Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

Who is Netflix’s Indian Matchmaking really for?

Indian Matchmaking
Indian Matchmaking
Photo: Courtesy of Netflix

Netflix’s latest reality series Indian Matchmaking is making waves across the United States, hitting the top 10 most viewed shows in the country within a week of its release. The show follows Sima Taparia, a Mumbai-based matchmaker who declares she is the best in the business, over eight episodes as she finds matches for a range of clients across India and the U.S. who have enlisted her to find them the perfect partner.

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In a recent post-series interview with Juggernaut, show creator Smriti Mundhra stated that the “priority wasn’t to make the show for a non-Indian audience—our priority was an Indian audience in India and then the diaspora.” Mundhra told The World’s Rupa Shenoy it was “a conscious choice to not explain everything because we weren’t making your show for the white gaze, so to speak.” In that same interview, she also noted that because she knew more people were going to watch Indian Matchmaking than anything else she had ever made, her intent was to start conversations and “to kick the hornet’s nest.”

If Indian Matchmaking’s intent was to start a conversation, it has been very successful. The show has polarized audiences since its release, with a broad range of reactions from ambivalent viewers both within the subcontinent and across the diaspora. Some have stated they can’t even hate watch due to their own traumatic experiences with matchmaking, while others have pointed out that Indian Matchmaking just shows things as they are, holding up a mirror to the messy, prejudiced system that millions of people go through every day.

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Casual non-Indian viewers watching Indian Matchmaking, however, may not even be aware of this conversation, given the context in which the show exists. Though the series may not have been designed for the white gaze, in execution, it falls right into it, fitting squarely into the narrow narrative box where Indians, and more broadly, South Asians, are often placed when it comes to Hollywood representation: arranged marriage.

Historically, people of South Asian descent have had limited representation in mainstream Hollywood media, and when they do appear in TV or film, most narratives feature arranged marriage as a key plot point in some capacity. The 2014 documentary Meet The Patels focuses on one man’s effort to find a partner through the traditional matchmaking channels of his tightly knit Gujarati community after breaking up with his non-Indian girlfriend, although he eventually gets back together with her. In the Netflix series Never Have I Ever, on the other hand, beautiful and accomplished Ph.D. student Kamala (Richa Moorjani) dreads meeting Prashant (Rushi Kota), the Indian man her family has arranged for her to meet as a potential fiancé, until she is pleasantly surprised by how much she likes him in person—enough to dump her secret Asian American (but not Indian) boyfriend.

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In The Big Sick, Kumail Nanjiani’s character’s mother forces him to meet a parade of potential Pakistani Muslim brides over a series of awkward dinners, not realizing he is already in a relationship with a white woman. And in the second season of New Girl, Cece Parekh (Hannah Simone) almost goes through with an arranged marriage until calling it off at the altar. More recently, the first season of Netflix’s reality series Dating Around featured Indian American divorcé Gurki Basra; during the season, she had a date with a white man who called her “untrustworthy” after she talked about how she got married due to cultural pressure, despite her own reservations. The disastrous date made headlines and was a key part of the publicity for the show.

Indian Matchmaking
Indian Matchmaking
Photo: Courtesy of Netflix
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A more nuanced portrait of arranged marriage can be seen in the 2001 Indian drama Monsoon Wedding, when the bride Aditi (Vasundhara Das) confesses to her arranged fiancé Hemant (Parvin Dabas) that she slept with an old lover a few days before the wedding. Although he is understandably upset at this revelation, Hemant ultimately thanks her for being honest and they re-affirm their commitment to each other. The 2006 film The Namesake, based on the Jhumpa Lahiri novel, weaves an empathetic narrative around Ashoke (Irrfan Khan) and Ashima (Tabu), as they learn to build a life together after moving to the United States shortly after their arranged marriage.

Within this broader context, Indian Matchmaking functions less as a conversation starter for Indian and Indian diaspora audiences than it does as an easily bingeable primer into the world of arranged marriage for casual non-Indian viewers curious about the process. It’s all packaged in a glossy, accessible reality TV show format that involves talking head interviews with the participants that border on scripted and cutesy When Harry Met Sally-esque couples interviews with long married couples who attest to the success of arranged marriage. As a result, Indian Matchmaking fits easily into the American media environment of reality shows focused on marriage like 90 Day Fiancé, Married At First Sight, Love Is Blind, and The Bachelor franchise, albeit with an Indian twist.

