It’s a story oft-told but which carefully circumvents clichés to make a short, sweet film. Thirty-year-old Hari is a gregarious taxi-driver in Dharamshala who is engaged to a girl he’s never met. Six months before his wedding, he manages to obtain her mobile number and the two have covert conversations (“Hello…Namaste…Good morning…I love you…Same to you!”) while Hari’s family scrapes together resources to conduct his wedding. Told in a documentary format, When Hari Got Married follows Hari and his family from a few months before the wedding to just after.

The project of husband-and-wife director duo Ritu Sarin and Tenzing Sonam, When Hari Got Married had a limited release in India at the end of August after dutifully doing the rounds at a number of international film and documentary festivals. Ritu Sarin talks about the experience of shooting at close quarters and the struggle to survive as an independent filmmaker in India.

Tell me a little about how you and Tenzing got the idea for When Hari Got Married.
We live in a house in Dharamshala near the village where Hari is from. Less than half a kilometre from our house is where Hari and his family live. We moved here about 18 years ago. At that time Hari and his brothers—Hari was about 16 years old—needed some extra money when we were building the house, so they used to bring the stones for the house. Since then, I’ve known him and his family.

After Hari became a taxi driver, we’ve been using him regularly. He is a very, very frank person who is open, interested in the world, and because of his job and his interests, he meets a lot of people from all over the world. Because of the kind of person he was, his kind of openness, Hari had the potential to make a really good character that people could relate to.

When he told us about his wedding which was two years before he actually got married, he said you must be there for the wedding. We’d kind of put the date down and we were planning to be there. Then a few months before—about 6 months before—he got her telephone number, Suman’s (his wife’s), and every time he talked to her, he would get more and more excited, you know, about talking to her and telling her I love her.

Yes, that entire thing was so sweet and so genuine, and also quite unexpected. 
Yeah, and he started telling us all this and we thought, we should be filming this! It has the potential for a good film. when we go to his village to visit, it’s very traditional. It seemed like an interesting subject, seen very often in India today: the concept of a very traditional sort of village life. And then you had Hari.

That sounds like a very organic beginning. Did you have any plans prior to this on making a documentary on the subject?
No, no, it just happened to us. We had just finished working on a very serious documentary called The Sun Behind The Clouds, about Tibet’s struggle for freedom, and it had taken us about three years to make. So actually we liked the idea of making something that was very positive, a kind of pleasurable and stress-free project. It was very, very appealing to us. I mean, we hadn’t talked to any distributors or television any financers or anything; we just started filming it on a kind of gut feeling that it could be good.

We had just finished working on a very serious documentary called ‘The Sun Behind The Clouds’, about Tibet’s freedom struggle, and it had taken us about three years to make. So we actually liked the idea of making something that was positive, a kind of pleasurable and stress-free project

So once you finished filming, how did you move forward? Considering you got into it in a very random sort of way.
We filmed for a while before Hari’s wedding and then during the wedding: about 50 hours of footage in total. Then we sort of put some excerpts together and starting writing for grants. We applied for a lot of international grants. One was ITDS, which was the grant we got; filmmakers from all over the world apply for it so we were very lucky that we got it. Then we started editing the film.

Normally we work with a crew and with an editor but this time we thought it would be very nice for us to just do it mostly ourselves. We had the technology for it at home anyway, so that’s what we did.

Was there no other crew involved? There were all the shots taken from within the house and so on, and I was wondering how many of you were present.
It was just the two of us. We tried to keep it intimate. That was very important because once you move in two or three other people, surely it would have affected the dynamic. And because Hari and his family knew us, they were very comfortable with us, so we made that decision when we started filming.

While you were filming, was there any point when you were asked to turn off the cameras, or just step out for a second? Weddings can be very stressful occasions.
No, not at all. In fact, there is this scene where we go to Suman’s home just after the wedding, and she was crying a lot (since she was leaving home). We weren’t going to film that. We had made a conscious decision to make the film from Hari’s perspective, and we had not really met Suman before. We were not comfortable with going in and filming her when she was weeping, and there was a family ritual going on. But in fact, Suman’s family asked us to come in; they wanted us to film everything.

Since you mentioned that scene, that was one of the most moving parts of the entire documentary since it’s all filmed just with the background sound of her crying. That must have been difficult to shoot.
Actually, that kind of weeping ritual is something I am quite used to. Of course, Hari already talked about it earlier, so we could also understand, how it is so difficult for the girl to leave her home. We kind of prepped for it. But even then, it was very disturbing.

I liked that you left it to the characters to tell their own story, without introducing a voiceover narration or a third party trying to control or explain any of the scenes. It was just the family and Hari interacting.

We like to do that: make films where we leave it to the audience to decide what to feel. I don’t want to tell them what to think. You should have respect for the audience and not wonder about whether you should tell them what to think. Instead just hope that the audience can, you know, connect with it.

There’s a scene where they’re going up to the temple, after the wedding, and the grandmother or one of the aunts says that the goddess has entered her, and she goes into a bit of a religious frenzy. Was that something you were expecting at all?
(laughs) No, not at all! We were surprised! We had no expectations; in fact if you notice, not only were we surprised but there’s a little girl sitting next to her and she looked shocked too.

