Indian Matchmaking @Netflix – Do We Really Hate It? Or Do We Just Feel We Have To?

As Indian Matchmaking – Netflix’s new documentary on the ever-puzzling, 'need to hate it but can’t really' arranged marriage – aired and climbed ranks, so did the backlash on social media. But do the accusations hold?

As Indian Matchmaking – Netflix’s new documentary on the ever-puzzling, ‘need to hate it but can’t really’ arranged marriage – aired and climbed ranks, so did the backlash on social media. But do the accusations hold?

Multiple reviews are out there, including on mainstream international media like Reuters, that fault the show for casteism, gender stereotyping, classism, and for showing Indian society in a negative light. So, as a staunch self-proclaimed progressive feminist, I needed to hate it.

And since I met my partner at University and didn’t go through the process of matchmaking, my ego was hoping to find an occasion for ‘See, I did better’ flaunting. But alas, love and marriage are not the same and that’s a discussion for another day…

We humans, driven by either fascination or disdain, are designed to be hooked on to things that we feel we shouldn’t be hooked on to. We just don’t like to admit it. So, I found myself binge-watching Indian Matchmaking despite a feed full of ‘who watches this regressive shit’ posts. I am no stranger to watching such stuff and am not ashamed to admit to it. As said, for whatever reason, we gobble up shows like Millionaire Matchmaker, Real Housewives, and Big Boss. And I thought I knew what I would see. But I am quite surprised now that I am done and feel like clearing up some of the things being said about the show.

Accusation 1: The show is classist

The most fatal flaw that was noted of the show was the fact that it focuses on rich Indians only, and leaves the middle class behind. Well, what’s wrong with that? The concept of gala wedding fascination is tied to extravagant ceremonies. From Sabyasachi’s Band, Bajaa, Bride to coverage on Ambani or Virat Anushka weddings, this is not a new thing – nor a fatal flaw in itself.

Yes, other people get married too – but most entertainment will target extreme or interesting – especially a show designed to bring forward how important weddings are in some cultures vs. others. Do we not know that we Indians go overboard – live and die – for weddings? Yes, I know – not all of us. But we will be denying the truth if we deny that weddings are disproportionately big of an event in Indian social culture and being. So, for a show to showcase how people go overboard with weddings in the Indian culture, some glitz has to be sprinkled all around.

But more importantly, the show doesn’t feature only the rich. Even though it might seem from a certain vantage point that all NRIs are extremely affluent – several of the NRI families and stories featured in the show (and this is even mentioned in case of Vyasar) have narratives of struggle and lifestyles that are not the richest. These are really (even though you might cringe as you read this if the lens you will apply is a comparison to the global poor) families that are middle class or even lower middle class in the US.

Amongst the in India families, yes, there are ultra-rich protagonists, but there are also matches that are brought forward from a small town, humble backgrounds, and several self-made professionals and entrepreneurs are seen on the show.

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Does the show specifically showcase the socio-economically disadvantaged? No. It’s a show on matchmaking using a professional matchmaker. It has families who can afford that service. The point is: people from various backgrounds find marriage to be important and reach out to professionals for finding matches and spend quite some money in the process (and on the wedding itself maybe – although many protagonists on the show said they wouldn’t). But that’s their choice and ground reality. Nothing cringe-worthy.

Accusation 2: It glorifies a regressive practice

This is the most baffling one of all the criticisms of the show I have come across, because, it’s a criticism of the practice of arranged marriage itself and is in a way, entitled behaviour.

Why? Because yes it would be wonderful if everyone met their ideal partner most organically, fell in the kind of love that creates rainbows in the sky, and got into marital bliss. But it is not that easy.

If we don’t believe in marriage, or in the need of finding a long-term partner, that’s a whole different debate. But most people will not argue that (and for those who do – saying things like ‘we are happy in ourselves and are self-sufficient pillars of strength’ – good for you – but that’s not everyone and that doesn’t need to be everyone). Therefore, it’s silly to discard the importance of reasonable mechanisms that lead us to a goal so primal.

Everyone has a right to look for a partner if that’s what they want and arranged marriage via a matchmaker is not that different from using a dating site, a matrimony site, apps, or really, a list-serv even. If anything, the former, if done right, has the potential of being targeted and customised with personal attention and therefore, can have a higher chance of success.

We don’t cringe when international partner matching sites promise compatible partners with personality matching tests or 14 questions, or when we swipe apps left to right. So why the outrage if a boy or a girl is asked by a matchmaker what they are looking for in their potential partner? Soliciting a family’s opinion while designing a marriage, especially if the future household will be a joint one, is also not a wrong thing to do.

Now, yes, it can become problematic in the following cases:

  • If arranged marriage is forced.
  • If the criteria put forward are completely disregarding of what the people involved want and is just a way for the family to find a daughter/son-in-law.
  • People are made to feel derogated. Note: Asking to compromise is not the same as putting someone down.

The above points aren’t valid for most cases in the show (except for maybe Akshay). Also, when it becomes so, it is called out (like by Ankita for the second matchmaker Deepa).

