Searching for Wives: A Singaporean photo studio helps Indian migrants find prospective brides back home
Sajeev and Seeja run a photo studio which is covered from roof to floor in pictures of their clients – young children, women and many, many men, posing against elaborately painted backdrops or Photoshop-ed into scenic landscapes. It’s a small but busy studio that would be common, even unworthy of notice, in most metropolises and tier II cities in India in the '90s and 2000s; many still continue to get passport photographs and family portraits made at such studios.
What makes Sajeev and Seeja’s enterprise stand out is its location and clientele: in Singapore’s Little India, the studio draws many migrant men – especially Indians and Bangladeshis – who are looking to get photographs of themselves to send to prospective brides back home. The studio, and one of its clients Patha, is the focus of Bhutanese filmmaker Zuki Juno Tobgye’s documentary Searching for Wives.
I meet Zuki at a small theatre in Thimphu, Bhutan, right after her film was screened to a packed audience, in a session that was part of Mountain Echoes 2019’s itinerary. Slightly nervous but excited nonetheless, Zuki tells me that she made this film, which is now featured in the New York Times op-doc section, at the age of 21 – it was a thesis to be submitted during her last year at film school. “I was going through the newspapers and I found a fluff piece about this studio which caters to migrant workers looking for brides, which caught my interest. I walked down to the studio and was enchanted by it. I don’t think my film has conveyed the charm and quirkiness of the studio – it’s covered with portraits of men from floor to ceiling! There are props like teddy bears and hats,” she recounts.
Zuki developed an equation with the owners when she made a three-minute short film about them and their work. She remembers that they were very tickled by her request to document them. “Remarkably, the studio boasted that it had a 100 percent success rate for helping its clients find brides,” she wrote in a companion piece to the film. She returned when her thesis required her to “capture the life of someone who was different from me, but in a respectful manner that did not Otherise the subject. I thought it would be interesting to document this from the point of view of the men who visited the studio,” she explains.
The face of the documentary is Patha, a lorry driver from South India with an easy smile. He worked in Singapore so he could earn enough to get married and build his own house. He talks about how his family would not approve if he found himself a girlfriend, that he must follow in the tradition of marrying a girl chosen by his parents. Seeja, the co-owner of the studio, says that “love marriages” are uncommon among the Indian migrants.
The main challenge while making Searching for Wives was finding a subject to anchor the story, says Zuki. “I spent weeks outside the studio speaking to men, asking if they’d be willing to be part of the documentary, they all refused. One day I went there to do a vox pop, to ask what kind of wives they were looking for. That was when I met Patha, and his response to the question was, ‘Secret!’” He laughed out loud, his face wearing the kind of naughtiness one only sees in young children who are hiding something. This is when Zuki knew that he was perfect.
The filmmaker describes the phenomenon as “manual Tinder”, and it does feel like a dating app that has been put into a time machine, regulated by more conservative rules and mores. You get a glimpse of the expectations these men have of their future wives – that they should be “empathetic”, “someone who will make sacrifices for the husband and husband’s family in times of adversity”, "well-educated”. Patha goes to the extent of differentiating between a ‘pretty girl’ (a woman who is merely good-looking) and a ‘family girl’ (presumably homely and devoted to her in-laws and husband).
The way the photographs are shot seems very utilitarian: Face forward, standing up, to indicate that the person is able-bodied (this makes one more eligible). But one can tell that a lot is riding on each photograph. In most cases, these pictures are the only form of acquaintance many have with prospective spouses prior to their weddings. Patha also talks about how men have been rejected because of their hairstyles, pimples, and crooked teeth. It is unsurprising then that the men spend ample time grooming themselves. “Will you make me look more handsome than I already am, like the (Tamil) actor Ajith?” Patha cheekily asks the owner Seeja.
Considering the importance of photographs in the building of such matrimonial alliances, one might think that the studio owners consider their work instrumental. But Zuki says they wear the responsibility lightly. “I think it’s very standard for them, they see it as business. They have also had an arranged marriage, so they have a little love story of their own,” she adds.
What adds a layer of complexity to the whole phenomenon is the distance between the men getting their photographs made, and the towns and villages where these photographs are sent, with the hope of finding a match – amplified by international borders. They are not afforded opportunities to meet prospective brides, which only makes them more anxious, especially if there are delays in responses. “Patha was very anxious… He mentioned that there were three girls, but one’s horoscope didn’t match, and another wanted to continue studying.”
Patha’s own situation was made more complex because of a custom that did not allow him to get married when his age was an even number; he would turn 32 a few months after the film was shot, which would mean waiting a whole year before he could dream of getting married again. This only increased his sense of urgency.
At one point, Patha says in jest that women have more choice than men. At another point, his acquaintance suggests that he consider a girl from his village, who would make for a good match because she “has been raised by strict and conservative parents”. But Zuki doesn’t seem to pass judgments about these opinions in the way the film is shot or edited. “During the course of research, and learning about Patha, I wondered who am I to judge what he thinks? This is what actually happened, it’s what the reality is,” she says.
At its heart, Searching for Wives is a story of migrants – people who fade into the backdrop of the city but form the backbone of its workforce. “People don’t give a thought to what these migrants’ lives are like, especially since they work as labourers or truck drivers,” Zuki says. And here lies one of her learnings: that everyone wants companionship and to not feel lonely. “You can still be as hopeful and romantic as Patha, without having any prior experience,” she adds.
Updated Date: Sep 09, 2019 09:46:34 IST