Netflix series Indian Matchmaking is this year's scariest horror story about arranged marriages
Indian Matchmaking treads into dangerous territory when it allows Sima Taparia free rein to reinforce regressive methods of Indian matchmaking as undeniable fact.
Last year on Netflix’s Dating Around, the streaming giant’s first stab at mining the frustrations of millennial dating for reality TV, Gurki Basra, a gorgeous 36-year-old Punjabi-American jewellery designer from Houston emerged as the show’s unexpected heroine. One of Basra’s blind dates with Justin, a seemingly woke white man, turned sour once he learnt that she was a divorcee. During the episode, Basra explained to Justin how she might have rushed into marriage, in part due to her Indian family pressuring her. “Who says yes to getting married when you have doubts?” he asked Basra, unwilling to wrap his head around the imbalance of power that Basra as an Indian woman is susceptible to, in an inherently patriarchal society. “You lied to him, and yourself... How could I ever trust you? How could anyone ever trust you?,” Justin coldly continued, even as Basra, close to tears, tried to diffuse the tension without resorting to incivility.
Dubbed “Reality TV’s most Cringeworthy Date,” that episode – a clip of which did the rounds of Twitter virality – and Basra’s reaction to the painful moment, was emblematic of just how unpleasant modern dating can get for single women. More specifically, the accompanying judgement that Basra had to endure about a culture where marriage is a familial obligation, underlined the existing chasm between Indians and the rest of the world.
A year later, Netflix’s latest offering, the part-documentary, part-reality TV series, Indian Matchmaking, chronicling the theatrics of Indian weddings through the eyes of a high-profile matchmaker and her clients, seems designed to cater to that very gap. The idea is very much to translate the aspirations, insecurities, and fixations of a community for a global audience unfamiliar with its beats.
On paper, it makes complete sense as addictive, albeit trashy, TV: If Karan Johar’s Koffee with Karan covers Bollywood, one end of India’s greatest obsessions, then Indian Matchmaking effectively proposes to exploit the other end: arranged marriage.
The trouble is, over the course of eight abruptly structured episodes, Indian Matchmaking becomes an infuriating exercise in delusion, ending up doing exactly what it intended to rally against: exoticising a calculated, cultural practice that in reality is steeped in decades of misogyny, casteism, and gender inequality.
"Matches are made in heaven and God has given me the job to make it successful on Earth," Sima Taparia, the 50-something narrator claims early on in Indian Matchmaking. A camera-friendly, colourful presence, Taparia (she makes it a point to introduce herself as “Sima from Mumbai” everywhere she goes) is the transnational marriage broker entrusted by eight families to find potential matches for their single children over the course of the season. Her clientele, atleast the ones who feature on the show, seem to be exclusively upper-class and wealthy – a majority of them are in fact, non-resident Indians. By focusing only on these one-percenters, Indian Matchmaking, at the outset, makes the choice to remain blind to the realities of India, limiting its scope to a version of arranged marriage that is heavily sanitised and often comes with no real repercussions. There’s nothing wrong with representing only a section of the society as long as the makers have the foresight to acknowledge it.
The maximum a protagonist – in this case, Akshay, a 25-year-old coddled heir of a business family – suffers for refusing to comply with his family’s demands to settle down is being blamed for his overprotective mother’s blood pressure dramatically rising up. That in itself is a comically low-stakes predicament in a country where resistance to arranged marriage usually leads to caste-based atrocities, honour killing, and rampant violence against women. Given that Indian Matchmaking is a show about a day in the life of an Indian matchmaker, it’s unclear why the makers completely avoid mentioning how much Taparia is paid for her services, which include frequent flights, occasional video calls, impromptu house visits, and round-the-clock availability. Although, the privilege of her clients imply that she is expensive, the unanswered questions – Does she charge by the hour? Does she offer personalised packages? Can families ask for a refund if Taparia is unable to find a prospective match? Is she flying business class? – lessen the investment in the entire process, making it come across less like an elite service and more like an act of charity.
Even after eight episodes, I’m not entirely sure what makes Taparia more qualified than any nosy neighbourhood Indian aunty with an abundance of free time and a maternal instinct. For most of the season, she goes about setting up people at random, interpreting compatibility between two people based solely on the number of similarities they might have. Take for instance, the episode where she insists Nadia, a New Jersey-based Guyanese event planner of Indian origin, would match well with Ravi Guru Singh because he’s half-Guyanese as well. “Your smile will match his smile,” she says to Nadia. Later, on their date, when it dawns on Nadia that there’s zero chemistry between Guru and her, their matching smiles are the least of her priorities.
Even then, Indian Matchmaking treads into far more dangerous territory when it allows Taparia free rein to reinforce regressive methods of Indian matchmaking as undeniable fact.
