A Match (Sthal) That Makes a Difference

Sthal
Scene from A Match – Picture Courtesy : TIFF

The shock that ended with the movie, A Match (Sthal) eventually brought in the coveted NETPAC award at the 48th Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF) which concluded on Sep 17, 2023. Whether that ending did send shock waves through the guts of the society that invariably goes through the beaten track of shrugging off the serious issues facing them, was the only confusion with the audience. At the same time, the whole theatre floated on accolades signifying the bold portrayal of this Marathi movie directed by Jayant Somalkar, in the festival theatres of Toronto.

Sthal had its world premiere at the TIFF 2023 in the Discovery Programme which is meant for the first or second feature films of emerging filmmakers worldwide. And that was the only Indian movie to be selected in this category, this year.

Dongargaon, in Maharashtra’s Chandrapur District, which incidentally becomes the native village of filmmaker Jayant Somalkar, has the luck to appear in this movie as the backdrop. It belongs to a district ill-famed for the highest number of farmer suicides in India due to agrarian distresses like monsoon irregularity, drought, social insecurity, procural crises and debt burdens.  Actors like Nandini Chikte, Taranath Khiratkar, Sandip Somalkar, Swati Ulnale, Sangita Sonekar, Suyog Dhawas, Mansi Pawar etc., are from the same village and interrelated.

The movie starts with a dream sequence of a potential suitor being interviewed by a group of young women with serious questions and a resultant laughing off with their funny comments, which is the other way around in real life. The film widely pans across the toils of the villagers who do menial jobs like cotton cultivation. Although it’s a hand-to-mouth go-through, the society is widely governed by the old stringent customs woven by the highhandedness of the patriarchs. The parents in the village more often than not follow a beaten track of marrying off girl children at their younger age in order to wash off their responsibilities. 

Savita is an intelligent and ambitious undergrad student who wants to pursue higher education. She gets coerced into getting married and succumbs to the societal pressure of sitting adorned in front of the prospective bridegrooms’ families to answer their questions. She is dark in complexion and short in height and invariably befalls to rejections by the grooms. Each time a groom and his relatives visit her house she has to dress up to impress the visitors and arrange a feast which turns out to be an expensive affair. Even her teacher who stands for women’s rights goes spineless to confront his family’s decision to reject her. The strange village rituals and heart-breaking rejections show the horrifying stature of rural arranged marriages that bring forth not only financial burden but grief and misery. Moreover, this burden falls on the feeble shoulders of the parents. Although the characters look so original like that of a documentary there are trials and tribulations of the rustic villagers who stick to the traditional small-time cultivation, the success of which depends on many factors pulling them back.

The cycle goes on with the same questions asked to the brides by the families of grooms and finally ends up in a slap on the face of a society that has nothing new to claim in their refinements. But there are rays of hope and refinement in small degrees in the young and new generation to claim their rights as well as privacy. But, it’s a  slow process as the society has no qualms in attacking sneakily on the potential kills by capturing them with its powerful tentacles.

The film has managed to evoke awe and laughter through the quirks displayed by certain characters. As a whole, none in this movie looks like actors although everyone faces the camera for the first time. The surprise and excitement of the director Jayant Somalkar came through his words: ”The official selection itself was a great honour for all of us. And, the NETPAC Award added to our excitement! I dedicate this award to all the brave women who challenge their adverse circumstances.” 

An engineer turned filmmaker, Somalkar claims that he still has a lot to tell about the social issues that keep tight grips on the common people. The idea of the movie struck him when he once went with his cousin’s entourage for matchmaking. He was one among them who was supposed to ask questions to the prospective bride. He felt it was a mass ragging of a newbie in a college by quibbling over insignificant details. What latitude does a girl get in making her own choices? What freedom does a woman get in a patriarchal society in expressing her ambitions and desires? Has she been ever given a space to act and decide for herself?  These are the burning questions faced by rural communities in India in the midst of their struggle for existence. The film encompasses multiple social issues that grind the lower crust milieu to a halt besides the dowry system prevailing in India. It reiterates the importance of women getting educated and standing bold enough to safeguard their individual rights.

Suresh Nellikode is a film critic

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