When on top form, reality TV acts as a microcosm that showcases the very best and worst of humanity. It can bridges social gulfs by being universal and relatable. It also brings the unparalleled joy that comes with watching others humiliate themselves. Indian Matchmaking, the latest Netflix hit, is a prime example. It does all that, and more.
The show follows Sima Taparia (”Sima Aunty”), a Mumbai-based matchmaker who helps Indian singletons find prospective life partners. Through studying her clients’ carefully collated “biodata” – a mix between a dating profile and professional CV- Sima guides her clients in India and America towards successful arranged marriages.
The show is trending internationally. After all, everyone can relate to the experience of awkward dates, prying parents and the emotionally stumped man-child who can’t yet differentiate between a maid and a potential wife (”if she’s busy with work, who’s going to take care of the kids and all?”).
For the Indian community, this is our Tiger King. Tweets and memes are being distributed on every family WhatsApp chain, amusing baby boomers and Generation Z alike. Intense discussions are kicked off as households decide which of their friends and family members are too close in character to the ones on screen. If you know a Preeti, run for the hills. We’re all relating deeply to the overbearing mothers (my own thankfully exempt), the meddling families, and the cringe-worthy conversations around marriageability and values.
For some, it really has been a hilariously brutal portrayal of their own experiences. Many have enjoyed seeing marriages like theirs being depicted as a viable and appealing route to romance. Amogha, 27, had an arranged marriage not unlike the ones in the show. “Indian Matchmaking definitely made me cringe multiple times, but overall it does accurately reflect the arranged marriage process in India,” she told me.
Amogha and her husband were “matched” by their uncle in their hometown of Bangalore, India. “Personally, I’m a diehard romantic and never thought I’d go in for an arranged marriage,” she said. “But we both knew that we probably wouldn’t meet our life partners at pubs. For me, the process felt like speed dating. I went on a bunch of first dates and the moment I met my husband, we instantly clicked and we just knew we wanted to spend our lives together that very day.”
Yet for plenty of others, the show has left a bitter taste. Kittie, 26, was born in South India but raised in the UK. Her own parents had a revolutionary love marriage, but she grew up surrounded by arranged partnerships. “There were stories of how some aunties were incapable of making good tea, or had unlucky horoscope placements which lead to rejections,” she said. “I didn’t enjoy the show, but I was definitely entertained. On a logical level you can comprehend what you’re witnessing is wrong, but at the same time you can’t really look away.”
What the show has exposed is some of the ugliest sides of our culture – castism, colourism, sexism and other questionable social values are found lurking in every episode. Practically every client (and, importantly, their parents too) lists “fair skinned” as a core criterion for eligibility. A matchmaker seriously tells one hopeful that “as a woman” she needs to be more willing to compromise and give up her career and livelihood. Men who are willing to take on a “progressive working woman” are revered rather than normalised.
And for an Indian matchmaking show, there’s still very little of real India present. The show – not unlike many other reality programmes – focuses on the lives of the spoilt and rich. There’s no sign of a Muslim waiting to be matched – a minority that accounts for a significant 13 per cent of the Indian population – nor any prospective LGBT couples.
When there are so few mainstream programmes featuring Indian and South Asian leads, Indian Matchmaking’s skewed representation of our culture can feel frustrating. For me, and for countless other British Indians, arranged marriages ended with our parents’ generation. Like the rest of this country we’re marrying later, or not at all. But that’s no reason to write off the show altogether.
Just like everyone else, Indian creators have the right to tell whichever stories they choose, and that includes narratives that work best in trashy TV formats like this. Time and time again, minority-led projects are held to higher standards than their white counterparts, with the burden of representation and success resting on their shoulders. The upcoming adaptation of Vikram Seth’s A Suitable Boy has already been subject to this criticism, and the actor and writer Mindy Kaling has often faced a similar backlash. “I’m just telling a story that resonates with me, of a very specific character,” said Kaling about her most recent hit show, Never Have I Ever. I suggest we leave her to it.
Indian Matchmaking’s Oscar-nominated creator, Smriti Mundhra, said the programme was not trying to shy away from any uncomfortable conversations”. In doing that, they’ve showcased the endearing toxicity of India’s cultural milieu – and divided our community in the process.