Branded as a docu-series, Netflix’s Indian Matchmaking, instead has all the elements of a binge-worthy reality TV soap. We’ve all seen the “compromise and adjust” memes, come across an equal number of angry tweets and raving reviews, and most of us have given in to “hate-watching” the show. As frivolous as the show and our experience watching it may be, it is impossible, especially as Indian women, to watch the show in a vacuum of “entertainment for entertainment’s sake”.
Directed by Academy Award nominated director, Smriti Mundhra, the show follows matchmaker Sima Taparia (from Mumbai), as single Indians, based in India and abroad, turn to her to find their perfect, marriageable match.
A Show That Eventually Condones Everything It Should Condemn
As I clicked on the first episode (“Slim, Trim and Educated”) I hoped beyond hope that the coming 40 minutes would establish the setting for an empathetic expose on arranged marriages in India today. However, Taparia initiates the narrative with an explanation on how marriage is not between two individuals but between two families. “Marriage means compromise and adjustment” she says in a now infamous(ly trolled) scene.
The show does seem (almost) aware of the problematic aspects of its premise and subjects at certain places, laughing along with us at the ridiculousness of what is happening in the frame. However, as romantic music plays every time Sima talks about accommodation being key to marriage, astrologers make broad judgements about the subjects and their relationships (that, shocker, end up being true) by reading their faces and horoscopes, and the show closes with a montage of happily married couples who met through arranged marriages, it’s clear that this is not the case.
The show ends up exoticising, romanticising and condoning the very thing it seems to aim to condemn in the beginning.
The problem doesn’t lie in the concept of an arranged marriage itself, especially today, when the two stakeholders don’t usually meet for the first time in the mandap, and especially if the arranged marriage is their voluntary desire and decision. The issues lie in the toxic matchmaking process itself, steeped in classist, casteist, racist, body offensive and sexist ideas passed off as “tradition”.
The problems seep in when the single women on the show are encouraged to believe that the solution to their loneliness is marriage; when men like Akshay and Pradhyuman, clearly not ready for marriage, are forced into considering an arranged marriage.
The show’s ending, where Sima asks a girl who she deems a “95 out of 100” – and the one with the “upper hand” in the process – what she is looking for in a partner, highlights how deeply ingrained these problems are. The girl goes on to list a host of traits like “likes to go to the gym and stay fit”, “ not too dark, you know, fair-skinned”, and a host of other superficial traits.
It goes to show how these damaging ideologies passed down through generations of traditional systems are so deeply prevalent that they are perpetuated and echoed back by everyone, irrespective of background, educational qualifications, or gender.
The Show Exposes How Indian Traditional Systems Continue To View Working Women
The strong-headed Aparna who rejects four to five proposals is constantly demeaned by Sima Taparia – “She gives such negative vibes”, “She should change the way she talks”, “She cannot be so stubborn and inflexible”, and “She is too picky. I am tired of that girl”. Pradhyuman and Akshay, on the other hand, who constantly casually mention how they must have rejected 70-80 proposals, are gently chastised by Taparia, and she tiredly tells the camera, “The boy is confused.” On the whole, she tends to be much harder on the women.
Ankita, the career driven and opinionated woman is considered one of the most difficult “cases” by Sima, to the extent that she hands over her case to another matchmaker she knows. She describes Ankita to the other matchmaker as “independent”, “modern”, “not photogenic”, but “good natured”.
Akshay’s mother, who is pressuring him into an arranged marriage, has regressive criteria that the bahu needs to meet. She talks of how she runs the house, and how the daughter-in-law must be accommodating and subservient. There are rules and traditions she must follow. Akshay clearly wholeheartedly agrees with this ideology. He wants a wife who is exactly like his mother.
The woman Akshay eventually gets engaged to – Radhika – however, is academically qualified and wants to pursue a career. Akshay doesn’t object to this when talking to her, but later tells the camera – “I would want my future partner to do the same things in the house that my mom does, because I’m not like that. If she’s busy with her work, who is going to take care of the kids and all?”
Radhika’s shy “I am happy” when talking of her fiancé and his family during the roka ceremony then, is tragic for us as an audience, having been exposed to the realities of her future family.
The Show Also Hints At An Inevitable Progression Beyond The Regressive
Even while we’re force fed the “good” aspects of the process, and the older couples’ stories who have been married for over thirty years after having an arranged marriage, there is another conclusion to be derived from the show.
Rupam, the divorced single mother admits that Sima Taparia gave her decent proposals, but ultimately finds someone she wants to pursue a relationship with on Bumble. Ankita decides to take her learnings from the experience and focus on her career. Several subjects say the experience encouraged them to become more open to people and vulnerable in relationships.
The matchmaking experience with Sima Taparia seems to be that one toxic relationship people come out of with a better understanding of what to do in the next one. The show, as well as its subjects to an extent, seem to be stuck in the liminal – of trying to hold on to one’s roots and the traditions that worked in the past, while inevitably beginning to move on from them.
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