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The rigidity and prejudice inherent in the desire for slim, educated, and fair-skinned matches is never questioned or challenged; rather, Taparia is matter of fact about why the women who engage her services will find it challenging to find a match, whether they are in the diaspora or in India. Rupam, a divorcée from Denver with a young daughter, is bluntly informed that her options will be limited, while Aparna, an opinionated lawyer from Houston, is told that if she were in India, people would be concerned about her profession, and is encouraged to be open-minded and flexible about her matches.

Taparia also reveals to the audience that she believes Ankita, an outspoken dark-skinned woman from New Delhi who runs her own thriving fashion company and believes in equality, will have trouble finding a match within a traditional Indian family, as will Nadia, a vivacious and friendly event planner from New Jersey, just because of her Guyanese background. Meanwhile, affluent Mumbai-based clients Pradhyuman and Akshay, who both face pressure from their families to quickly find a suitable wife, are presented with an endless list of matches despite clearly not being ready for such a commitment—Akshay doesn’t know what he wants in a partner, even when asked directly.

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Perhaps it isn’t the job of a breezy and light reality series to call out colorism and discrimination—though Mundhra has stated that she refused to sanitize the reality of the prejudices inherent in the arranged marriage process. Still, some Indian and Indian American journalists have criticized the series for not showing the full picture of what it’s like for people who don’t fit the desired categories, including people who are queer, poor, lower-caste, non-Hindu, or have a disability. They’ve even called it irresponsible for introducing these deeply rooted and toxic biases to broader audiences without providing context for how they are perpetuated within the community, pointing out that the show title itself is “a terrible shorthand that erases all the different cultures and societies within India.”

Indian Matchmaking
Indian Matchmaking
Photo: Courtesy of Netflix
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Mundhra has noted that these narratives were excluded was partially due to production limitations, and it’s probably true that one eight-episode season could hardly cover the breadth of experiences on a large subcontinent with different religions. Furthermore, there’s no doubt that Mundhra is capable of nuance; the 2017 documentary A Suitable Girl, which she co-directed and follows three Indian women on the cusp of marriage (one of whom is Sima Taparia’s own daughter), is a stark and moving portrait of three women and the compromises and challenges they face through the process of arranged marriage.

This nuance is flattened in Indian Matchmaking, to its detriment. Though Indian Matchmaking is more reality series than cinema verité, it doesn’t offer any particular broader perspective on the people it follows, nor does it connect them through a shared narrative. In fact, there isn’t much of a narrative at all, which ultimately leaves the show feeling a little disjointed, particularly in the abrupt way that it ends.

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The fact that Mundhra was the only South Asian on the key creative team for Indian Matchmaking may also explain the confusion and lack of clarity in its framing. Taken at face value, the show primarily functions as a highlight of a real but narrow part of Indian—and South Asian—culture. But because the series doesn’t interrogate any of the problematic elements it depicts, viewers must draw their own conclusions. Ultimately, it’s unclear what the takeaway is supposed to be for a casual non-Indian viewer, other than an entertaining glimpse into an unfamiliar world, or for South Asian audiences, who aren’t being presented with any information they don’t already know. In fact, those who genuinely agree with the discriminatory practices in the marriage industry may even feel validated by seeing their beliefs broadcast, seemingly unchallenged, to such a large mainstream audience.

Because Indian Matchmaking has been so popular since its release, there is a good chance for a second season, which would hopefully allow the production team to incorporate the feedback received from South Asian audience members. But likely by the time another season is released, the original momentum and attention from non-Indian audiences due to the show’s novelty will be gone; average viewers will have already binged the show and moved onto something else without gaining a fuller picture of the world they witnessed for eight brief episodes.

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Considering the limitations the production team faced in developing the series, as well as the fact that Mundhra had no other South Asian team members to help review its content, the series’ narrow viewpoint results in a failure to broaden its narrative. Ultimately and unfortunately, Indian Matchmaking presents a confined depiction of matchmaking culture and the attitudes surrounding arranged marriage.

Priyanka Bose is an Indian American writer & photographer based in Chicago. A Fulbright Scholar born and brought up in the Midwest, she loves writing about all things food, fashion, film, and fiction.

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