Review: ‘Indian Matchmaking’ balances tradition and modernity, despite controversy

by Shera Bhala | 8/21/20 2:30am

When I first watched “Indian Matchmaking,” I didn’t frown upon the premise of the show. Instead, I laughed at hilarious scenes between Indian American families redolent of my family. Released on July 16, this Netflix original is produced by the Oscar-nominated documentary filmmaker Smriti Mundhra, who communicates a middle way between arranged marriages and modern dating. “Indian Matchmaking” has polarized viewers, with some seeing it as perpetuating colorism, sexism and the caste system, while others perceive it as a lighthearted take on contemporary Indian culture that destigmatizes arranged marriages. I am in the second camp and let me tell you why. 

My father’s family is Punjabi. Some of my relatives immigrated to the United States. Many of them are still in India. I have visited my aunties and uncles, eaten kheer at the Langar of the Golden Temple in Amritsar, enjoyed homemade samosas and chai from my great aunt in New Delhi and floated on a little wooden boat on the sacred (albeit grey) Ganges river, among many other adventures that taught me about my Indian origins. I recognize that I exist in a different space of privilege as an Indian and Chinese American, who can pass as white. But I have seen the other side of India as well, the one not curated for visiting foreigners. Slums packed with people covered in lice and streets lined with emaciated untouchables begging for money are the shocking vignettes of poverty that expose the reality of India’s developing state. 

Amidst this reality is the tradition of arranged marriage. Many of my relatives and family friends were married through parental deals. As Sima Taparia, or “Sima Auntie,” the matchmaker who stars in the show, says, sometimes arranged marriages work and sometimes they don’t, just like the success and failure rates of love marriages (which, in Indian culture, means an unarranged marriage borne of a couple’s preexisting attraction). To be sure, there are terrible and unhappy arranged marriages that suffer from horrors such as domestic violence. But there are also beautiful success stories, like the ones highlighted at the beginning of each episode of “Indian Matchmaking.” My great auntie was married to the husband with whom her parents set her up with for half a century. 

My parents are a departure from tradition, as my dad married my mom, a Malaysian-Chinese woman, through a love marriage. More traditional members of our family, notably my Indian grandparents, were not happy. However, my aunt and uncle supported my parents throughout their journey, with my uncle, a minister, ordaining their wedding. The example of my parents is a microcosm of the dualism of tradition and modernity in Indian marriages.

“Indian Matchmaking” is remarkable in its honest depiction of this delicate dichotomy. Sima Auntie introduces us to the world of matchmaking, where she is hired by a variety of Indian and Indian American clients (the show shifts between the two countries) to pair them with potential counterparts. She is absolutely hilarious, whether she knows it or not. Sima Auntie is the Netflix manifestation of so many of my nosy, yet adorable, Indian aunties, who want to know all about my dating life. Her head nods, facial expressions and phrases that drop articles and emphasize adjectives are a familiar comfort. Sima Auntie is the star of the show with her “biodatas” (profiles of potential suitors), life coaches and astrologists. 

The marriage in “Indian Matchmaking” is “arranged” only in the sense Sima Auntie acts as a human dating app with which clients and their parents consult. But every subsequent step resembles regular dating. The “matched” couple goes on some kind of fancy date — if it intimates mutual attraction, then they continue dating; if not, they go back to Sima for more biodatas. 

There are many different storylines in the show, as Sima Auntie works with a diverse array of personalities, expectations and emotions. In Houston, Aparna is a condescending, mean and picky lawyer whose exposure to Sima’s methods triggers a 180-degree personality turnaround. Through meetings with Sima’s astrologist and a goat yoga date with her suitor, Aparna finds happiness after many failed matches. In New Jersey, Nadia is a wedding planner searching for love herself. She is sweet and optimistic, even after a guy from one of her biodatas stands her up. Halfway across the world in Mumbai, Sima sets her two clients, Pradhyuman and Akshay, up with “slim, trim, fair and educated matches.” Pradhyuman is a shy man-child who wants a carbon copy of his mother for his wife (Oedipal, I know). 

These varying clients share a common desire: to be matchmade with another Indian or Indian American. This commonality is the balance between tradition and modernity that “Indian Matchmaking” creates. Likewise, the process is largely women-driven: by Sima Auntie and the clients’ mothers, who both perpetuate traditional concerns and accept modern innovations. “Indian Matchmaking” is a delightful, culturally intelligent and fun take on a dating show. 

That said, the show is heterosexual in focus, which encourages heteronormativity. The show is innovative in revealing what it does, but not so much as to break down the taboo in Indian culture on openly discussing LGBTQ+ issues. Perhaps a season two might do so. 

Critics of the Netflix series understandably argue that the show commodifies women and promotes colorism and a backwards vision of marriage. But, they miss the point of the series. India is not as thoroughly-modern as America; instead, India’s 1.35 billion people live in different centuries, sometimes simultaneously. They are diverse across time and balance tradition as well as modernity. Some communities practice the antiquated and problematic aspects of arranged marriage, others support modern dating and hold progressive attitudes towards relationships and many may do a bit of both. The discriminatory caste system is alive and well in India, with only 5 percent of people marrying outside of their caste. Colorism concerns stem from it, as a higher caste typically signifies fairer skin. All of the clients in “Indian Matchmaking” are wealthy and of high status, which results in a glamorization of the show.  

Yet, when I asked my friends about the show, they said it destigmatized many notions about arranged marriage. In the past, their definition of the practice was the strict one: two strangers linked by parental agreement, meeting for the first time on their wedding day. My friends rightly feared arranged marriages often entailed older men and child brides. “Indian Matchmaking” rebukes these stereotypes and reveals the evolution of a cultural tradition that dates back several millennia. Without disregarding the negative facets of arranged marriages, compounded with a continued caste system, I think this show communicates a lighthearted, enjoyable and culturally intelligent take on Indian arranged marriages. The truth is India is all of the above: some marriages follow the strict definition, while others are far from it. 

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