Sunday, July 10, 2011

Bollywood Rewatch 2: Vivah and India's missing daughters

We've been revisiting a few of the Bollywood movies we encountered relatively early in our Bollywood viewing to see if we still like them as well as we did the first time; for details, see my first Bollywood Rewatch post on Hum Dil De Chuke Sanam. This time, it's the turn of Sooraj Barjatya's Vivah.

Vivah (Marriage, 2006)
Original rating: ★★ (recommended with reservations)
Rewatch rating: ★★★ (strongly recommended)

On my first viewing of Vivah I called it "porn for parents." I wrote,
"Almost every character is unrelentingly good, and except for the last few minutes the story is almost entirely lacking in drama. Instead, we're treated to the beautifully photographed three-hour long spectacle of the 'journey from engagement to marriage' of two really nice young people from really nice families.

I loved it."
As a film I found Vivah to be even more powerfully affecting the second time around (thus the extra star). But I've also become more aware of a real-world issue that Vivah addresses, obliquely but almost certainly intentionally: India's missing daughters.

100 Million Missing Women
"To have a daughter is socially and emotionally accepted if there is a son, but a daughter's arrival is often unwelcome if the couple already have a daughter. Daughters are regarded as a liability."
—Shirish S. Seth [1]
In 1990 the Indian economist Amartya Sen (later to win the Nobel Prize) wrote a now-famous article for the New York Review of Books entitled "More Than 100 Million Women Are Missing." He found, after studying demographic statistics for South Asia, China, Africa, and other areas, that there were more than 100 million fewer women than would be expected. While in North America, Europe and Japan there are substantially more women than men (about 1050 women for every 1000 men), in countries such as Pakistan, India and China the situation is starkly reversed. In Pakistan, for example, there are only 900 women for every 1000 men, while in the Indian state of Punjab there are only 860 women for every 1000 men.

What accounts for the missing women? Sen concluded that an interplay among a variety of social, cultural, environmental, and economic factors was likely to be involved. But fundamentally, women "suffer disadvantages in obtaining the means for survival...The numbers of 'missing women' in relation to the numbers that could be expected if men and women received similar care in health, medicine, and nutrition, are remarkably large. A great many more than a hundred million women are simply not there because women are neglected compared with men." [2]

It turned out that not only are women neglected once they are born; they are missing at birth. While slightly fewer girls are born than boys all over the world, in certain countries there are drastically fewer births of second or third daughters than would be expected. In North America, Europe and Japan there are between 950 and 975 girls born for every 1000 boys, and that ratio remains relatively constant for second or third children no matter what the sex of previous children. But in 2005 in India, one study found that for couples having a second child when the first child was a girl there were only 836 girls born for every 1000 boys. In an earlier study the same team of researchers led by Prabhat Jha found that for couples having a third child when the first two were girls, there were only 719 girls born for every 1000 boys. The birth ratios were even more skewed in favor of boys for mothers who were more urban, wealthier, and more highly educated. And the deficit in the births of girls had increased significantly over time. [3, 4]

After looking at a number of possible causes, the researchers concluded, "Selective abortion of girls, especially for pregnancies after a firstborn girl, has increased substantially in India. Most of India's population now live in states where selective abortion of girls is common." As technologies for determining an unborn child's sex (such as amniocentesis and ultrasound) have spread, 4 to 12 million selective abortions of girls are estimated to have occurred since 1990. Selective abortion is more common among more urban, wealthier and more educated couples because they are more aware of sex-screening technologies and abortion services, and are better able to afford them. [5]

Why is it that in India and elsewhere girls are selectively aborted (especially after one or two other daughters have been born)? In her book Unnatural Selection: Choosing Boys over Girls, and the Consequences of a World Full of Men (PublicAffairs, 2011), journalist Mara Hvistendahl points to the combination of decreasing family size (due to economic development and population control measures pushed by Western institutions such as the World Bank), the widespread availability of technologies that can be used for fetal sex determination, and a pervasive preference for boys. If families are limiting themselves to fewer children, they want to be sure that at least one of them will be a boy.

