While Fandry upended depictions of the Maharashtrian village as a bucolic oasis and The Great Indian Kitchen exposed the drudgery of housework, Sthal explores the indignity of bride selection in the arranged marriage tradition. In Jayant Digambar Somalkar’s Marathi-language movie, an age-old practice celebrated in mainstream cinema and television commercials is revealed for what it can sometimes be: ritual humiliation for the young woman on display.

Sthal is set in Dongargaon, a small town in Maharashtra’s Vidarbha district. Savita is an intelligent, sensitive and ambitious Bachelor of Arts student from a farming family. She is keen on pursuing higher education, but since she is of marriageable age, her parents begin parading her before a series of prospective grooms.

The match-making unfolds in a mechanical, near-comical fashion. It includes the serving of poha (called the “kanda-poha programme” in the movie) and the same set of questions. But for various reasons, Savita keeps getting rejected.

“I have been seeing this kanda poha programme since my childhood,” Somalkar told Scroll. He had two sisters, and he was like a young boy in Sthal, who runs around serving water to the guests.

Somalkar thought nothing of the arranged match-making until much later. “I had accompanied my cousin, and there was a woman there being asked questions,” he recalled. “What must she have been going through? This patriarchy in society, where you look at women as a commodity to be purchased, where she is rejected because of this or that aspect – I realised this only as an adult.”

Sthal (2023). Courtesy Dhun Productions.

Sthal will be premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival (September 8-17). There are other autobiographical strains in Somalkar’s directorial debut. He was not only born in Dongargaon, where the film is set, but in the same house that serves as Savita’s abode. Like Savita’s family, Somalkar too hails from a Kunbi farming clan.

“Although the film is shot in my own village, I wasn’t interested in glorifying that world,” Somalkar said. “Nobody is perfect. Although I don’t know whether I will get bouquets or brickbats, if there is even 10 per cent change after this film, I will be happy.”

Apart from Savita’s dreams, the film explores the distress faced by cotton farmers in the region. Savita’s father is especially in a hurry to get her married because he is unsure if he can afford it later. Meanwhile, Savita’s brother Mangya is unemployed.

Savita isn’t alone in facing obstacles. Sthal acknowledges the constraints placed on Dongargaon’s youth. A cheerful “I Love Dongargaon” sign is a spot where lovers clandestinely meet, but choosing your own partner is violently opposed.

The sign was the one element that the filmmakers added to the location. After the shoot was completed, Somalkar donated the sign to Dongargaon.

Sthal (2023). Courtesy Dhun Productions.

The overall emphasis was on documentary-style realism, with every effort made to reflect the local milieu as closely as possible. The cast comprises non-professionals. Only Suyog Dhawas, who plays Savita’s brother, has had some experience facing the camera in the form of YouTube videos.

“I wanted to replicate my house, the people, the local culture,” Somalkar said. “We cast locals since it was necessary to get the Vidarbha accent right.”

At least two cousins played the key roles of Savita’s mother and a marriage broker. Nandini Chikte turned out such a remarkable performance as Savita that the crew had a hard time believing that she was a first-time actor.

“She was very receptive to instructions, obedient and hard-working,” Somalkar said about Chikte. “I didn’t have to make much effort directing her. She is so talented that she would stay in character throughout.”

Chikte’s feat is especially commendable given the film’s shooting style. Somalkar and cinematographer Manoj Karmakar rely a great deal on frontal framing, especially in the scenes in which Savita is lined up before the families coming to meet her. Seated on a chair all by herself, her eyes fixed to the floor and a big bale of cotton behind her, Savita must be the epitome of meekness if she is to be selected.

Jayant Digambar Somalkar.

The movie is clear-sighted about Savita’s attempts at rebellion. Rather than rushing us through Savita’s plight, Somalkar and editor Abhijit Deshpande use slow pacing and silences to express her inner state.

The 40-year-old filmmaker has worked in the television series Comedy Circus, apart from co-writing and co-directing the web series Guilty Minds. For his first feature, he wanted to veer away from an exposition-laden, fast-paced narrative style.

“I feel that we have forgotten what cinema is about,” Somalkar observed. “We feel that people don’t have the time for this kind of cinema. We underestimate audiences and needlessly speed up films. If your content is good, if you are saying something from the heart, people will watch it.”

He pointed to the first “kanda-poha programme” sequence, which shows to exacting detail every action involved in Savita’s selection. “I wanted to show all the nuances, the entire process, since we were going deep into Savita’s life,” Somalkar said. “Cinema is life, after all.”

Sthal is the second feature bankrolled by Dhun Productions after Shefali Bhushan’s Jugni (2016). Somalkar hopes to be able to release the movie in theatres after its premiere in Toronto. “Since this was an independent film, made with me and my partners with our own resources, we had no pressure and could make what we wanted to make,” he said.

Sthal (2023).