June 16, 2016 at 1:01 am

Five Ingredient Fix:  A no-fail recipe for making documentaries about India

Five Ingredient Fix:  A no-fail recipe for making documentaries about India

By Nisha Thapliyal


How many different ways are there to tell the story of Indian arranged marriages to an Australian audience? The answer depends on whether you plan to entertain or inform.



While it is always safe for the documentary filmmaker to claim both objectives, it is safer still to deliver a product that errs on the side of entertainment – gratuitous or otherwise.   After all, if your film actually sought to inform a Western audience about the banalities of the Indian arranged marriage, then you would destroy an entire and fairly remunerative sub-genre of documentary filmmaking which thrives on inexplicably exotic India.    And perhaps more unforgivably, you would deprive the Western world of one of its favourite tropes through which to engage the ‘Orient’ or the diverse swathe of cultures that find themselves located between Rabat and Seoul.


The arranged marriage trope remains a prominent fixture in Western encounters with India.  It conveniently maintains the colonial binaries of modern and traditional, free will and compulsion, progress and regress,  superiority and inferiority and so forth.  However unlike other colonial tropes,   the topic of Indian arranged marriage allows these stereotypes and essentialisms to be reaffirmed with much colour, fun and laughter.


So what are the 5 ingredients that are guaranteed to make an entertaining documentary about the quaint practice of arranged marriages in India ?Well,


1. Colour,

2. More Colour,

3. Chaos,

4. Culture (in the singular), and a carefully maintained sense of unresolvable

5. Confusion


The Indian Wedding Race  (IWR) –  aired on SBS in April 2016 after several weeks of promotion. The SBS site carries interviews with the filmmaker Sean Cousins and the two protagonists Dalwinder (female) and Tarun (male). It also carries an article titled “12 Burning Questions we have about Arranged Marriage: and now they are all answered” by author Shami Subramaniam who most earnestly attempts to answer some of the most ignorant/ethnocentric questions posed in relation to this subject.  Not surprisingly, a lot of the answers to these questions-that-will-always remain-questions starts with — “It depends”.  Now to the ‘Untold Story’ itself …


Dalwinder and Tarun are desperate to marry before they turn the dreaded age of 30.   After following their lives for a year, Cousins presents us with sixty odd minutes of insights into what he considers the quaint and inexplicably enduring practice of arranged marriage.  Cousins sets out presumably to tell a story that has never been told before about an Australian subculture that is as ubiquitous as Chicken Butter Masala.   Who does he select to tell his story? How representative are Dalwinder and Tarun of the approximately 100,000 Australians of Indian origin (statistic cited by the docco-maker)?


Well, Dalwinder grew up in Melbourne while Tarun is a recent migrant to Australia.  Both appear to enjoy comfortably middle-class lives.  Dalwinder is clearly identified as a member of the Sikh religion – a community which director Cousins admits to knowing little about prior to filming but now appears to holds in some admiration, Tarun is somewhat ambiguously classified as ‘Hindu’.   Cousins does not dare to venture any further into the diversities of caste, regional language, and religion which along with class and gender are integral to understanding the mechanics of arranged marriage and the social functions it serves.


Instead, the camera penetrates deeply into Dalwinder’s family life,   Tarun, despite being a successful professional, is presented as a solitary, and sad character – even when at home in India with his family.   What are we to make of this juxtaposition of the happily assimilated child of immigrants and the lost immigrant who is alienated even from himself?


What the two characters appear to have in common are their fathers. Both men are central to the telling of this tale with only passing glimpses of the other parent. The director clearly approves of Dalwinder’s father who is just the right mix of modern and traditional that presumably the average Aussie viewer could identify with.  In contrast, Tarun’s father is presented as a wealthy businessman constantly engaged in negotiations – except with the camera.


To the conscientious viewer,  it should be apparent that both men want their children to be happy. Like most parents they believe that their child is likely to be happiest with a partner who shares life experiences, worldviews, values i.e. culture.  However, the film is edited in such a way that Dalwinder’s father appears to be obsessed with beards and turbans (for his future son-in-law) and Tarun’s father with education and housekeeping skills (for his future daughter-in-law).


What Dalwinder and Tarun also have in common are their roots in Indian cities other than the Big Four (Mumbai, Delhi, Kolkata and depending on your geopolitics Bangalore or  Hyderabad or Chennai ☺).   These smaller Indian cities  deliver visuals of “chaos” in bucketloads – the mainstay of Western filmmakers in their first, and in some unfortunate cases, all their encounters with India.


Dalwinder returns home to shop for her $50,000 plus wedding where she is reminded that if she is not Australian enough, nor is she Indian enough. Rather than explore these identity and cultural politics, the director skips ahead to end the Race with one big, fat, Indian wedding – a phenomenon that fascinates and entertains Westerners – so much so that some tourists now pay to attend the weddings of complete strangers in India.  Just before the credits begin to roll, we learn that Tarun’s father has also found himself a life partner in India.


Indian Wedding Race is not so much an untold story as it is a much retold story.  It is simply another unimaginative and uninformed (by the director’s own admission) reproduction of an oft-told tale that does not improve with its retelling.   Indeed it tells us more about how little the director knows and how little he presumes his audience knows, than it does of the culture itself.  Cousins sums up the goal of his film as to provide a “wild ride through Sikh gurdwaras, family homes, chaotic Indian cities and the multicultural streets of Melbourne”  (SBS, March 16, 2016).  He unfortunately delivers.


Nisha Thapliyal is a lecturer in the School of Education at the University of Newcastle.   As a member of multiple diasporas, she is fascinated by the place of Curry, Buddha statues, and Bhangra pop in Australian and South Asian diaspora identities, cultures and imaginations.  Her research and teaching interests include critical media literacy,  feminist and anti-racist pedagogies, and social movements for public education.


Image sources: SBS

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