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Indian Matchmaking - A lesson in how not to make shows about India

Written By: Seema Hari, Naomi Joshi & Kanika Karvinkop

 

In case you haven’t heard, Indian Matchmaking is a show on Netflix that garnered mass popularity across the world, landing it a top spot in the Netflix charts for weeks in a row. The creators describe the show as: a 2020 Indian documentary, television series produced by Smriti Mundhra, where matchmaker Sima Taparia guides clients in the U.S. and India in the arranged marriage process, “offering an inside look at customs in the modern era”. The show has amassed hundreds of headlines, and thousands of social media posts and memes, but most of them fail to address the fact that watching the show is an extremely traumatizing experience for many South Asians, who have to live through the horrors of casteism, colorism and sexism on a daily basis. When Netflix is busy claiming solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement in the West, their decision to shamelessly profit from a show that normalizes horrific social evils from South Asia, shines a light on their double standards. Although this show presented a plethora of opportunities for crucial and insightful discussion, Netflix and the team has failed to depict the truth behind arranged marriage practices in India. 

To understand why this show is problematic, we must first understand the deeply complicated origins of arranged marriages in India. The custom of arranged marriage was created primarily to uphold caste supremacy: “Arranged marriages are, in effect, caste marriages. That is, they are marriages between two people of the same caste, arranged by family cops—parents, elders, uncles, aunts, and distant relatives— who want to ensure that the caste bloodline remains ‘pure’ and is not contaminated by the impure blood of lower castes”, writes caste scholar Suraj Yengde. The caste system, created thousands of years ago, divided the Indian society into enclosed classes based on occupation, and created a social order that allowed for no movement. Caste was fixed by birth and then upheld using endogamy and practices like arranged marriages. It is almost impossible to talk about arranged marriages without talking about caste since the former was practiced to perpetuate the alleged purity of the upper castes.

 


The practice of arranged marriage is also rooted in misogyny, where women are considered a burden on their families. Historically, the bride’s family was required to pay a dowry to the groom’s family, as a reparation. Dowry payments are now ruled illegal, but most arranged marriages still involve dowries, they are now just euphemized as “gifts from the bride”. Women are generally paraded in front of potential suitors and their families, and given little to no agency to choose their life partner. Even though not all arranged marriages are forced marriages, there is no denying the unrelenting pressure on families to marry their daughters off, and on women to be married off by a certain age. Women and their families who fail to comply are heavily criticized and stigmatized by society. 

In April of 2020, No Borders spoke to Swetha, the head of the psychosocial  program at the International Foundation of Crime Prevention and Victim Care. PCVC is based in Chennai, Tamil Nadu, and offers specialized services to womxn and queer individuals who are impacted by violence of any kind: domestic violence, intimate partner violence, sexual abuse, etc. Due to the problematic and oppressive practice of arranged marriage in India, societal pressures around leaving a relationship are so high, that this program must provide long-term care as victims are not willing to leave their abusive households. In arranged marriages, it is custom for the woman to move in with her husband and his entire family, into his family home, giving up her relationship with her family and their home. This coupled with an extreme stigma around divorce, means that women are often left with the terrifying possibility of displacement if they choose to leave, leading to an increased risk of domestic abuse and tolerance of bad behavior. 

So, does this show really give you an inside look into arranged marriage, informing the viewer of it’s dark origins in upholding caste supremacy? No. Does it tell you about the deeply misogynistic nature of many of the customs associated with arranged marriages? No. Does it address how South Asians all over the world are actively fighting for their right to love and choose their own partner? No. Does this show bother to inform you that people who have inter-caste marriages risk being murdered by their own communities, a horrific reality that the media minimizes by calling them “honor killings”? A fact that keeps matchmakers like Sima Taparia in business? No. Instead, all we get is an over-glamorized, heavily sanitized and fairytale-esque depiction of arranged marriages, described as matches “made in heaven”, where all the flaws in our society and in our landscapes are conveniently photo-shopped out of the picture. 