Accusation 3: One gender propped up as ‘superior’

Arranged marriage is cited as regressive because of stereotyped and gender-differentiated wants voiced by the participants. But let’s be real here – when we use dating apps, or when we try to find someone, do we not look for attractiveness? Do we not look for financial stability? Don’t we need to be flexible and adjust our expectations? In life, and love?

The show Millionaire Matchmaker on Bravo – which had nothing to do with Indians for the most part – was overtly and specifically sexist in looking for ‘women who wear curve-hugging dresses to get the juices going in the millionaire men’. I didn’t find Indian Matchmaking to be so. Unlike what social media posts would have me believe, men and women are both asked to flexible and make up their minds (e.g. Akshay, Aparna, Pradhyuman, Rupam). Men (like Vyasar and Srinivas) are criticised for not being ambitious enough or not having career goals by women. No woman is criticised for wanting to have a career by the men (except again, in the case of Akshay).

Yes, there are references and acknowledgment of popular narratives: successful women being intimidating and women putting career first or being too busy causing problems with marriage and men needing to be financial support pillars. And yes, one particular would be mother-in-law makes it very clear that the wife will need to obey family rules. But similarly, Aparna’s mother, calls an author and podcast host candidate a ‘loser’ quite vocally and Rupam’s father declines a man just because he had married a non-Indian previously.

I didn’t find an imbalance. I didn’t find Sima Taparia asking only the women to be flexible and give up their careers while meeting every whim of the men. In fact, in several dating instances, Aparna comes off as abrupt and rude – but that is something Sima seems to be willing to discount and work around, trying to find men who will be ‘OK’ with this aspect of her personality. Her feedback for positive change, let’s be real, is valid in this case.

In a situation where we need to design finding someone, because we weren’t as lucky to have met the love of our life by chance, it’s only natural that there will be preferences discussed. Preferences, by definition, are aspirations. I didn’t find them to be one-sided in the show. I didn’t even find the show to be propagating bias on looks. It features real people. Some asked for fair tall and slim, several didn’t care. Several were defined as beautiful or good-looking defying traditional expectations of beauty.

That is exactly how it happens in real life – arranged or not.

As for matching charts and caste – let’s come to that.

Accusation 4: The show promotes casteism

No. Indian culture and way of living follows casteism. The show is not shot in a vacuum. If no Indian family in real life (esp. those in urban India who often claim on social media posts that they have never come across casteism in cities like Bangalore and Delhi, and therefore, it has to exist only in rural, remote India) cared about preserving their caste – casteism would become irrelevant in marriage discussions.

Just one look at a matrimonial page in any daily – local or national – will prove the point that casteism exists in India. And therefore, when a family’s opinion is sought for a suitable candidate – some, not all, express a desire of a match from the same caste. I am not saying that’s correct to do. I am saying the show can’t be faulted for being a documentary and showing what happens in reality. The show has opposite examples too (example Nadia and quite a few of her matches who don’t care about community and caste).

Accusation 5. Horoscopes still matter?

Yes, Sima seems to be quite religious – believes deeply in prayers and pujas – and horoscopes. As long as that is not forced on anyone who doesn’t want to follow it – why is it bad? In the name of religious and personal freedom, shouldn’t I be allowed to have my beliefs as long as I don’t impose them on anyone else’s freedom? Many people in the US (and in India too), ‘wokes’ and ‘liberals’ as now they are being called (previously ‘hippies’ and I might be one of them), believe in energy matching, chakras, tai-chi, and spiritual guidance. It’s counter oppression to place one series of beliefs as superior over another.

Now, if we want to debate science – that’s a valid and altogether different debate. But by that debate, several beliefs will go out the door, not just the un-trendy ones.

In sum, arranged marriage as a concept strongly works and there is merit to having a professional matchmaker with experience facilitate the same (because matchmaking can never be exact science). In another post, I can argue why. It is a problem only if it’s forced and is a primary mechanism for propagating discriminatory practices. It can’t be the latter unless we let it be that.

The show, in my opinion, does quite a good job of bringing forward both the good and the bad (and in a few cases, the ugly), has a bit of satirical essence (especially with the criteria lists that get flashed) and covers quite a range. Its real shine is the reality with which it showcases the vulnerability of the protagonists getting their hopes up and then facing heartbreak.

We have all been there. I have been Nadia. I have been Vyasar. I have been Aparna. I know what I would have done in such a case – to what extent I would have gone. I have seen friends go through the matrimonial site loops, ‘I have fallen in love’ loops, and ‘I have met someone’ loops. I have seen them getting crushed as age progresses with desperation, loneliness, and heartbreak. That is real. That is all of us. We can’t judge them for that, neither can we judge the process they are choosing.

What we can do is learn and reflect to ensure we don’t follow in real life whatever we find to be ‘regressive’ in the show. We can choose to deliberately marry out of caste. We can become caste agnostic, not just unaware. We can choose to influence our family members to spend less on the next marriage. But if we box something just for the sake of boxing it, because of how we think it smells, we are reverse stereotyping.

Image is a scene from the show

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About the Author

Tanushree Ghosh

Tanushree Ghosh (Ph. D., Chemistry, Cornell, NY), is Director at Intel Corp., a social activist, and an author. She is a contributor (past and present) to several popular e-zines incl. The Huffington Post US ( read more...

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