Jayant Digambar Somalkar’s debut feature film, A Match (Sthal), is set in the Vidarbha region of India. A determined young girl, Savita, 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 the girl 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” is as difficult as finding fair price for their crop. Facing countless rejections from potential suitors, the protagonist must navigate a world where the pursuit of marriage overshadows the very sustenance of life. Shot on real locations with real people from the village, all non-actors, A Match critiques the tradition of arranged marriages in rural India while highlighting the patriarchy, colorism and social evils that are deeply rooted in Indian society.
A Match premiered at the 2023 Toronto International Film Festival, where it was the only Indian film in the Discovery section. In this interview, Somalkar and I discuss his creative approach.
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Dipankar Sarkar: How did you come across the story of A Match?
Jayant Digambar Somalkar: I belong to the Vidarbha region of Maharashtra, and since my childhood, I have been closely observing the matchmaking process held in our village. I am the youngest child in my family, and two of my eldest sisters have been part of arranged marriages. So, I have first-hand experience with this procedure. But I got the idea for this film in 2016, when I went with my cousin to a formal meeting with a girl for marriage prospects. It was the first time that I saw a girl surrounded by a group of men who were probing her with questions. It occurred to me what was going on in the girl’s mind. Was she afraid? Did she like this entire course of action? I thought this was something on which we should have a discussion, and I immediately wrote a story. It took a long stretch of time to make the film because I got busy with another project. Through this film, I tried to portray the reality of our society, which I have been paying attention to for a very long time.
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DS: Why did you choose such a hard-hitting subject as prejudices in an arranged marriage in rural Maharashtra for your debut?
JDS: It was not a very conscious decision. I had other scripts that I was considering as well. I wanted to make a film based on a sociopolitical issue that I had begun but could not complete. A Match was my second script, so it was sheer destiny that this script got made into my film first.
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DS: Every time there is a match-making session in A Match, the protagonist has to repeat herself. Why is it so?
JDS: That is the reality of the situation. Every time, similar questions are posed to a girl. What is her name? What is her date of birth? What is her height, etc? It becomes a monotonous process after some time and this is how the cycle of life continues. According to the rules of screenwriting, such repetitions should be avoided. But to bring authenticity to the protagonist’s journey through the process of matchmaking, I had to defy such restrictions.
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DS: Why did you use slow motion to show the tender moments of attraction between Savita and her teacher?
JDS: I intended to give a stylistic approach to those scenes. Throughout the film, the treatment of scenes is given a realistic approach. But the scenes that Savita shares with her teacher in college are aspirational and larger than life. So, I thought of capturing them in slow motion. I also used music in these scenes to enhance the emotional impact and create a dream-like atmosphere.
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DS: The male characters in A Match are either filled with biased thinking or helplessly put into difficult situations. There are no heroic qualities.
JDS: As I wanted to portray all the characters in the film with a realistic approach, I did not want them to be exaggerated in any way. These are the characters we find in our everyday lives. [For] ages, we have been fed stories where the protagonist overcomes one obstacle after another to achieve their goals. But in this film, I wanted to portray the struggles and triumphs of everyday people. There are no heroes or villains in the film. Each and every character in the film, male and female, is neither black nor white. All of them have shades of gray, just like a slice-of-life kind of tale. They are complex and flawed, reflecting the challenges of real life.
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DS: You kept the visual design of A Match subtly structured without any grand imagery or postcard shots.
JDS: My cinematographer, Manoj Karmakar, and I did not try to dramatize the film. The shot design of the film was focused on capturing the raw emotions of the characters from the writing stage itself. The practicality of village life captured in the film is both harsh and beautiful. I did not want to add glossiness or beautify the location, which was unnecessary. I want the audience to connect to the rawness and authenticity of the characters’ experiences. However, at the beginning of the film, aerial shots [were] used to establish the location of the village as well as to emphasize the people who are visiting the village for the first time, as it plays an important role in the film.
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DS: How long did it take to edit A Match? Did the film evolve during the process?
JDS: Whatever scenes we shot during the shooting phase of the film are in the final version. It would give immense pleasure to a filmmaker if every scene in the edit seemed to bring coherence to the narrative. All the scenes on the edit timeline gave a sense of the overall story of the film. From the point of view of production and budgeting, I [did not shoot] any extra scenes. One issue that I faced during the edit was creating a pace in the story that replicated the quotidian lives of the people of the village. In OTT, the attention span of viewers has become shorter, making it important to maintain a captivating and fast pace throughout the content. But I was not under such pressure. So, the editing of the film by Abhijit Deshpande did not take a longer time, as I did not have to shuffle the scenes to maintain the flow of the story.