Boys are preferred in many societies, including our own.* But they are especially valued in societies where women's education, income and ability to own property are limited, and where the tradition of bridal dowry exists. A son can inherit a father's property, bring income to the family (including, if he marries, a dowry from his bride's family), and carry on the family name. A daughter often is not allowed to inherit property (which goes to male relatives)* or earn outside income for the family, and if she marries, her bridal dowry can be ruinously expensive. If this sounds to you like a description of Victorian England, you're absolutely right. The only difference is that the Victorians didn't have ultrasound.

As Raj Bhopal has written in a letter to The Lancet,
"As an Indian-born person raised in a traditional Punjabi family in Scotland I have been immersed in institutionalised sex bias. In a multiplicity of minor ways, I, along with other Indian men, have benefited at the expense of women—eg, by being fed first, by being served by my mother and female relatives (including sisters), by being sheltered from housework, and most importantly of all, being celebrated more from birth—just for being male....Indians worldwide need to unite, not only in condemning discrimination against the female sex, but in dismantling the structures that keep it in place. Every Indian can help by taking basic but important simple actions—eg, handing out sweets at the birth of a girl as you do with a son, and requesting them from your friends and family; raising girls and boys with equal care, resources, and respect; and refusing to give or accept dowries as a matter of principle..." [6]

Which brings us back to Vivah, which is all about celebrating and honoring daughters. Kind-hearted Krishnakant (quintessential Good Dad Alok Nath) and his wife Rama (Seema Biswas) have raised their orphaned niece Poonam (Amrita Rao) as their own daughter.

How dismal are the thoughts of men who think daughters are burdensome

The wealthy industrialist Harishchandra (who else but Anupam Kher, another classic Bollywood Dad) hears of Poonam through a mutual acquaintance and sets up a meeting between the families with an eye towards finding a wife for his second son Prem (Shahid Kapoor). Poonam and Prem slowly get to know one another, fall in love, and a date for their wedding is set.

And that's pretty much the movie. There is a subplot about Rama, who has never fully accepted Poonam as her own daughter, and who resents the attention and money that's being lavished on Poonam. The younger daughter of Krishnakant and Rama, Chhoti, is tomboyish and slightly darker-skinned than Poonam, and Rama is jealous of Poonam's beauty. The rejecting stepmother stereotype gets a bit tiresome, but it also becomes clear that Rama is worried about Chhoti's marriage prospects.

I can find no suitors for her because she is dark

But lest you think that Vivah is endorsing standards of beauty that favor lighter skin, consider the possibility that it is really subverting them. It's true that most of the well-to-do, attractive people that we're supposed to sympathize and identify with in Vivah (and in virtually every other Bollywood film) have light skin. And the actress playing the supposedly plain Chhoti, Amrita Prakash, in some scenes seems to have been given darkening makeup. But while her mother obsesses over Chhoti's looks—we see Rama applying powders, creams, and other treatments in a vain effort to make Chhoti's skin lighter—

Seema powders Chhoti

Chhoti wearing a facepack

—Chhoti herself isn't bothered in the least by her looks, or lack of traditional femininity. She is smart and funny—when sent to serve food to the family's guests, Chhoti mocks her mother's admonitions to "walk properly" with an exaggerated hip-sway—and seems perfectly comfortable in her own skin, despite her mother's fixation on lightening it. And the relationship between the two girls is very close, full of teasing but shown again and again to be loving, tender, and supportive.

