The new reality-cum-documentary show, Netflix's Indian Matchmaking by Smriti Mundhra is a binge-worthy show that will have foreigners confused and Indians slightly disturbed with the realities of an arranged marriage process. It centres around Professional matchmaker, Sima Taparia (from Mumbai), her wealthy clients in Mumbai and the Indian diaspora in the U.S. You can call her the 'Human Tinder' if you'd like, but just remember she doesn't endorse hook-ups.
Sima aunty, as they call her, uses her skills as a matchmaker to make compatible people meet as prospective life partners. Her qualifications include the ability to jot down adjectives given by her clients such as 'modern but traditional', 'flexible', and match them to people she thinks embodies these qualities. Taparia claims to be a professional matchmaker but she doesn't seem to do more than the next-door neighbour that brings random rishtas (proposals) to your door.
Nevertheless, the protagonists and their families decide to entrust her with their future partner and with their money. With Sima travelling from the U.S to India even more frequently than our PM's international visits and her round-the-clock availability, they have to be paying her an amount unimaginable to the middle-class Indian. Even though the show doesn’t mention it, Republic World has reported that Sima Taparia’s services cost somewhere between Rs 1.5 Lakh to Rs 4 Lakhs - a commission that is received from both sides of the rishta if finalised.
Indian Matchmaking gives us a glimpse into the workings of elite arranged marriages
It focusses on arranged marriages but among the elite, the cream of Indian society. It's a glamorised, glossy show that offers a peek into 'crazy rich Indians' if you will. She is the cupid that brings upper-caste and upper-class Indians together so that they can maintain their privilege for generations.
These crazy rich Indians although possess wealth and established careers, suffer from loneliness. Their remedy for despairing loneliness is finding a life partner, as Nadia, an interior designer mentions how hurtful it is to see all her other friends in stable relationships while she laments in loneliness especially at her age. Right, there is a ripe age for marriage and a timeline in Indian parents' mind that must not be tampered with. (Akshay, we are looking at you).
Whether it's Nadia distraught with loneliness or Akshay's mother insisting that he must get married so that her blood pressure can reduce, marriage is the solution.
The series also made Mumbai unrecognisable to locals because of strategic shots. The makers only shot the inside of the modern homes of the clients, the expensive bars they visited and empty roads that created an illusion of modernity, and erasure of poverty. This was probably to move away from realism. Audiences usually prefer to be dazzled with gloss when watching reality tv or dating shows. Although, we would not call it a dating show as the clients main objective was to find a life partner, not date.
Women always have to compromise and adjust
From the second episode itself, we realise that women will always get the shorthand of the stick, irrelevant of their status and qualifications. Sima criticised Aparna, a lawyer for being a picky client and too headstrong of a woman to connect with a man. Sima continually asks women to compromise, adjust and be flexible if they want a life partner. According to her, she is just telling them as it is, stating facts, to the extent, that may be true but it's clear that she genuinely believes that the woman has to bend over backwards and let go of her individuality as a 'small compromise'.
Akshay's mother clearly says she wants a bride that is flexible, willing to follow the 'rules of the household'. Akshay, a product of coddling and pampering, said he wanted a woman that can take care of him the way his mother did. Does he want a life partner or a caretaker? In one of the episodes, he also expressed that he wanted a bride that was 'exactly like his mother.' Sounds like an Oedipal fantasy, doesn’t it?
Even Geeta, the modern matchmaker disappoints
Even Geeta, the supposedly more modern matchmaker, fails to serve a woman's interest. With her frustrating conversation with Ankita, a businesswoman, where Geeta tells her," It is our duty as a woman to understand that in a marriage the woman gives the emotional side of herself more than the man does."
Anikta puts forward her career-oriented point of view and explains that a compromise should be mutually benefiting. But Geeta interrupts her with the declaration that life is never equal. Women usually have to 'give it all up' and that's the norm even for a modern woman. We empathise with Ankita at that point, since she feels quite visibly dejected by that comment.
