The Marathi filmmaker on his NETPAC award-winning feature debut, an urgent psychological portrait of trauma that Indian matchmaking inflicts on women and their families

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Jayant Digambar Somalkar’s Sthal (A Match), which had its world premiere at this year’s Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF), opens with an amusing sequence. Women, young and old, crowd in front of a prospective groom in a rural living room. He nervously shifts in his seat as the women size him up, giggling and whispering among themselves. The prospective bride and her friend, seated directly opposite, take the lead in interrogating him. He answers their questions meekly, head firmly bowed down. But when he makes a nervous fumble, the two girls immediately catch it, turning him into a laughing stock for the entire room. It’s a clever and comical scene, one that imagines an arranged marriage setting that reverses the power dynamic.

In fact, the brilliance of the moment comes to full light when Somalkar flips the stakes in the next scene and brings us back to reality. The air is suffused not with good-natured laughter but rather, tension. It’s here that the writer-director sets the tone for the language of intimidation and dehumanization ensconced in patriarchal practices that reduce unmarried young women into commodities. The winner of the NETPAC Award, presented annually by the Network for the Promotion of Asian Cinema to the best film from Asia that premieres at TIFF, Sthal marks Somalkar’s feature debut 15 years after he moved to Mumbai to make films. It was also the only film to premiere at TIFF’s Discovery Section, which spotlights first and second features by emerging filmmakers from around the world.

A story he always wanted to tell

Shot in Dongargaon, Somalkar’s native village in Maharashtra, Sthal is told from the perspective of Savita (Nandini Chikte), a B.A final year student as she sits through a relentless ordeal of interrogation from prospective suitors and their families. Employing narrative and visual repetition that oscillate between tragicomic and horror, the filmmaker crafts an urgent psychological portrait of the trauma that Indian matchmaking inflicts on women and their families, both emotionally and financially.

Somalkar, who had previously helmed a short, Iyatta (2016), and made his streaming debut with Amazon Prime’s Guilty Minds (2022), had written the first draft of Sthal before either of these projects catapulted him into the spotlight. “I got the idea for Sthal around 2014 when I had accompanied my cousin to go meet a prospective bride. It wasn’t the first time I had been part of such an entourage but I remember it was the first time that it hit me that one girl was essentially getting grilled by a roomful of men,” Somalkar tells The Federal over a Zoom call.

“I studied engineering and this whole situation reminded me of how I was ragged in the first year of college. Our seniors would ask us to introduce ourselves in different languages — first in Hindi, then in Marathi. At that moment, I felt like we were ragging this girl.” By his own admission, the writer-director couldn’t stop thinking about what went inside the girl’s head during the ordeal and decided to write a film from that point of view.

‘Sthal’ is told from the perspective of Savita (Nandini Chikte), a B.A final year student as she sits through a relentless ordeal of interrogation from prospective suitors and their families.

Still, Somalkar actually got around to shooting Sthal only in December last year. Logistics and finances came in the way as they usually do with independent features from first-time filmmakers. Then he got busy with Guilty Minds, the accomplished 10-episode legal drama series that he co-wrote and co-directed with Shefali Bhushan, his wife and frequent collaborator. Naturally, the critical acclaim for the show — one of the rare Indian streaming series that does justice to the storytelling demands of the medium — felt like a sign for Somalkar to tell the story he always wanted to.

Shooting in his native village

When things started falling in place for Sthal, Somalkar was certain about two things: he wanted to set the film in his own village and that he wanted to cast the villagers — essentially non-actors — as the protagonists. “When I was writing the script, I was writing keeping in mind the milieu I grew up in. I was setting scenes in the locations around my house, giving a life to characters I had witnessed growing up in my village,” says Somalkar. Casting actors would take away from the film’s realist origins. “I write what I have seen and with Sthal, I felt like it was also my duty to show that.”

Similarly, he wanted to cast people who could speak Varhadi, the dialect of Marathi spoken in the region, tonally different from the Marathi usually spoken in Mumbai. For Somalkar, there was no group of people more suited to that job than the villagers themselves. It also helped that the Marathi film industry isn’t a stardom-driven industry as Bollywood, “I didn’t have the risk of people not being interested in my film if I didn’t cast well-known names.” Sthal features Somalkar’s cousins, distant relatives, and childhood friends in various roles. Even the house that the filmmaker was born in makes an appearance in the film as does a portrait of his late father.

Working with non-actors presented Somalkar with an additional duty of locating a middle ground between the logistical demands of shooting a feature in 22 days and ensuring that his ensemble wasn’t thrown off by the necessary rigour. “They didn’t have any clue about shifts or how time-intensive the filming process usually is. So, my job also became about finding little pockets of time around their work shifts,” reminisces Somalkar. Often, a shot would be ready only for the filmmaker to realize that his actors were missing from the set. Some would head off to work on their farms, others would vanish right after one take, unaware that they would be needed to film coverage shots.

A distinctive voice with stylistic flourishes

In a way, Somalkar anticipated these challenges while he was rehearsing with the film’s primary characters, “When we were rehearsing scenes, I would shoot them with a phone camera just to get them acquainted with the idea of performing in front of the camera. It was going well until we set up the camera on the first day of shooting.” The filmmaker started noticing that when he shot wide angles, it was easier to manage the ensemble but all hell would break loose when the crew went for close-ups.”

As the camera kept coming closer, they would start getting conscious about where to look while performing a scene and forget their lines.” The film, then, not only acted somewhat of an acting school for the villagers but shooting it also tested Somalkar’s directorial prowess in the truest sense of the word, throwing him at the kind of a deep-end where he would find himself simultaneously in control and not in control.

‘Sthal’ is also attuned with the communal mores of its rural setting, adding a richness of texture that allows viewers to contextualize the language of patriarchy enmeshed within the desperation for economic and social mobility

Most debut filmmakers could be rattled by such stakes but Somalkar seemed to have thrived in the organic collaboration that entailed putting the film together. The attention to detail is visible in every frame of Sthal. Not only does the filmmaker elicit a star-making turn from Nandini, the debutante actress who plays the film’s protagonist, Sthal is also attuned with the communal mores of its rural setting, adding a richness of texture that allows viewers to contextualize the language of patriarchy enmeshed within the desperation for economic and social mobility. Even the filmmaking choices, including shooting in natural light, evoking tension with silences, and slow wide pans of the camera, serve the film’s layered commentary on emasculation and emancipation.

Although Sthal loses steam toward the end, getting slightly swayed by the curse of delivering a statement, the film posits Somalkar as a distinctive voice with stylistic flourishes to spare. Especially of note is the filmmaker tracing the shades of oppressors hiding behind the most liberal of men as vividly as he stages Wong Kar-Wai-inspired slow-motion romantic interludes. But beyond everything, attaining the film’s tonal balance as he infused humour with pathos was sacrosanct for Somalkar. “As a writer, I like to write satire and I’m also interested in social subjects. And no matter how dark the subject is, I like to find humour in it,” the filmmaker says, adding. “That’s when it hits the hardest.”

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