This piece includes spoilers to Netflix’s “Indian Matchmaking.”
As a second-generation Indian American woman, I watched Netflix’s latest reality dating series, “Indian Matchmaking,” with interest. No one in my immediate family has had an arranged marriage, but I have many relatives who have. Arranged marriages are not monolithic and are as varied as India’s cultures and languages.
But I also know they rarely favor brides-to-be, expecting them to meet caste, color and body requirements as well as stereotypical gender roles.
The show bills itself as exploring traditional Indian matchmaking practices in a modern world. “Indian Matchmaking” revolves around Sima Taparia, who claims to be the number one matchmaker in Mumbai. Taparia characterizes her role as a matchmaker as a conduit for the divine.
“Matches are made in heaven,” she says. “And God has given me the job to make it successful on earth.”
But Taparia also laments the challenges of being a matchmaker in these modern times. “In India nowadays, the boy or girl can refuse to get married. They have full freedom and they bend little. So, how will things go smoothly?”
Like me, many of the prospective brides and grooms featured in the United States are the children of immigrants. They are turning to a traditional matchmaker after striking out on the dating scene. They feel like they’ve exhausted their other options, from being set up by friends and family to using dating apps.
Vyasar Ganesan, a college guidance counselor at a high school in Austin, acknowledges that he was skeptical of arranged marriages for a long time, but is now open to trying this approach. “I don’t know how it’s going to work. But the only way you make a change is by trying something new,” he says.
Meanwhile, Ankita Bansal, a Delhi-based co-founder of a clothing company, and her friends refer to arranged marriage today as “Tinder Premium” where “families also have to swipe right.”
In contrast to all the technology and algorithms used in dating today, when applying her traditional Indian matchmaking practice to modern times, Taparia brings in a cadre of face readers, astrologers, relationship counselors and even other matchmakers to help in her efforts.
Viewers are also introduced to many of the long-held biases that exist in Indian culture like casteism, colorism, gender expectations and body requirements. (“Tall, slim and trim,” was a common phrase used by Taparia.)
Taparia and a fellow matchmaker worry that Bansal, a successful entrepreneur, is not “photogenic” enough and it’s clear they are referring to her weight and darker complexion. “You narrow down the conversation and your thought process and you make women feel like inferior objects. I felt really sad, really disappointed,” Bansal said of the process, which she eventually opted out of. “It’s time to be happy. It’s time to be equal.”
Bansal is the exception. Many often face more coercive circumstances.
We see that when we meet Akshay Jakhete, the 25- year-old scion of a wealthy family whose domineering mother is pressuring him to get married even as he rejects dozens of proposals. He is matched with Radhika, a young woman from Udaipur, who tells him that she hopes to be a chartered accountant. Jakhete privately tells the camera that he expects her to be a traditional housewife, picking up the same duties his mother currently carries out. I cringed when the pair got engaged, fearful that her fiance and future mother-in-law will quash her ambitions.
It was refreshing to see “Indian Matchmaking” feature stories of those who are often marginalized within the Indian American diaspora, especially when it comes to arranged marriages.
Nadia Jagessar, a young Guyanese woman whose family traces their lineage to India, talks about West Indians like herself are often ostracized by the Indian American community in America.
Rupam, a Sikh divorced single mother, confesses how difficult it has been for her to find love again because of the stigma around the end of the first marriage.
Ganesar, the college guidance counselor, wrestles with when and how to tell a woman he likes about his estranged father who served time in prison for conspiracy to commit murder.
Still, in only presenting heteronormative stories, “Indian Matchmaking” misses the opportunity to be part of the recent leaps forward with India’s 2018 Supreme Court ruling decriminalizing gay sex and the passing of marriage equality in the U.S.
The show leaves us wondering if traditional Indian matchmaking really can work in today’s world? Well, as depicted in the show, pursuing matches through Taparia doesn’t seem to prevent modern dating foibles like “ghosting.” Jagessar goes on multiple dates with one match, only to be stood up by him twice. It does, however, show a way to approach meeting a life partner that differs from Western norms: One where families are involved from the beginning and serious, honest conversations happen early on.
The show ends with some couples walking off into the distance and one celebrating an engagement. A follow-up piece by Ashley Lee in the Los Angeles Times reveals that none of the featured couples stayed together, though many say they are happy to have gone through the matchmaking process regardless.
Like most reality television about dating, “Indian Matchmaking” is compelling entertainment and provides a mainstream introduction to the concept that we haven’t seen before. Ultimately, however, it shows a glorified and incomplete picture of arranged marriages and matchmaking.
“Indian Matchmaking” executive producer Smriti Mundhra’s previous award-winning documentary, “A Suitable Girl,” explores the journeys of three young women in India from different backgrounds who are approaching arranged marriages, treating the topic with more nuance. I was first introduced to Taparia in this film, where she was mother to a daughter she was pushing to find a partner while also serving as her matchmaker.