 

 

This show claims to be a documentary series, but it really isn’t. It is a perfectly set up reality dating show, at best. It was carefully curated to convey a particular pre-mediated narrative to a specific audience. By unequivocally glorifying arranged marriage practices without offering any differing perspectives or historical context, it fails to depict the truth - something one expects from documentaries. It normalizes casteist, colorist and sexist attitudes, which validates the South Asians in the audience who hold these bigoted views and misrepresents the topic to the Western audience, who is unaware of the harm such practices have caused and continue to cause to this day.

Unlike documentaries and even scripted shows, which provide context, commentary and counter perspectives when characters behave and speak in a problematic manner, or when any regressive, untoward event takes place, Indian Matchmaking simply inserts joyful music and glossy Bollywood style editing over such things, creating a stylish montage of social evils for the audience to consume as entertainment. Sima, the matchmaker, is portrayed as a larger than life, modern, progressive savior/business woman, who is never questioned even once, as she casually discriminates against people based on their skin color, caste and other physical traits, shaming women for being too picky. 

 

Depicting social evils through art and media is not new or wrong. Art reflects life, so almost every story we see on screen depicts the problematic ideologies of society in some fashion, but the duty of storytellers is to set the tone in a way in which the audience clearly understands that these realities are tragic and not aspirational. For example, in Tiger King, there are plenty of facts strewn across the timeline that tell us Joe’s actions are unethical, and many perspectives about animal abuse and pitfalls of the trade are intentionally woven into the storyline. Due to this tone, the audience does not walk away from Tiger King, thinking that exotic animal trade is trendy, glamorous, entertaining or harmless. 

Unfortunately, in Indian Matchmaking, we see a complete normalization of social evils, where the creators of the series choose not to provide any context or counter opinions. The result is a traumatizing experience for many South Asian viewers, where the harmful cultural practices that are being used to oppress them are depicted through an extremely tone deaf, privileged lens, validated by a platform as powerful as Netflix.

The show goes on to supplement these one dimensional, pro-arranged marriage views with an assortment of arranged marriage stories of elderly couples at the beginning of each episode. When you curate a set of stories to feature, your choices inherently reflect your intentions. The creators of this series intentionally selected only successful stories to be featured, which further underscores their intentions of painting arranged marriage in an all-positive light. The use of mostly old couples who have been together for decades, and who probably opted for arranged marriage at a time when other options practically didn’t exist, is also questionable. These scenes function as a way of showing the successful ‘result’ of arranged marriages, essentially promoting the continuation of these practices and suggesting that Sima is right: arranged marriages work and they are “made in heaven”.

 

 

For a show that claims to be modern, Indian matchmaking fails to take a stance on skin color discrimination as well. Sima repeatedly describes candidates by their skin color, highlighting “fair” skin as an asset that people should look for and appreciate in a potential match. Colorism is a global issue but it is especially pronounced in South Asia, where dark skinned people have been dehumanized for millennia thanks to casteism, colonialism and profit hungry corporations preying on people’s self esteem. Nearly 50% of all beauty products sold in South Asian countries have a skin whitening component and the industry is estimated at somewhere between 10-20 billion dollars.

 

 

 

Activists have been fighting colorism in South Asia for decades. Global protests for the Black Lives Matter movement prompted a larger conversation about colorism in the South Asian context, which led to beauty companies dropping these discriminatory products altogether or rebranding their narratives to be more inclusive of dark skin. South Asians around the world are fighting for de-stigmatization of dark skin and representation in all streams of media. Yet, on Indian Matchmaking, we see Sima spew her bigoted worldview of seeing light skin as superior, and the showrunners choose not to question her views, even though they routinely make Sima answer a bunch of scripted interview questions to explain other situations throughout the show. When the series ends without offering any call outs or context on how problematic her views are, it feels like another indicator of how the creators didn’t care to question her because they are either color privileged or intentionally uninformed.