Even Suman peeped out from under her veil and looked quite taken aback.
Oh yes. But of course, it’s a local tradition that the goddess does possess people so yes, we just filmed it. In a sense what we found is that religion and spirituality are very important in their lives, and we wanted to convey that.

The documentary essentially focuses on how—as is the case in many parts of India—a marriage is tied to a father’s duty to conduct a wedding, how children recognise what their parents have “sacrificed” and they follow through accordingly. It was accepted that the father would run into debt and so on simply to host the wedding. In some ways you also feel that these are traditions that need to die out, that they’re wrong.
As filmmakers, of course, we are not being judgmental. But if you personally ask me, then that’s a different question. We’re modern people who have had a cross-cultural marriage ourselves 30 years ago. We believe in the freedom for people to choose their own spouses. So yes, sometimes seeing these traditions, it’s a bit disturbing. I’ve had discussions with them about this before, on a personal level.

But I think what we’re trying to do as filmmakers here is this: Normally when people talk about arranged marriages—and this is especially true in the West—people tend to mostly focus on arranged marriage from the girl’s perspective: she’s being snatched away from her home, and so on. Therefore it’s made out to be some sort of evil process. Living here, next to a village where this is the norm, we’re trying to explain it better, and show it within this framework that exists in village life in India. This was our attempt, to put it within that context.

It’s true, though, that arranged marriage is usually discussed from the point of view of the woman, since she’s the one who usually uproots herself and has to go through the most change. It was interesting to see it solely through Hari’s lens. 

Yes, because we knew him and he was our access point, so we decided that we would only see her as he saw her: only on the wedding day! And so there was also a lot of suspense from our position, and therefore for the audience too.

We’re competing with big Bollywood films with big stars, or films with huge PR budgets. They would spend crores on PR and we don’t have a budget like that. We operated mostly through word-of-mouth and we put out a few posters. That’s why we were struggling.

One of the characters mentioned how our views on caste and politics are shaped by family approval; you don’t come out with what you truly believe unless your family approves of it. That seems to be especially true in more traditional set-ups. 
It’s true. But it’s changing, especially with the economic situation: as soon as people from so-called lower classes have economic might, as people from higher classes lose their jobs, and there’s a gradual redistribution of money. It’s a good change.

How did you come into contact with PVR for the distribution of the film? 
We were introduced through someone who is aware of PVR’s Director’s Rare programme. Someone came to view the film; they liked it and thought it would work for a larger audience. So we thought we’d try and see if we could reach out.

PVR has a reputation when it comes to smaller films like these, though: the film won’t run for as long as hoped, it won’t run in certain screens, and so on.
I think it’s a very good idea but implementing it has problems. We had the same problems. For example, we didn’t get a Delhi venue. For us, Delhi is the place where the film might reach the most people, and people might pay for a film like this. But we didn’t get a venue, so that was really devastating for us. Then we got other slots that were not in the ideal theatre or at the places we were promised. The show times were also terrible, like 11.30 in the morning. It was very frustrating.

Also, we’re competing with big Bollywood films with big stars, or films with huge PR budgets. They would spend crores on PR and we don’t have a budget like that. We operated mostly through word-of-mouth and we put out a few posters. So that was difficult, that we couldn’t get the attention. That’s why we were struggling.

There also seems to be a sort of assumption that documentaries lack entertainment value as opposed to other films. So a lot of distributors might not want to take what they perceive to be a risk by screening documentaries.
That’s true. But I’d also like to think that the audience for it is there, and it does exist. The people who did go and see it liked it, because we got very good reviews. I would hear through a friend, or a friend’s friend. If only more people could have watched When Hari Got Married, then it could have worked. Sadly for that, you need the package of the right timings, the right theatres, and we don’t have it.

I don’t think this is a problem just in India; though it’s all over the world. It’s difficult for independent movies and documentaries to find a larger audience.

When Hari Got Married did the film festivals round, and the awards rounds as well, didn’t it?

Oh yes, it opened in Oslo at the Films From The South international festival, and then went to DOK Leipzig, a documentary film festival in Germany. We went to quite a few places after that, including New York’s Indian film festival and Korea.

One thing that was heartening was that, because there’s a lot of humour in the film and humour can be very hard to translate, we were not sure how it would go down with that kind of audience. But in Norway, Holland and Korea, people really laughed and got into the characters. It was nice to see that.

It helped that the subtitling was good.
That was all Tenzing. Tenzing is obsessed with subtitles. He’s like a subtitles master.

Have Hari and his family watched the documentary yet?
Oh yes, we had a rough cut and a final cut, and he watched it. And he was like oh my god, this is really good. I was with him in the taxi the other day and he said this is not only a good film, this is a true film! Yeh sachai ki film!

He pretty much carried the whole documentary through anyway, since he seems to be a great storyteller and narrator onscreen.
And he’s like that in real life too.

What are your future projects like?
Well, Tenzing and I founded the Dharamshala International Film Festival last year, so right now we’re very busy with that since it’s from October 24 to 27 this year. We’ve also started a trust—the White Crane Arts & Media Trust—because we think it’s important to promote cinema and art in different places in India, not just in the metros. More people should be able to see good movies.