Horoscopes are compared, astrologers remain on speed dial, and in a more ridiculous moment of escalation, a face reader makes an appearance to make bizarre predictions just by looking at a photo for a few seconds. If Indian Matchmaking is to be believed, hounding a face reader to reveal whether someone will deliver twins or triplets is like morning cardio for India and the only recipe to a happy marriage is a happy astrologer. That’s not to say that the show is inaccurate about a degree of superstition finding its way into most Indian conversations around marriage – we are after all, the country that famously forced a former Miss World to marry a tree.
But by allowing Taparia a global platform to peddle such blind reliance on superstition and packaging it as “Indian tradition” without countering any of it, Indian Matchmaking feeds into the very generalisations that are detrimental to the understanding of India in the first place. Besides, the show’s steadfast refusal to have its own opinion on arranged marriage invariably means that Indian Matchmaking advocates Taparia’s questionable views. That is possibly its most glaring flaw given that Taparia and by extension, Indian Matchmaking, makes a habit out of employing the “It works” defense of arranged marriage to offset any critique of the whole process. From the third episode onward, the show curates a montage of older couples, happily married for over 30 years, to argue the efficiency of an arranged marriage.
In the show, Taparia's clients are men and women in their 20s and 30s, spread out across Mumbai, Delhi, and America. There's a clear distinction in how her Indian clients and her Indian-American clients respond to the idea of arranged marriage. The diaspora – a lonely event planner, a love-lorn teaching counsellor, a divorced single mother, and an independent lawyer, – exercise a far greater level of control over their decisions. For them, being set up by a strange woman from their own community is a quirky alternative to dating apps ("Tinder Premium, but with families involved," as a character explains).
But for the much younger Indians on the show – a feminist event planner, an indecisive manchild, and a wealthy commitment phobe – embracing arranged marriage is both a familial and social obligation. The families exert a much greater say in their choice of a life-partner and as the season progresses, we see parents pressuring their children, clearly not ready for marriage, and even going as far as emotionally manipulating them to get their way. But Indian Matchmaking clubs both these experiences – one that is largely harmless and the other, far more insidious – together, comfortably neglecting to highlight just how harmful this practice continues to be for young India.
Throughout Indian Matchmaking, Taparia claims that the secret to a long-lasting marriage is compromise, except she relays this particular expectation of adjustment only to her female clients. The men who appear on the show are hardly told to be more accommodating or change any of their unfavourable traits. Instead she endlessly indulges them to an extent that the show is routinely reduced to stroking the great Indian male ego (It’s no coincidence that the two clients who get the maximum screen time on the show are both men). When Vyasar, a jovial 30-year-old man with a tragic past, is rejected by a prospective match because he earns less than her, Sima suggests that the girl should have also taken his good heart into consideration.
On the other hand, she launches a sustained attack on Aparna, an ambitious 34-year-old lawyer, taking immense offense at her for being picky about her choices in men. At one point, she goes as far as undermining Aparna’s intelligence only because she dares to go against convention and settle with someone who doesn’t fit into the idea that she has for her own future. Another male client, Pradyuman, a fussy 30-year-old jewellery designer, proves to be as difficult but is treated with far more kindness than what Taparia reserves for Aparna. The matchmaker going out of her way to villainise a woman unafraid to acknowledge her needs is telling of a society that continues to be rankled by opinionated women who refuse to shrink themselves for mediocre men.
That Indian Matchmaking doesn’t call Taparia out never stops being embarrassing.
This lack of self-awareness makes Indian Matchmaking a frustrating trainwreck. Even the most horrific turns, like a 25-year-old man confessing that he wants his wife to be exactly like his mother or his mother reiterating a potentially dangerous idea of family, are inexplicably sugarcoated. The show resorting to simplistic, reductive stereotypes can largely be attributed to its predominantly Western gaze that mistakes a horror-story as a tale of coming-of-age. Even though Smriti Mundhra who previously helmed A Suitable Girl, a fine exploration of how arranged marriages stand in the way of female independence, serves as Executive Producer, it’s evident that Indian Matchmaking lacks an insider’s clarity, most notably of the gender politics that inform marriages in the country.
In that sense, the makers passing off NRI excess and toxic tradition as inherently Indian occurrences reveal an ignorance that turns Indian Matchmaking into the strongest case against itself. By the end of the season, there’s a celebratory tone in the air when an engagement, a product of relentless parental manipulation, is seen as a triumph.
That even in 2020, a streaming platform of Netflix’s calibre wastes the potential of such a complex and thrilling narrative, refusing to hand it over to homegrown creators more suited to the material, is worrying. Especially because it underlines an uncomfortable truth: their commitment to representation might only be limited to who appears in front of the screen and not what goes behind it.