Monica Luhar for The Aerogram, April 12, 2015
Jayakrishnan (“Jay”) Subramanian’s parents would have been thrilled if their son had decided to carry on the tradition of an arranged marriage with a suitable South Indian girl of choice. But Jay, a Tamil artist, is the first in his family to have fallen in love with someone before marriage.
Amma & Appa — which translates to mother and father in Tamil — is a documentary based on the love story of director Franziska Schönenberger and Jayakrishnan Subramanian. The film also centers around the first encounter between their parents — each with their own different set of beliefs when it comes to love and arranged marriage.
The Subramanians were initially shocked and disappointed over their son’s choice, but now they must come to terms and welcome their soon-to-be daughter-in-law Franziska, a Bavarian German woman working as a journalist. The couple kept their relationship a secret for at least a year until the anxiety of meeting Jay’s parents simmered down.
When Franziska’s parents travel from Bavaria, Germany, to a small town in Tamil Nadu to visit their daughter’s soon-to-be Amma and Appa, they attempt to set aside cultural differences. But, there are roadblocks along the way.
Franziska weighs in on her parent’s encounter with Jay’s parents:
For my parents, it’s the first visit to India, and for the Indian parents it will be the first encounter with foreigners. While my parents married out of love, the marriage of Jay’s parents was entirely traditionally arranged. It was thus a great shock to Jay’s parents to learn that their son now wished to marry out of love. And what is more: a white girl from Germany. His decision challenged their traditions and their faith.
Each family attempts to assimilate and make adjustments to make the other feel comfortable for the sake of their children’s happiness. But it’s not always rainbows and sunshine.
There are some major differences and nail-biting moments that cause the parents to reevaluate and reconsider whether their children can actually go through with marriage. Pet peeves and other striking differences cause tension, but it’s not enough to disrupt the love each parent has for his or her child.
For instance, Franziska’s father believes alcohol should be consumed in moderation, whereas Jay’s father vehemently opposes alcohol and has never had a drop of alcohol in his life. Jay’s parents had an arranged marriage, and they can’t quite fathom the idea of someone having a love marriage — let alone their son. Franziska’s parents, on the other hand, had a love marriage. Jay’s Amma, or mother, halted her dreams of becoming a teacher in order to fulfill her duty as a wife. She had an arranged marriage with Jay’s father and did everything in her power to delay marriage so that she could complete her education.
In a heartwarming scene, Jay’s father attempts to assemble a table upon the arrival of Franziska’s parents. For as long as he remembers, Jay has always had food on the floor, rather than a dinner table. Traditional South Indian food was always served on banana leaves, without utensils. And this, of course, is a totally new custom for the Schönenberger family.
But both parents find a way to trade unfamiliar customs and come to terms with understanding one another. This starts with embracing the unconventional: Learning how to wear a sari, eating food placed on a banana leaf, celebrating an arranged marriage in town, and trading recipes for medicinal plants traditionally grown in backyards in Tamil Nadu.
But Jay’s parents are not afraid to express their concern over the possibility of losing their son to marriage and not having an Indian daughter-in-law to look after the family in Tamil Nadu.
In Tamil Nadu, the daughter-in-law is assumed to look after her mother and father-in-laws, but that wouldn’t be the case if Jay and Franziska decided to move to Germany. They mention that it is not the norm to marry outside the caste system, let alone a European woman.
Amma & Appa is a heartwarming story that brings two completely different families together to celebrate the love between their children. The folk-inspired animation throughout the documentary provides a beautiful way of telling a story that is not always easy to document. After all, the parents have agreed to be filmed at any given time without being censored. But the raw, and humorous everyday interactions of these families creates a story that helps viewers connect to something that is universal: Love.
Reporter’s note: Amma and Appa had its Los Angeles premiere at the Indian Film Festival of Los Angeles on April 11. The premiere comes in the midst of a bittersweet time: Jay’s father passed away shortly before the screening.
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Monica Luhar is a digital producer and freelance journalist in Los Angeles. Connect with her via Twitter: @monicaluhar.