Tuesday, May 28, 2024

Complicated and Uncomfortably Revealing Indian Matchmaking

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In yet another romantic reality docu-series, Indian Matchmaking from Netflix explores matchmaking for wealthy Indian families. It is as disconcerting as it is a revealing look into something inscrutable for many.

Starring Sima Taparia in the second production by Oscar-nominated Smriti Mundhra after A Suitable Girl, which also included Taparia arranging her own daughter’s marriage, the series follows Taparia and a number of Indian families and their children who are clearly at their wits ends at finding a match.

In a surprise to no one, the show also upholds all the issues within Hindu Indian and at times wider South Asian culture that appeared in Netflix series Never Have I Ever including colorism, sexism, casteism, and of course uniquely reality TV tropes.

To very briefly explain, the Hindu caste system is religiously codified and consists of four main caste groups with Brahmins (priests and knowledge-keepers) at the very top, and Shudras (traditional peasants) at the bottom.

Outside the four caste group structure, there are people who are considered lower than the lowest of castes (the Dalit and Adivasis). It is an endogamous system so people are supposed to marry within their caste hence my (and others) comments on casteism in the show.

To learn more about casteism, read Equality Labs’ report on Caste in the United States.

Taparia is well known and always busy since she’s working with the wealthiest and most eligible families at least when in India. The Indian American families seem to be middle to upper class, and a series about poorer Indian parents enlisting a matchmaker (or matchmakers as so often happens) would tell a very different story.

Mundhra too is fully aware of how narrow Indian Matchmaking‘s scope is even though it was clearly a passion project for her (taking three years to happen and Taparia was her own matchmaker). She’s retweeted a number of more rightfully critical responses to the series.

After all the show is focused entirely on wealthy upper-caste Hindu and Sikh Indians. Of course Taparia isn’t working with Muslim clients, but a Muslim matchmaker and Muslim family’s inclusion in the series would add a depth that’s lacking to the breadth of experiences that Indians have when arranging marriages.

Otherwise, this just shows that Indian = Hindu and Brahmin. Not from Muslim or multiple Christian religious backgrounds, and with nary a Dalit in sight. In short, literally none of the many other Indians than exist.

Indian Matchmaking is Business Not Love

Spoiler alert, none of the singles even stayed with the matches arranged by Taparia. Interestingly, of the 500 clients that Mundhra called, eight of twelve made the final cut for the series which makes me wonder how many of the others fared. Did they fare better because the entire process wasn’t filmed? That’s not really what my review is about though so I’ll leave that line of questioning alone for now.

To be clear, arranged marriages have pros and cons regardless of wealth status and/or caste status. After all, marriages in South Asian (and most cultures, let’s be honest) are about the joining of two families, not just two individuals who are in love.

Arranging a marriage as shown in the series with input from both the child and their parents/family is supposed to be the best of both worlds. On the other hand, if the focus is more about two families and these preconceived wants and needs, the happiness and actual connection between two individuals is disregarded.

Or as Mundhra puts it

The matchmaker becomes the vetting process between two families, because that is so important in India—you’re not just marrying the person, you’re marrying their family. And a matchmaker can essentially vouch for the family before putting two people together. I don’t think we necessarily need that as much in America. We’re more individualistic here.

However, the knee-jerk reactions to Indian Matchmaking emphasizes the exact issues that Mundhra exposes even if she clearly admires Taparia. See Taparia’s constant refrain that “marriage means it’s a compromise and arrangement” which sounds like perfectly great advice.

However, viewed through the lens of her working with for example, Pradhuyman who has said no to 150 girls (!), it highlights how really it means that women should compromise. A problem South Asian women have dealt with literally forever.

Or the constant, and I mean literally constant, focus on whether the eligible singles are fair, tall (even though the average Indian height is the literal opposite of tall), and skinny. Endless eye-rolls.

I do commend Mundhra’s dedication to picking clients to showcase a variety of experiences. Like Vyasar, who on paper might get rejected since his parents divorced which I know is an absolutely ridiculous thing to reject someone for!

Or wedding-planner Nadia (bless) who is Guyanese and therefore not seen as “Indian” enough by other Indians. On the other hand, there’s also momma’s boy Akshay who just wants a babysitter. (That’s a rant for another day.)

It doesn’t even matter that none of the singles ended up with their matches, though I wonder how many of them are at peace with themselves, having hopefully learned more about themselves through the process.

(Also are any of them maybe……gay?) The show is much more about laying bare the problems in the institution of arranged marriages in Hindu/Sikh South Asian culture and exploring arranged marriage as an institution than it is about finding actual matches.

Muslim South Asians too have similar issues where many won’t marry outside of their sect, or in my case may not accept a Sufi Muslim because we’re that “weird offshoot.”

As a Bangladeshi-American going through the process of finding prospective matches myself (editing my biodata was just so much fun…), I think Mundhra does explore what arranged marriages look like well. Except only for a specific subset of Indians across the world. I would love a second season that focuses on the people who aren’t incredibly wealthy.

Give me the dark-skinned women and men who are sick of being turned down because they’re not fair. Give me the gay South Asians who definitely exist. In fact, if Mundhra can find matchmakers who actually work with LGBTQ South Asians…that would be incredible.

What about a Muslim single whose family is perfectly fine with them going on a date but wants a sibling or friend nearby both for safety’s sake and because it’s how Muslims do things? At least those dates most likely won’t include copious amounts of alcohol.

What does it look like for a South Asian single whose parents aren’t in the picture at all? Or an elder sibling trying to find someone for their younger sibling because their parents are unable to? That sounds like the plot of a Bengali serial but is the true life experience for many. Or, shocker, someone marrying who isn’t South Asian.

Here’s the problem with Indian Matchmaking. While it’s ostensibly an entertaining series about single Indians trying to find a good match, it’s actually about all the ways that “good match” is reflective of so many harmful aspects of specifically Bhraminic patriarchy. A patriarchy shaped by gender, caste, and economic relationships.

I understand Mundhra’s choices. The show can’t tell every story. However, choosing to tell this story says so much more about what Netflix is willing to green light. When Mundhra tried to pitch this show originally ten years ago, the producer suggested following a white single. Which is as ridiculous as the focus on rich families, as if the institution of arranged marriage isn’t at times an incredibly harmful institution!

Presenting Taparia’s comments about fairness, height, and weight without any commentary is also a choice. How powerful would it have been to instead, when those comments are made, have inter-cutting segments about how frankly screwed up those comments are? Her comments are those that South Asians of all ages have heard time and time again from mothers, fathers, aunties, uncles, nanis, dadis, you name it.

When do we get to hear the story of people who refuse to buy into the institution? What about a show following divorcees who are trying to find someone new? Taparia straight up says in one episode she usually doesn’t take on clients with kids!

Quite frankly, a lack of any true engagement in how harmful colorism and casteism is, especially this summer, is irresponsible. Sure the show was filmed and edited months and months ago. So? At the very least any future series should include other matchmakers who don’t say “But who doesn’t want a fair, beautiful wife, you tell me?” when asked about colorism and sexism. Beautiful is not only fair.

The show has created a conversation that maybe some don’t want public, but it’s beyond time to truly pull apart what arranged marriage is in this and any culture. Honestly, marriage as an institution in general is always about more than two people who love each other. If Mundhra is truly open to dialogue because it keeps her and the culture accountable, I look forward to seeing what she has coming up.

Image courtesy of Netflix

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