Like the majority of my South Asian friends (and my mum’s friends and cousins and aunties who aren’t really aunties), I was inexplicably drawn to Netflix’s new show Indian Matchmaking. Arranged marriages are something that are very commonly associated with the South Asian community, but not something that has happened in my family for quite a few generations. So while I’m asked about it occasionally by curious acquaintances, I don’t really know a lot about the practice beyond what I saw from my joke Shaadi.com account.
The show follows Sima Taparia, who holds the self-proclaimed title of ‘Mumbai’s Top Matchmaker’, as she meets with multiple people in India and America who are looking to find a spouse. After an initial meeting she creates ‘biodata’, essentially a detailed profile of the person that covers everything from hobbies to what they’re looking for in a partner. Some criteria are familiar: ‘funny’, ‘creative’, ‘career-driven’. Others are more problematic- ‘fair-skinned’, ‘specific caste’, ‘not a divorcee’, and the one I hate the most, ‘family-oriented’. In my experience and from watching this show, family-oriented is almost exclusively used to describe women and more often than not means willing to take sole care of the home, be the primary caregiver, not to be too independent. Like Sima often puts it, being compromising and flexible is key to a successful marriage, but only if you’re the woman.
On the surface of it, matchmaking seems innocuous, like IRL Tinder only with people who actually have a bio and definitely exist, but binge-watching this in just under 48 hours really highlighted multiple problematic attitudes in the show. From blatant colourism (one stunning woman, Ankita, is labelled ‘unattractive’ for being too dark) to frankly sinister uses of words like ‘flexible’ and ‘accommodating’ to perpetuate the belief that only women must bend to make marriages work, the show glorifies stereotypical ‘aunty gaze’ without making any effort to critique these viewpoints.
When you consider that the Indian skin lightening industry is worth several billion dollars, it’s precisely throwaway phrases like “not too dark, you know, fair-skinned”(Episode 8), that we need to have difficult conversations about and to consider the role the South Asian community continues to play in perpetuating systemic racism through colourism.
Throughout the show, you visibly see the prospective spouses struggling with the weight of expectation from their parents and from those around them. Akshay, from Mumbai, is very clearly entirely uninterested in marriage yet, his mother constantly emotionally manipulates him by blaming him for her blood pressure problems and even for his brother not having had his first child yet. Akshay himself has taken on all of his mother’s opinions on the ideal wife to the point that he is essentially looking for someone who is a mirror of his mother. Watching him criticise a woman who wanted to pursue her own work, simply because he feels he is not ‘able’ to cook, clean and basically look after himself, infuriated me, yet the show presented this criteria as completely reasonable. But, when Aparna, an American lawyer, states that she wanted someone ambitious and independent like her, she was branded as difficult and rude.
Aparna, who is hilarious if not more than a tad rude at times, is portrayed as the villain of the series. She is the total opposite of the stereotype and expectation of South Asian women to be quiet and submissive, but rather than being celebrated for this she is constantly vilified for her ‘bad vibes’ and being picky with the men she is parsing to BE HER FUTURE HUSBAND. And yet, when Pradhyuman rejects over 150 women from their biodata pages alone this is simply shrugged off. Boys will be boys I guess.
Overall, while the show is quite funny, very easily binge-able and has several heartwarming moments from the interview with Vyasar’s students to Nadia actually uttering the words ‘smitten kitten’, Indian Matchmaking is a show that rests on its stereotypical ‘aunty-gaze’, never seeking to question or criticise the colourism, casteism, fatphobia, sexism or other problematic attitudes repeatedly expressed in the show.
This show could have been a fantastic opportunity to explore and celebrate the diversity of the Indian experience both for those in India and for us NRIs (Non-Resident Indians). As someone who grew up in England with parents from Kenya and great grandparents from India, my experiences of my South Asian identity are very different to what is portrayed on Western television and yet is something that many of us bond over; be it because of a shared British-Kenyan-Indian identity, being a Guju girl (originally from the region of Gujurat), being Jain or many other cultural touchpoints. And, this is just the tip of the iceberg of South Asian identities.
Indian Matchmaking fails to capture this diversity and instead homogenises the Indian experience. It is a poor representation of South Asian culture both in India and outside. Indian culture is tokenised and in some cases turned into a cringe-worthy gag. Its complexity and variety is glossed over, with some aspects completely written out of the conversation. Every match presented is a heterosexual one and there is not a single Muslim on the show.
Onscreen representations of Indians, particularly of the Indian diaspora, in Western media are limited but growing, Never Have I Ever is one example (Netflix). For those looking for something a tad more grown-up, my personal favourite is called Four More Shots Please, a show that follows four friends in Mumbai (Amazon Prime). Told in at least three different languages, and with stories covering everything from bisexuality to co-parenting after divorce to body confidence, it delivers on everything missing from Indian Matchmaking.