Sima Taparia takes us through the basics of an arranged marriage
Sima said that matches are made by god, her job is just to turn them into reality on Earth. A humbling statement that also highlights the role of religion and astrology in Arranged marriages in Indian culture. Sima embodies the Indian matchmaking tradition of an older relative taking the responsibility to get single Indian kids prospective partners.
As described by her modern colleague Geeta, Sima deals with the more traditional clientele that has strict 'preferences'. A disguise for the latent casteism and classism. She uses tools such as astrology and face-readers to examine the durability of a match. The series shows her frequent visits to the astrologer and face-reader where he determines their personality just by examining their face. Sima takes this aspect quite seriously and uses this to check the success rate of the match. Additionally, she quite enjoys when the comments of the astrologer match her personal opinion about the client. For example, when the astrologer called Aparna stubborn, Sima let out a smile as this validated her perception of Aparna as a picky client and arrogant woman.
It is interesting to see that the Indian diaspora, although accustomed to western culture experience similar family pressures to get married and that parents are equally involved in the decision as it is in India.
Your chances of getting a good match greatly reduce if you’re divorced, have a child or bad family history
In the matchmaking business, initially, people judge each other based on their bio-data on a sheet of paper. Divorcees and people with broken families have a lesser chance of finding matches, Sima tells her clients bluntly. Nadia, a Guyanese woman is told by Sima that she will have difficulty in finding a match as men won't be open to marrying a Guyanese person. Guyanese people belong to the country of Guyana, part of the South American mainland.
Rupam, a divorced single mom, (two red flags according to Sima) also carries the stigma of her past. Sima tells her that her child will lessen her chances of finding a suitable rishta. She reiterates the fact that you must have a clean record in terms of family background and belong from a desirable caste with attractive physical features to win find the perfect match. A heavy burden to carry.
Vyasar, a college counsellor and one of the more likeable characters in the show carries the burden of his father's criminal past. Why must Indian children pay the price for having absent and shitty parents?
The show holds a mirror to the reality of arranged marriages in India
The introduction of every episode starts with couples that have withstood a marriage for decades, and recount how it all turned out for the good. The show's way of saying - 'It works, so it's not all that bad'. Many people on Twitter have criticised the show for feeding into the generalisations that reduce India to stereotypes. While others have accepted that the show holds a mirror to the ugly realities of the practice arranged marriage in India. However, the show never really makes its position clear on what its characters think. It never comments on the sexism propagated by Geeta, the matchmaker or Preeti, Akshay's mother.
So, most viewers have assumed that the makers stand in solidarity with the views expressed in the show. The director of the show defends this notion by saying, "We were not trying to shy away from any uncomfortable conversations...what's real is real. My hope is that it (the show) will spark a lot of conversations that all of us need to be having in the South Asian community with our families - that it'll be a jumping-off point or reflections about the things that we prioritize, and the things that we internalize," said Mundhra.
The stunning visuals kept us watching till the end but weren’t enough to mask the horrors of arranged marriages
Not everyone had a problem with the show though. Some viewers enjoyed involving themselves in the lives of vulnerable Indians sharing the same familial pressures and finding love. We know that wedding in our country is like an industry, with parents saving up money and planning grand events for the marriage celebration. The scene where Preeti, Akshay's mother showcases her collection of beautifully embroidered sarees and jewellery embellished with precious gemstones seems pleasing to the eye. But it shows how parents pre-buy jewellery and clothes of a specific size and then find a partner that will fit their requirements.
The show ends with a montage of couples that were a result of arranged marriages expressing their satisfaction in life. Interestingly, none of the potential couples in the first season of the show end up together, not even Akshay that got engaged onscreen.
Indian Matchmaking is not a dating show like Love is Blind or Too Hot To Handle, it doesn't portray love as a connection but as compromise and adjustment. But I suppose the clients knew what they were getting into as they had very set 'preferences'. Taparia also knows that her clients want to get married because of parental pressure and after mainly after status and respectability. That is why she dismissed Geeta's suggestion of asking her clients why they want to get married.