Barjatya has a reputation as a conservative "family values" filmmaker. But Vivah is surprisingly progressive on such questions as:
  • Educational opportunities for women: Both Poonam and Chhoti are college students, with Poonam about to graduate with a business degree:

Poonam is about to graduate from college

  • Employment outside the home: The office staff at Harishchandra Industries looks to be about 50% women, and Harishchandra offers to hire Poonam as an accountant:

Girls are better administrators

  • The dowry system: Although Vivah doesn't advocate its abolishment, it suggests that it should become purely symbolic:

Give Prem one rupee and a coconut

  • Equality in marriage: The marriage of Prem's brother Sunil (Samir Soni) and his wife Bhavna (Lata Sabharwal) is presented as something of a model for the future married life of Prem and Poonam. It may have a traditional division of labor—Sunil goes off to work while Bhavna takes care of their house and child—but it is shown to be wonderfully companionate. Bhavna is clearly Sunil's equal in intellect and in authority within the marriage; she defers only (and then somewhat jokingly) to Harishchandra, who unfailingly takes her side. As he tells Prem,

Trust and honesty are the most important qualities in marriage

  • Women's body image: Before their wedding, Prem has some advice for Poonam:

10 to 15 kilos is no problem

I don't want to make excessive claims for Vivah's progressive politics. We're still in a world where the women cook the food and serve it to the men, where Bhavna stopped working after she had a child (although that may have been her choice), where marriages are arranged (though only with the full consent of the couple involved), and where religious devotion is an unquestioned value. Nonetheless, the world it portrays looks pretty appealing; if only all families were this loving, nurturing and open-hearted. And in a world missing over 100 million women, Vivah's depiction of the joys and rewards of raising daughters can seem pretty radical.

Giving daughters away in marriage is a sacred act

Of course, Vivah isn't perfect. On a rewatch it is still slow-moving and sentimental, and will probably send lovers of masala screaming from the room. Ravindra Jain's soundtrack was inexplicably underrated when Vivah came out, perhaps because it was seen as old-fashioned. That's precisely why I think it's so great, as you might expect of a soundtrack that prominently features Udit Narayan, Shreya Ghosal and Kumar Sanu. Shahid Kapoor's excellent dancing skills are largely wasted, alas.

Finally, there's really not much drama until the final 30 minutes or so. Then I can hardly bring myself to watch—and I can't tear myself away. If you can make it to the credits with dry eyes, you're made of far sterner stuff than I am.

Update 4 June 2012: Thanks to Rajshri Films, you can watch Vivah on YouTube, with English subtitles (but at low resolution), for free. (If the link doesn't work, simply go to and search for "Vivah.")

Update 13 May 2012: The first episode of Aamir Khan's journalistic television show Satyamev Jayate is devoted to the issue of gender selection in India: Thanks to Veracious of they dance! for alerting me to the show's posting on YouTube.

*Update 25 July 2011: When I wrote "Boys are preferred in many societies, including our own," I was referring to the United States, and making a couple unwarranted assumptions. Of course, not all of my readers live in the U.S., and so I should have been more specific. And according to Hvistendahl's book, a large majority of the couples who select for the sex of their child at U.S. fertility clinics are selecting for girls, not boys. Last July there was even a cover story in the Atlantic about this phenomenon (Hanna Rosin's "The End of Men".) While this doesn't mean that son preference no longer exists in the U.S., it does mean that class and cultural factors may play a complicated role in gender selection.

Update 3 September 2013: For the third post in this series, see Bollywood Rewatch 3: Kandukondain Kandukondain.

Update 14 October 2013: Amartya Sen, in the New York Review of Books for October 10, has published a follow-up to his 1990 article: "India's Women: The Mixed Truth." He writes, "Women’s education, which has been a powerful force in reducing mortality discrimination against women and also in achieving other important social objectives such as the reduction of fertility rates, has not been able to eliminate—at least not yet—natality discrimination."

Update 3 March 2015: A study by Diane Coffey of Princeton University published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences has found that nearly half of Indian mothers are underweight. In a New York Times article, "Study Says Pregnant Women in India Are Gravely Underweight," Gardiner Harris writes that the causes include parasites due to poor sanitation, but also "a culture that discriminates against [women]. Sex differences in education, employment outside the home, and infant mortality are all greater in India than in Africa."