The show also lets Sima get away with her misogynistic views and approach to matchmaking. Sima repeatedly tells women on the show to adjust and lower their expectations, encouraging them to settle for less, yet she doesn’t apply the same standards to men. She shames Aparna for having ‘high standards’ and rejecting the first couple of matches she proposes.

 

Meanwhile, when Pradyuman baselessly rejects more than a hundred matches, Sima simply smiles, brings him chocolates and more matches, adjusting even her own expectations for his benefit. When Akshay’s potential match says she would like to work after marriage, Akshay says to the camera later: ‘If she’s busy with her work, who’s going to look after the kids?’ reflecting his own misogynistic, patriarchal views. Moments as such could’ve been yet another opportunity for the creators to interrogate the cast members on their questionable perspective, but no further questions are asked.

 

Sima also shows her fatphobic side when she harshly judges Ankita for her physical appearance, simply because she doesn’t fit her prejudiced stereotype of “fair, slim and tall”. Ankita is a stunning, beautiful and intelligent woman, but Sima immediately judges her looks as “not photogenic” and complains about this to her fellow matchmaker, Geeta. Nobody should be judged by their looks, but the double standard is that we never see Sima or anyone judge men for their appearance. Additionally, Ankita is an independent, fearless entrepreneur who wants to maintain her agency and independence post-marriage but Geeta, who is supposedly more modern and progresssive than Sima, lectures Ankita about sacrificing her independence, adjusting and being open to compromises, because according to her, “life is never equal" and the woman’s duty is to understand that they bring the “emotional” side of themselves more than men. Ankita could have been a great example of how independent women are demanding equal partnership in a relationship and deserve to have their needs respected, but unfortunately the matchmakers fail to do that, and the show fails to question them.

All of these points make you question how the show ended up being such a shallow, tone-deaf exploration of arranged marriages. For a show about an age-old, traditional, South Asian custom wrought with issues, with a full South Asian cast, you would think that Netflix would hire a diverse South Asian creative team to produce the show, and/or involve Netflix India in a significant way. In her interview with The Juggernaut, Smriti states that this series was made for an Indian audience, both in homeland and diaspora; how can you choose a target audience without including their voice and position within the making of the show? The Variety article titled: Why Wasn’t Netflix India Involved in ‘Indian Matchmaking’? states that the series was created by Smriti Mundhra, Eli Holzman, Aaron Saidman & J.C. Begley; 3 out of 4 of these creative executive producers are white, leaving only one South Asian to be the representative for an entire country.Smriti Mundhra discusses the challenges of being the only South Asian in the decision making room, yet she could've worked towards bringing in other South Asians to aid her in the making of this show. Although presenting a layered and critical lens to this topic may be difficult, it was her choice to work with Netflix as a platform, and be the sole member to provide the one and only South Asian perspective. Additionally, one of the other producers, Eli Holzman is known for working on series such as Project Runway, American Idol and So You Think You Can Dance, which are all entertainment reality TV shows only focused on glamour. And with that, the whitewashed, surface level, over glamorized, reality show type treatment that Indian Matchmaking ended up being, starts making more sense.

By all means, this is a systemic representation failure on Netflix’s behalf. Being the only South Asian in the room can be extremely challenging, but in order to understand why a modern, successful, award-winning documentary filmmaker like Smriti, couldn’t shed light on the truth or question age-old mindsets, one has to understand how the series came into being. Smriti herself used Sima’s matchmaking services when she was looking to get married. She even claims to have found Sima through her own caste circles. After pitching this show to TV networks for years and getting rejected, Smriti’s prayers were finally answered when Netflix said yes. Her personal experiences with Sima made Smriti pick her as the protagonist for the show, even though the production team provided her with over 400+ matchmakers they could work with, as the Variety article states. People’s work and perspectives will reflect their personal experiences and worldview, yet as Mundhra mentions how difficult and traumatizing her own experience with matchmaking was, it makes you question why she would intentionally decide to exclude any critical, truthful narratives on undergoing the arranged marriage process, when she herself is triggered by this topic. Smriti’s personal experience in participating in the arranged marriage matchmaking process, and working with Sima, probably led to a normalization of Sima’s practices, limiting her abilities to question these social evils and provide context while making a show surrounding this topic.

