would be completely upturned in making this film, but the story took over and we were committed to telling this story in all its complexity.

It was also challenging to edit the film, since we had over 850 hours by the time all was said and done. While we knew the outline of our stories, creating all the scenes and streamlining the process to really integrate three characters was a ton of work. It took us about three years to edit the film.

But much of this was also due to the fact that raising money was quite difficult. We were initially lucky to have a core group of investors who believed in the project, but there was a very long period of years where we had no money, but needed to keep filming. We applied for every grant and lab, but had no luck. The film does not fit into current categories of documentary funding – especially when you are making work outside of the US about another culture – we’re not a social issue film with an advocacy agenda and a hot current topic. We didn’t make a film about India and its slums or poverty, so often no one knew what to do with that. Somehow we managed to keep going, and we eventually did receive some institutional support during our post-production phase from Film Independent, NALIP-Diverse Women in Film Lab, and Women in Film/LA – which made a big difference not so much in funding, but in visibility and mentoring for the project.There were so many challenges! Initially, we thought we’d shoot for six months and be able to tell our story. We ended up filming for almost four years, and that required a lot of back and forth between India and the United States. We made eight separate shooting trips, that usually lasted anywhere from three weeks to six or seven months at a time. Neither of us anticipated that our lives would be completely upturned in making this film, but the story took over and we were committed to telling this story in all its complexity.

HF: What was the most memorable moment during production?

Smriti Mundhra: For me, it was my father passing away. This happened a year into filming, it was very sudden, and it devastated me. My father was also a filmmaker and he was the guardian angel of our project — providing moral support, resources and so much more. But his death, and the process of grieving with my family, also shed new light for me on the themes of our film. I began to really understand the need for being part of a community, and why so many young women give up big chunks of their agency and personal freedoms to be a part of something bigger.

HF: What would you like for audiences to take away from this film?

Sarita Khurana: One of the goals of the film is to open up audiences’ ideas of India, Indian marriage, and show how complicated and nuanced this tradition is; as well as the pressures women face, and the inherent patriarchy of the tradition. It’s to demystify the process of marriage, to not exoticize it, or to demean it, but to contextualize it. It’s not a fantasy nor is it a static tradition that doesn’t change with the times.  So often we see India represented as an exotic land of finding yourself, or as an impoverished country with slums, women who lack agency, or Indians as a fanatical horde. I think making a documentary that really opens up this idea is one thing I want audiences to take away. In addition, there are so many themes here that are universal – finding a partner, negotiating family and tradition, fears about the future and leaving home, struggles between their parents and children, marrying for the right or wrong reasons, that should resonate across the board.   

HF: Our mission at Heartland Film is “to inspire filmmakers & audiences through the transformative power of film.” Is there a film that inspires you as a filmmaker?

Smriti Mundhra: Any film directed by a woman of color inspires me, because it’s a testament to the resiliency of our voice in an industry designed for us to fail.


“A Suitable Girl” Screening & After-party w/ Directors Sarita Khurana & Smriti Mundhra

Saturday, Aug. 19 – 6:30 p.m. – Tickets $15

“A Suitable Girl” is a documentary that follows three women over the course of four years as they struggle with beloved family traditions, modern careers, their friends — married and unmarried — all while trying to make sense of their contemporary lives within the context of the ancient social contract of the arranged marriage. Directors Sarita Khurana and Smriti Mundhra will be in attendance for a Q&A and after party featuring a dessert reception and DJ.

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