Harris quotes Coffey as saying, “In India, young newly married women are at the bottom of household hierarchies. So at the same time that Indian women become pregnant, they are often expected to keep quiet, work hard and eat little.”

Dr. Shella Duggal, a Delhi physician whose mobile clinic treats poor women, says, “These mothers are the last persons in their families to have food. First, she feeds the husband and then the kids, and only then will she eat the leftovers.”


* Filmbuff informs me that daughters in India have the legal right to inherit property; see his comment on Bollywood and the Victorians.

1. Shirish S. Seth. (2006, 21 January). Missing female births in India. The Lancet, v. 367, p. 185.
2. Amartya Sen. (1990, 20 December). More than 100 million women are missing. New York Review of Books, v. 37, p. 66.
3. Prabhat Jha, et al. (2011, 4 June). Trends in selective abortion of girls in India. The Lancet, v. 377, p. 1921.
4. Prabhat Jha, et al. (2006, 21 January). Low female-to-male sex ratio of children born in India. The Lancet, v. 367, p. 211.
5. Jha, et. al. (2011), p. 1926.
6. Raj Bhopal, (2006, 21 May). Letter. The Lancet, v. 367, p. 1728


  1. I saw this movie & loved it. I learned a lot from it as well.

  2. i love this movie. i love the sweet of it. everything was sweet. i like when movie is just, what it is. you know? like i loved Devdas it was what it was. not sweet. i like the idea of re watch. good post!

  3. Hannah, thanks for your comment! I think Vivah gets stronger with repeated viewings—I hope you have a chance to revisit it someday soon.



  4. Mia, Vivah IS sweet: almost everyone in it is generous, honorable and sincere. But as I hoped to show with my discussion of India's missing daughters, it also addresses a momentous problem.

    A spoiler alert for those readers who haven't yet seen Vivah, but the doctor who treats Poonam tells the families that many of the other burn victims he's seen at the hospital are brides that have been burned for their dowries.

    —End of spoiler—

    So underneath Vivah's sweetness is the bitter reality of the situation of many daughters, sisters and wives. Vivah may be sweet, but it's far from saccharine.

    Thanks for reading!


  5. I'm happy not to be the only person who likes Vivah. I watched it with my Grandmother, as well, and she also loved it.
    It's so sweet, and still important.
    Great review with a lot of research - impressive.

  6. Thanks for the kind words, Lime(tte)!

  7. That's a terrific post. I haven't gotten round to seeing this movie but I've long been curious about it, for a number reasons. I have a soft spot for Barjatya but I also am fascinated by hit movies of this genre - I find it very interesting to try to clear my head of my own cultural biases and try to learn something about what makes them resonate so with their target audiences. I'd have to see the movie to confirm this, but I theorize that the small progressive touches you highlight are not insignificant at all in the movie's success. There is obviously quite a lot of tension between the benefits of modernization and the benefits of traditional ways of life. It has to be very appealing when a movie offers some avenues for resolving those tensions.

    -carla (filmigeek)

  8. Carla, as you're probably aware, Vivah received negative reviews and had a poor opening weekend, which is a combination that's usually the kiss of death for a commercial movie. But it clearly struck a chord with audiences, and—almost entirely through word of mouth—it ultimately became a huge hit.

    So you've raised a fascinating question: what were audiences responding to so strongly? I'm not Indian, so what I have to say on this question is necessarily highly speculative. But I think you've suggested what may be a key element of that response: the portrayal of traditions that, because they have changed for the better, remain meaningful in an uncertain and rapidly changing world. It offers audiences an immensely reassuring vision—they can embrace the modern, globalized world without giving up a sense of national and cultural identity.

    I'll have more to say about this in a future post, but in the meantime many thanks for your thought-provoking comment. And for readers who are interested in thoughtful writing about Hindi film, please take a look at Carla's blog Filmi Geek.