If Netflix had the common sense to hire South Asians to tell this story and not have white people control the narrative, we would have seen more diversity of South Asian perspectives and at least one of them would have had the empathy and ethics to add context and nuance to these bigoted beliefs that are celebrated in the show. Smriti’s perspective, as inferred from her interviews and from the lens applied to this show, was that of normalizing matchmaking and de-exoticizing the concept of arranged marriage, because she participated in the process.

As a result, all we see in the show is how arranged marriage is normal and unproblematic, how glamorous the matchmaking process is, how Sima is adapting to the changing landscape, and most importantly, how arranged marriages are so successful that every single experience worth featuring is one of ultimate happiness and joy. 

If this show is so problematic, why are so many people not only enjoying it but also defending it with undying vigor? The non-South Asian viewers, who don’t know about the generations of trauma that have related to this practice specifically, are glamorizing and exoticizing this series due to being deeply un/misinformed. In India, this show has sparked a more critical conversation, yet there has been critique of the lack of information on those who’ve had to live through the horrors of casteism and colorism. To the privileged who have never had to deal with repercussions because of the caste they were born into, this show, which normalizes caste oppression, is merely entertainment that is meme-worthy and laughable. 

Even reputed outlets like CNN, The Quint, etc. have defended the show saying it is merely a mirror to Indian society. Our society is incredibly faulty in many ways, but does that mean we should celebrate racists and white supremacists on TV with stylized montages offering no commentary on how they are wrong? No. And we don’t. Mundhra repeatedly says that she purposely left Sima’s problematic views unedited because she didn’t want to sanitize reality, and she wanted to maintain authenticity. But the truth is, that the entire show is heavily sanitized. From stylized shots of Mumbai, in which they recolor the grey water to blue, to how they staged and edited the dates to fit the specific narrative they wanted to portray, the show simply doesn’t reflect reality but intentionally cherry picks what they want the audience to see.

 

 

 

Many participants have expressed on social media how their stories were edited and sensationalized, as evidenced by Aparna’s interview with Tweak where she claims the dates “were edited, crafted and sensationalised for TV” and by Ravi Guru’s social media post. Ravi was matched with Nadia and their date was edited to fit a constructed narrative. He also addresses the ignorant portrayal of Indo-Guyanese individuals on the show, and how the mere act of pairing together two Guyanese people, is in itself problematic.

Every day we see an incident of caste based violence in India/South Asia, and every day, we have to live with mainstream media ignoring these stories altogether. Dark skinned people have to listen to insults from people like Sima day in and day out and nobody stands up for us. Even in the little representation that South Asians get, we only get to see our world represented through a privileged, upper caste lens, on platforms like Netflix. Netflix has all the money and power in the world at their disposal, which could be used to support and uplift marginalized voices through storytelling, but they simply chose not to do so. Instead, they continue to focus on content from privileged South Asians who ensure our struggles are erased. If Netflix is serious about renewing this show for another season, they must make amends by hiring a diverse South Asian creative team from different castes, religions, classes, gender, sexual orientations, and geographical locations. The money spent on Season 2, should be used to highlight the true reality of caste oppression, colorism, dowry payments and other harmful consequences of arranged marriages. 

As the younger generation, it is our duty to fight oppressive systems and make our society fairer than how we’ve inherited it. To see a problematic show like Indian Matchmaking be enjoyed, is not only painful but also a major set-back to our continued fight against these long-lived mindsets and practices. We urge viewers to take these points of criticism into account when engaging with the show. Rather than merely perceiving this series as entertainment, question the regressive practices that they have internalized, and work on abolishing the systems that grant them the privilege to do so. As South Asians, it is our responsibility to tell our own cultural truths. Many non-South Asians have come forward in appreciation, thanking people who have viewed the series with a critical eye. We hope this article will do the same. 

 


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