We have a special review from this year’s Chicago South Asian Film Festival. Guest Reviewer Beth Watkins gives us her thoughts on Sarovar Banka’s A Decent Arrangement, which stars Shabana Azmi and Adam Laupus.
I really wanted to love this film about a rudderless (or slacker, as the director called him) Indian-American man, Ashok (Adam Laupus), who goes to India for an arranged marriage wrangled by his aunt (Shabana Azmi). A Decent Arrangement is less the culture clash story that that description may suggest and much more Ashok’s coming of age, even though he is putting a first toe in the waters of self-awareness and bravery at a more advanced age than you might suspect. I was frustrated with Ashok throughout most of the film because he refuses to say much about what’s going wrong with his life. My favorite moment is when he explains to another American traveler that he is getting an arranged marriage not out of any sense of Indian cultural identity but because he has seen the contentedness of his married friends and wants a little piece of that for himself, and since his demographic identity enables him to get married quite easily, he’s going to take advantage of it. I say “demographic identity” purposefully because I have more knowledge of and affiliation with Indian culture than Ashok does.
This is the first time I’ve seen a story about a non-white person going to India in search of happiness or to find himself, made all the more interesting when the other American character, Lori, who is white, poo-poos Eat Pray Love-type stories while she acts every bit that indulgent, wandering stereotype. The difference between Ashok and Lori is that he’s in India because he was trying to head towards something, albeit something he seems to understand so little that he can’t participate in it or even identify it, while Lori gives us a line about ivory towers and not knowing if she’s really happy.
The film is set in Chandigarh, which is significant for its contrast of the planned city with floundering Ashok and Lori. I can’t decide if I think the Indian characters are supposed to be significantly more pulled-together and organized than Ashok. Even if they are not exactly happy (at least not in the American “life, liberty, and pursuit of happiness” sort of way), they seem satisfied and calm, perhaps because, as the title suggests, the arrangement of their lives is decent and sufficient, providing opportunities they understand and know how to follow. They know what they’re doing, unlike Ashok, who doesn’t seem to know anything at all until the very end of the film.