Aarti Shukla (Kriti Kharbanda) in debutant director Ratnaa Sinha’s Shaadi Mein Zaroor Aana wants to become an Indian Civil Services (ICS) officer. Her father, though, wants her to have an arranged marriage. Haven’t we all heard this before? In most Indian movies involving arranged marriage, one common thing at stake is the woman’s wishes. No one cares what she wants, she’s just supposed to mehendi and chill.
When I heard the phrase ‘prospective groom’ in this movie, I prepare myself for an onslaught of rishta Tinder – you know, the regular trope of how men and women in arranged marriages meet for the first time in Indian movies? I expected to see Satyendra (Rajkkumar Rao) and his entire extended family crouched in Aarti’s living room, eating sweets, making small talk and discussing stages of dahejness. I expected Aarti to walk into the living room in a complete picture of sanskaar. To complete the picture of perfection, she’d be carrying a tray of chai that she’d have prepared herself. The man and woman’s eyes meet, the woman looks shy and he looks sheepish, and both families decide they should get 10 minutes alone in the adjacent room to decide if they want to spend the rest of their lives together. So, no pressure, kids.
But no such thing happened in Shaadi Mein Zaroor Aana. Aarti decides to meet Satyendra for the first time at a café. He nervously waits for her. Aarti walks in, the breeze blowing her rigorously parloured curls out of her face, a perfection in pink.
She sits down and engages him in conversation. She does the talking and asks him his likes and dislikes. She questions what he wants out of a life partner. She blushes with sincerity when he says he wants a best friend for life in his wife. She also makes it clear that she wants to continue working after marriage – she does not wait for him to ask her this question. She clearly states that she’s interested in joining the civil services and would not want to get married if this was not acceptable to him. He agrees to her wishes.
Despite some romanticisation, this is not that far from how first meetings now happen with some urban men and women in India. Although the we-will-come-to-window-shop-your-beti-at-home tradition still continues, in many pockets of experience the power balance of arranged marriages has shifted. In these situations, women meet their prospective grooms in places outside parental control – at restaurants, bars, cafés and parks. No more life decisions made in a few minutes snatched next door to the adults.
In many ways, Sinha has brought us a breath of fresh air. For many contemporary Indians, meeting an arranged prospective groom is not that different now from how they’d meet someone through Tinder. Except in the former, the underlined expectation is marriage and in the latter, it’s sex. But in both cases, both women and men expect a certain level of comfort and companionship and compatibility. And that’s what Aarti is up to in that café.
Arranged marriages these days often involve much more discussions and questioning of interests, figuring out whether the couple’s emotional intelligences match, and stances on everything from financial decisions to pets. And we’re happy to report that many of the women we know lead these conversations just as much as men do. There’s no pressure to immediately give an answer. The woman is not looking for a ‘yes’ to marriage in this meeting. She is simply looking to see if there’s a possibility of a second date.
Thus in Sinha’s vision, Aarti is surprised when Satyendra agrees to get married at the end of the first meeting. Even though she immediately likes him, she is more than okay with the idea of going out a few more times to decide if they’re the right fit for each other.
Most Indian movies have not traditionally shown this particular iteration of the contemporary arranged marriage that some fortunate couples are now enjoying, where women have equal power and influence. In Dum Laga Ke Haisha (2015), Bhumi Pednekar’s wishes are filtered through the family during her first meeting with Ayushman Khurana and his family. When she wants to ask about Khurana’s education, she asks her mother, who then asks Khurana’s mother. No direct talking, only blushing.
In another of Rajkkumar Rao’s films this year, Newton, he visits a prospective bride’s house to see her for the first time. Not only is the girl underage, but she speaks only when spoken to. They don’t even get their other-room conversation.
Let’s not forget Tanu Weds Manu (2011), where the entire family descends on Madhavan when he comes to see Kangana Ranaut for the first time. He goes into the ‘other room’ to meet her. She enters in a pink saree, covered with a ghunghat. Madhavan does most of the talking, mostly, as it turns out comically, because she’s hungover. I sniggered through most of the scene, even if I was uncomfortable with the ghunghat trope the movie stuck to.
Daawat-e-Ishq (2014) turned out to be slightly better, where Parineeti Chopra meets man after man for arranged marriage in her home with all relatives present. With growing dismay, she watches family after family demand dowry, till she finally snaps and gives a piece of her mind to one of the prospective grooms’ family.
Unfortunately, these movies’ experiences remain valid in India today. But then so are some others where women in arranged marriages have a stronger voice nowadays. While the chains of expectations that weigh women down in arranged marriages still clunk heavily, many are discovering a way to throw their weight around anyways.
If there’s something Aarti and Satyendra’s first meeting in Shaadi Mein Zaroor Aana reflects, it’s that some young Indians are finally getting a chance to treat that first meeting as an opportunity to discuss what they want out of marriage – a chance to lay all their cards out on the table.
Having said this, it turns out that Satyendra and Aarti’s modern meeting didn’t matter too much after all – since there were other characters playing their cards close to their chest. What Aarti needed to know about her future was a crucial detail she discovers through back channels – that Satyendra’s mother isn’t going to allow her to work after marriage. Satyendra and Aarti don’t get married the first time. And here, finally, is where Sinha’s movie takes a turn towards our true reality of modern arranged marriage – even more dramatic than the thrills of the coffee-shop meeting. The reality that when women are allowed to choose, they may decide that this card game is too tiresome and they’d rather play something else instead.
Co-published with Firstpost