By Anika Jain
“The Bachelor,” “Love Island,” “Too Hot to Handle” and more — we have seen a plethora of reality TV dating shows before, but never anything that matches the likes of Netflix’s “Indian Matchmaking.” The real star of the show is Sima Taparia, or “Sima Aunty,” a professional matchmaker from Bombay, India, who collects “biodatas,” which are essentially dating profile resumes, from single Indians around the world in order to set them up for marriage. While the two lovers have the opportunity to go on actual dates and have some liberties when it comes to deciding their spouse, Sima Aunty is more or less setting up arranged marriages — an ancient tradition in many Asian countries, especially in India.
Mixing old and respected traditions with reality TV? What could possibly go wrong?
Well, although the show is entertaining and has just the right amount of reality TV show cringe, “Indian Matchmaking” broadcasts a variety of issues in Indian culture, such as colorism, fatphobia, caste discrimination and misogyny. While the singles tell Sima Aunty about their preferences in a spouse, we see a variety of hurtful biases come to light, specifically pertaining to women, who — in Sima Aunty’s own words — are expected to be “tall, trim and fair.” From the outset, the show depicts harmful stereotypes that idolize Eurocentric beauty standards, which is very consistent with Indian culture. In addition to these superficial preferences, families are very clear about their desire to match their children with a spouse from a high caste — despite the abolishment of the Indian caste system in 1948.
Although many major news outlets like CNN and MSNBC were quick to criticize the show for being problematic, I do not blame “Indian Matchmaking” for being a problematic show. Indian marriage culture itself is problematic, and “Indian Matchmaking” is very accurate in its portrayal of the intense admiration for Eurocentric beauty. I appreciate the fact that they do not “whitewash” the show in order to appease Western audiences. Rather, it is unapologetically Indian, from the glamorization of fair skin to the marital pressure from families.
Notwithstanding the intense colorism and classism, the stakes for these singles is much higher than any other reality TV show. While shows like “The Bachelor” are also centered on matchmaking, couples break up the moment the show ends. Meanwhile, “Indian Matchmaking” was created with the intention of arranging marriages and helping young Indians find their life partners. Not to mention, in Indian culture, divorces are intensely frowned upon, so when they get married, they truly mean “till death do us part.” Hence, India has the lowest divorce rate in the world at less than 1% of marriages ending in divorce.
Now, this is not to say that arranged marriages are entirely forced and restrictive. As an Indian American myself, more than half of the married couples I grew up around had arranged marriages, including my aunts, uncles, cousins and grandparents. In fact, my grandmother had never met my grandfather until their wedding day. All she had was a picture of him that she convinced her cousin to steal for her. And yet, they have maintained a long and loyal relationship for over 50 years.
Part of the reason arranged marriages are still so prominent among Indians is because marriage is not seen as two people falling in love. Marriage is seen as two families joining together, and as a duty and privilege by the bride and groom that will bring prosperity and posterity to their families. “Indian Matchmaking” illustrates this through its brief two-minute interviews at the start of each episode with Indian couples who have been in arranged marriages for at least 30 years. The couples joke around with each other and express the shared sentiment that, while they never spent time together before marriage, they were happy to uphold tradition. While they may not be each other’s soulmates, I would argue that they are the loves of each other’s lives.
Throughout the show’s eight episodes, we are introduced to not only the singles but also their families — parents, siblings, cousins, etc. — who meet their family member’s date in order to help determine whether or not he or she could fit into their family dynamic. Because of the heavy role family plays in marriage in Indian culture, marital pressure begins from as early as the age of 25, sometimes even sooner. Essentially, once a young Indian or Indian-American has graduated from college and has a starter job, marriage is the next step families expect from their children so that they can start to have children of their own.
In order to affirm the viability of each relationship, Sima Aunty consults multiple pundits (Hindu priests) to read the horoscope of each couple to determine whether or not their personalities match and what the most auspicious time for marriage is; the horoscope is different from the typical zodiac signs we see in Western astrology. Throughout the show, Sima Aunty preaches that she is only a mediator for God’s wishes and that once she has set up the couples, it is up to destiny to determine whether or not they are right for one another. It is interesting to see how thematic elements of love marriages like destiny play into such an organized process like arranged marriage.
While “Indian Matchmaking” accurately depicts Indian culture and biases, I found the show to be pretty lenient and romantic in its depiction of arranged marriages. In contrast to real life, the couples decided whom to meet and whether to continue the relationship. However, I still classify the marriages as arranged because of the prominent familial presence throughout the relationships from their conception, the limited partner options, the inorganic meeting style and the prioritization of marriage over love. Of course, with every generation, the rules loosen and tradition becomes more flexible. Religion plays less of a role, people get married at an older age with more say in who their spouse is and divorce becomes more common. For instance, out of all of my closest Indian friends, my parents are the only ones I know who had a love marriage. I am positive that with my generation, more Indians will have love marriages as well. Therefore, while the biases depicted in the show are undoubtedly problematic, “Indian Matchmaking” accurately shines a light on the reality of non-Western culture and hard truths about marriage.
Contact Anika Jain at anikajain ‘at’ sfhs.com.