I was expecting a whole different show when I first heard about Indian Matchmaking. My optimistic self approached it thinking it might be an insightful exploration of a regressive practice, and would hold up a mirror to our society. Instead, what I got was a love letter to arranged marriages – an institution deeply rooted in patriarchy, casteism, classism and colourism.
Indian Matchmaking is an eight-part Netflix original that follows Sima Taparia, a matchmaker from Mumbai, in her pursuit of finding partners for her wealthy (upper caste) clients in India and abroad. Taparia had also featured in another Netflix documentary from 2017 called A Suitable Girl where she tried to find a match for her daughter and two other young women.
Taparia could have chosen to been a mascot of empowerment. Instead, she exploits young men and women’s (mostly women) deep-seated insecurities and fears to make a matchmaking empire. She is so good at being the worst aunty out there that I had to constantly ask myself if she was real or was exaggerating her judgemental persona for the purpose of entertainment.
She judges women for being too independent, calls them fickle for rejecting men, constantly validates her clients’ demands of ‘fair, slim and trim’ daughter-in-laws, throws around words like ‘compromise’, ‘adjustment’ and ‘flexible’ at the end of every sentence and truly believes she is doing god’s work.
Watching Taparia’s relentless pursuit was like reliving all the trauma that various uncles and aunties have inflicted upon my sister and I while we were growing up. We were routinely sized up at family gatherings, asked shamelessly about our ‘exact’ height and weight, and on one occasions it was even suggested that I undergo plastic surgery to fix my ‘too-long-a-nose’. And if these snide remarks on my appearance weren’t enough, my mother was once told that she shouldn’t even bother finding a boy for me because ‘too much education’ always ends up in a divorce.
Indian Matchmaking is a show that not only trivialises the daily struggles against misogyny and gender inequality that millions of women face, it also whitewashes all the inconvenient and problematic truths about arranged marriages in India. The show follows eight individuals scattered between India and the US who hire Taparia to find their ‘perfect match’. Helmed by Smriti Mundhra, the selection of the many different individuals and their personality quirks makes the show extremely watchable – which is why it pained me even more to see these multi-dimensional people being reduced to bio-datas and physical attributes.
The show starts with Taparia meeting three individuals – Aparna Shewakramani, a lawyer based in Houston; Nadia Jagessar, who owns an event planning company in New Jersey, and Pradyuman Maloo, a jewellery designer based out of Mumbai.
Aparna is the only reason I was able to continue watching the show. She is unknowingly entertaining, and too self assured for Taparia’s liking. Taparia constantly addresses Aparna as “negative” and fickle minded because she can’t wrap her head around women who seem to know what they want. Or, in Aparna’s case, what they don’t want. After a point, the show stops being about finding a match for Aparna but becomes more about crushing her spirit.
Taparia is so unabashedly sexist that she presents Aparna with only one match as she thinks that Aparna will be confused if presented with ‘too much choice’ – but she continues to bring multiple matches for Pradyuman, who had already rejected 150 women. It was also deeply saddening to watch an astrologer exploit Aparna’s deep-seated anxiety around living a life of loneliness.
The fear of ending up alone in a society which considers heterogenous married relationships as the epitome of happiness is one of the central themes of the show. Nadia breaks down in one of the initial episodes after being ghosted by a man on two occasions. Successful, gorgeous and extremely likeable, Nadia is much of what most women aspire to be. However, when she breaks down on camera, she exposes how our society views independent unmarried women – incomplete.
As the show progresses, Taparia moves on from Aparna, Nadia and Pradyuman to other clients. Each one is shown to have found someone they clicked with except Ankita – a Delhi based businesswoman who stands up for herself, and ditches the matchmaking process to focus on her career. However, according to a Los Angeles Times article, none of the individuals who featured on the show ended up with their on-show pairing, including the lost, mollycoddled 25-year-old Akshay whose storyline ended with a pre-engagement party.
Akshay comes from a wealthy upper caste family in Mumbai who is being pressured into getting married by his mother, Preeti, because only that will fix her blood pressure. Preeti is the only one in the show who comes close to matching Taparia’s toxicity and regressive views. She makes no qualms about ordering Akshay to get married so that he has someone to put together his lunchbox everyday. And then when we wonder why our courts need to give out rulings stating that daughter-in-laws should not be treated as domestic help. Even though Akshay is an entitled mama’s boy, his story is an archetypical example of how our patriarchal and casteist society prevents men from growing up.
A few episodes into the series, it becomes seemingly clear that the show is mostly made for the NRI community to defend this problematic institution of arranged marriages in front of their white peers who often looked down upon the whole concept of arranged marriages. It is not uncommon for people in our families to throw up statistics around low divorce rates in arranged marriage set-ups. However, no one questions the fact that low divorces rates are not because couples are happier in arranged marriages but often because young women are often left without any agency and are trapped in strict gender roles they can’t escape so easily.
The show also ends on a similar trope where they show multiple happily married couples vouching for arranged marriages. However, as an unmarried woman in her late twenties I have strongly resisted arranged marriage for almost a decade – not because I don’t think they work, but what they stand for.
The high success rate of arranged marriages is exactly what makes this practice problematic. It is a highly functional and effective practice that has been perfected for centuries that has led to a deeply gendered, segregated and unequal society.
The last thing it needs is a celebratory Netflix original.
Bhawna Jaimini is an architect, writer and activist in making. She works closely with the residents of some of the most marginalised neighbourhoods to improve their built environment.