‘Sthal’ (A Match) explores the tradition of arranged marriages in Vidarbha region of Maharashtra, where the quest to get a girl married overshadows sustenance

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Writer-director Jayant Digambar Somalkar’s debut Marathi feature film Sthal (A Match) won the Network for the Promotion of Asia Pacific Cinema (NETPAC) award at the 48th Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF), where it had its world premiere, on Sunday (September 17). Sthal won the NETPAC award at TIFF nine years after Shonali Bose’s Margarita with a Straw, starring Kalki Koechlin as an Indian teenager with cerebral palsy who unexpectedly falls in love with a visually-impaired female activist in New York, won the award in 2014.

Sthal explores the tradition of arranged marriages in rural India, where the relentless pursuit of a girl’s marriage overshadows the very sustenance of life. It is narrated from the perspective of a young girl, Savita, and highlights patriarchy, colorism and social evil deeply rooted in society. In their statement, the 2023 NETPAC jury said: “The jury commends the courage of this year’s winner, a first time feature director, for taking a risk and delivering a story that is enlightening and entertaining. The director worked with a cast of non-actors that not only resulted in a stellar performance, but achieved a level of authenticity needed to drive home the social message. It’s an immersive portrayal of life in an Indian village, which highlights its oppressive patriarchal customs.”

Dedicated to women

Somalkar, who wrote and directed an award-winning short Iyatta: Class (2016) and also co-wrote and co-directed the Amazon Prime Original Series Guilty Minds (2022), said, “The official selection of Sthal at the prestigious 48th TIFF was a great honour for us. And now this award is an added feather. I, along with my entire team, am thrilled and honoured to receive the 2023 NETPAC Award for Sthal at TIFF. This is for our love, belief and passion for good cinema! I dedicate this award to all the brave women who challenge their adverse circumstances.” The annual film award, presented by NETPAC, honours the best film from the Asia-Pacific region screened at TIFF.

Narrated from the perspective of a young girl, Savita, ’A Match’ highlights patriarchy, colorism and social evil deeply rooted in society.

The film which was screened to a packed house of audience at TIFF got rave reviews. It was the only Indian film to be selected in the Discovery Programme, which showcases the first and second features of emerging filmmakers from around the world. Shot in Somalkar’s native village, Dongargaon in the Chandrapur district of Maharashtra, it features an ensemble cast of first-time actors from the village, including Nandini Chikte as the protagonist Savita, along with Taranath Khiratkar, Sangita Sonekar, Suyog Dhawas, Sandip Somalkar, Sandip Parkhi, Swati Ulmale, Gauri Badki and Mansi Pawar.

The film is produced by Dhun, a production company co-founded by Karan Grover, Shefali Bhushan, Jayant Digambar Somalkar and Riga Malhotra. Bhushan, who wrote and directed Jugni (2016) and Guilty Minds said, “It reaffirms my belief that all you need to make a good film is vision and hard work. An independent film like Sthal, which is also a debut for the director, Jayant Somalkar, the entire cast and many of the crew too, has been an inspiring journey for all of us.” Grover said, “The belief in the art form comes alive with accolades being showered by the fraternity and viewers. As an independent producer, it’s never easy but the impact of being awarded is far greater a motivation and brings faith to self-belief. Humbled with love people have shown to Sthal.”

Set in a village in the Vidarbha region, the film traces the life of a determined young girl, Savita, who yearns for education and a brighter future. However, as her farmer parents anxiously struggle to find a suitable match for her, societal expectations place immense pressure on her to prioritize marriage over personal aspirations. Being dark-complexioned and short in height, Savita is seen as an added ‘burden’ on her parents and ‘marrying her off’, as difficult as finding fair price for their crop. Facing countless rejections from potential suitors, she must navigate a world where the pursuit of marriage overshadows the very sustenance of life. Born in a village in the Vidarbha region, Somalkar is an engineering graduate, but his creative bent of mind made him veer towards filmmaking. His debut short film, Iyatta (Class), was screened at many film festivals and won many awards.

Director’s statement

Coming from a humble rural background, I have been fascinated by grassroot level stories that are socially relevant and affect the lives of common people. Sthal is one such. Through this film, my goal as a director is to bring out the realities faced by young women like Savita, who are almost sacrificed in the urgency for getting them “married off”. The film delves into themes of patriarchy, colorism, and societal pressures.

Being the youngest of 4 siblings, I saw my sisters going through this as I grew up. The idea for this particular film crystallized when I accompanied my cousin for one such ‘Match’ meeting. To capture the authenticity and rawness, I chose to shoot on real locations with real people from the village as cast, all non-actors. By doing so, I sought to create an immersive experience and allow viewers to connect with the characters at a more emotional level.

I was lucky to fulfil the dream of shooting in my own village, in fact in the very house where I was actually born. I could also include my extended family, some as cast and others in production roles. The pride they felt, seeing one of their own, bring a crew to the village and shoot a film, is for me, indescribable. The visual aesthetic of the film reflects the stark reality of rural India, capturing the beauty of the landscape as also the harshness of everyday life. The use of the traditional folk music makes the viewer connect to the events in a more experiential way while the western, brings the characters’ dreams alive surrealistically. Through this film, I hope to spark conversations around the tradition of arranged marriage, gender inequality, and the pressing need for change.

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