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DS: A Match’s sound design is filled with nuanced moments as well as a background score.
JDS: As there is a rawness and realism in the visual design of the film, me and my sound designer, Sanjay Chaturvedi, worked to create an immersive auditory experience that complemented the visuals perfectly. It is a sync-sound film and whatever external sound you hear in the film is captured in real-time during the filming process. During the matchmaking scenes, I maintained silence because, before initiating a conversation, the men get busy eating snacks and sipping tea. So, you will hear the sound of a ticking clock, the buzzing of a housefly, or the passing of a vehicle. The purpose of the sound design was to create an atmosphere of authenticity and transport the viewers to the village. I used background scores in scenes where I wanted to heighten the emotional impact.
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DS: The production design of A Match is visually real and brings the story to life. It does not feel overly exaggerated or artificial.
JDS: Since we shot on real locations, we did not opt to use lots of design elements in the film. The house where we shot the film was where I was born. It’s old and empty. I briefed my production designer, Vikram Singh, not to hire props. From sofas to almirahs to television sets, items from nearby homes were used. I made this decision so that I could bring a sense of lived experience to these elements. Even the college where we shot is real, including the characters. No external elements were used. The real people and real locations supported each other to provide the desired look for the film.
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DS: How did you go about casting for A Match?
JDS: The casting of the film is interesting because all the characters are non-actors. There is hardly anyone from the primary and secondary cast who has ever faced the camera. I [made] this decision because I believed that non-actors [would] bring a sense of sincerity and raw emotion to the film. I was also hell-bent on casting the actors from the region due to the Vadari accent, which is different from the Marathi spoken in other parts of the state. Moreover, if the personalities of the actors match the characters that I have written, I won’t hesitate to cast them. I also had an audition at the college where the film was shot, and that is how I got the protagonist of the film, Savita, played by Nandini Chikte. Taranath Khiratkar, who had played the role of Savita’s father, Daulatrao, was finalized through an audition video captured on a phone 10 days prior to the shoot. Each and every member of Savita’s family is an habitant of the village where the film was shot. It was a long and challenging process but nonetheless satisfying. Each of these non-professionals lived up to my expectations. Now, I firmly believe that there is great potential in amateur actors across our country, and one just needs to look out for them. I am happy that through this film they got a platform to showcase their talent, and I hope more opportunities like this will continue to arise in the future for rural India.
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DS: A Match was made by your company, Dhun, and filmmaker Shefali Bhushan is one of the producers. How did her presence help you during the film’s production?
JDS: It was extremely beneficial because our points of view are so similar. Since we [had] previously worked together on the web series Guilty Minds (2022), we are familiar with each other’s thought processes, though our working styles differ. As a co-producer, she did not interfere with any of my creative decisions and respected my vision for the film. She came with some suggestions on the script and during the edit, which were very helpful. She was a true collaborator who understood the importance of teamwork, and her contributions were invaluable to the success of the project.
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DS: This year, Indian films have been screened in some of the major international film festivals around the world. How important are these recognitions?
JDS: Recognition at such festivals is very important for independent cinemas in India. A filmmaker does not make a film expecting it to win awards or get selected at film festivals. They make films to tell their rooted stories and connect with audiences. Frankly, I never expected my film to be selected for the Toronto International Film Festival. After the film was complete, we liked it and found the confidence to apply for the festival. Since the film has been selected, we are having this conversation about it. So, it has opened the door for the film to reach a wider audience and create a buzz amongst the people. Moreover, an independent film like ours is not backed up by studios, so a film festival becomes a crucial platform for exposure and recognition. Therefore, it’s an exciting opportunity for us to showcase our talent and share our story with the world.
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DS: How was A Match received at the 48th Toronto International Film Festival?
JDS: The official selection of the film at the prestigious 48th Toronto International Film Festival was a great honor for us! And now this award is an added feather. I, along with my entire team, am thrilled and honored to receive the NETPAC Award. 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
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DS: Lastly, how do you expect the audience to react to A Match?
JDS: After watching this film, I would like the viewers to look around the society they inhabit and question the patriarchy in their workplace as well as other social surroundings. I hope the audience will be inspired to take action and strive for gender equality. I would like people to have a change of mindset regarding gender biases. It is going to be a long process, but it is important to start the conversation at some point and create awareness. But above all, I want more and more people to come to the theatre, watch this film and be inspired to challenge their own beliefs and prejudices in order to foster empathy.
Dipankar Sarkar (@Dipankar_Tezpur) is a graduate in film editing from the Film and Television Institute of India and currently based in Mumbai. As a freelancer, he frequently contributes to various Indian publications on cinema-related topics.
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