The tricky business of finding a suitable husband in Kashmir is observed from an outsider’s perspective in “Arranged Happiness,” an eye-opening cultural study that’s a bit too self-involved for its own good. An up-close look at a Muslim family that unfolds with the juicy intimacy of a reality TV pilot (call it “Real Housewives of Kashmir”), this personal project from tyro writer-director-producer Daniela Dar-Creutz examines strict familial obligations and gender roles with a lightly engaging touch, at times willfully nudging them into conflict with Western ways. Easy crowdpleaser should fetch a decent dowry from pubcasters following a solid fest run.
Ashiq Dar was 17 when militant uprisings erupted in his hometown of Srinagar, Kashmir, a region whose sovereignty remains disputed by Pakistan and India. Dar’s family responded by sending him to South India where he could earn a living in safety. There, he met and fell in love with traveling German-born filmmaker Dar-Creutz, whose hyphenated surname more or less gives away the eventual outcome of their relationship, though it’s a matter of some uncertainty and suspense for much of the picture.
In 2007, the helmer accompanied Dar back to Srinagar and began documenting his efforts to land a husband for one of his sisters, Waheeda. Though thoroughly Westernized during his years away from home, Dar has remained devoted to his staunchly traditionalist family; all his earnings have gone to support his siblings and his long-widowed father, Iqbal, who has grown too old to work.
As laid out here, the curious process of arranging a marriage in Kashmiri Muslim society generates steady comic mileage. Dar matter-of-factly explains how he and his family plan to spy on potential suitors, ensuring that the man Waheeda eventually marries is not only handsome and intelligent, but also good at his business, free from bad habits such as smoking and drinking, and uninvolved in any militant activities — one of the few instances here in which the turbulent political backdrop makes itself felt.
While shooting, Dar-Creutz and Dar attempted to keep their romantic involvement a secret, although it becomes clear over the course of the docu that the family isn’t so easily fooled. The notion of marriage as a filial obligation is acutely demonstrated as Dar’s siblings keep pressuring him to marry a Kashmiri woman, largely because Waheeda’s own impending marriage ensures that their youngest sister, Masrat, will have to put her education on hold unless Dar takes a wife willing to take care of the household.
Engrossing as it is, this narrative thrust serves to ratchet up the stakes in ways that feel, if not manufactured, at times too neatly manipulated. Dar-Creutz never pretends to have anything other than a subjective angle on her material, and she avoids inserting herself more than necessary. Yet her frequent narration, which conveniently fills in gaps while glossing over questions the viewer may have (particularly with regard to her relationship with Dar), suggests a general tendency to tell rather than show. Scenes of family bickering and bonding feel individually authentic even if the framework feels prepackaged.
Roland Vuskovic’s lensing on HD and 16mm formats takes lush advantage of Srinagar, a city often likened to Venice with its boats and waterways; shots of Dar and his family members rowing down-river are lovely to behold. A considerable portion of the film is devoted to Waheeda’s lengthy wedding celebrations, the visual beauty of which largely compensates for a feeling of dramatic attenuation.
Confirming the material’s commercial prospects, Dar-Creutz is already at work on a feature adaptation of the story.