I was on the phone with my mother, who lives in Pune, India, complaining about Indian Matchmaking, when she brought up the marriage proposal.
On that Thursday evening phone call, I’d ranted about how the Netflix reality show is unable to hide the misogyny, colorism, and casteism it claims modern matchmaking has moved beyond. I knew she agreed.
But as I stopped to catch my breath, thinking I’d made my case, she told me about a recent work phone call with a loose acquaintance. The woman had offered my mom a man’s biodata (a combination of a dating profile and resume). I scoffed.
“For whom?” I asked, equal parts confused and horrified.
“You,” she said.
That’s how pervasive arranged marriages are in Indian culture. My mom’s the most progressive Indian woman I know of her generation. She ran away from home to marry my father against her family’s wishes, and passed on a rebellious, non-conforming streak to me. Yet here she was, sharing a stranger’s marriage proposal for me to consider. Even its harshest critics can’t get away from arranged marriage.
But watch Indian Matchmaking, and you may end the eight-episode arc of the smartly edited, highly bingeable show with a misleading idea of how arranged marriages actually work.
The Netflix reality show follows Sima Taparia, a matchmaker from Mumbai whose pen-and-paper spreadsheets of potential suitors is far from the most outdated thing about her. She flies back and forth between the U.S. and India, exclusively catering to rich clientele as the cameras emphasize the show’s elitist vibe by literally overlooking the real Mumbai to focus on its high-rises. Most of the city’s 18.4 million people live in cramped conditions, often hours away from work. Not more than 10 percent of households earn more than $26,000 a year. They don’t have walk-in closets unlocked by code or hordes of diamond jewellery stored for future daughters-in-law, like the families on the show.
The misogyny embedded in the arranged marriage system is immediately apparent in Taparia’s approach to men and women. Though she’s learned to speak adequate English and dyed her hair a warm blonde to present the air of a “modern Indian auntie,” Taparia perpetrates her antiquated beliefs and emphasizes gender roles as soon as she meets her gullible clients. Women need to cook. Men need to provide.
Most women who hire Taparia on Indian Matchmaking are accomplished professionals with hobbies and a social life. And every one of them is told to compromise and adjust expectations. Everyone’s favorite villain, Aparna Shewakramani, is asked if she cooks, judged for being 34 and single, and called stubborn and rude in the first thirty minutes of the show.
Taparia tells the camera that Aparna needs to understand that arranged marriage is not like choosing food from a menu, and gives her only one person’s biodata on purpose—to teach her a lesson.
Yet for both her male clients (whose predominant personality traits are their family’s money), she offers hundreds of women. Her primary complaint is they’re not choosing from the wide selection she’s made available to them.
To western audiences, the show depicts a “progressive” style of matchmaking that is much more palatable than the sometimes viciously misogynist and purely transactional matchmaking practiced among most Indians. It’s this veneer of modernism that makes the show entertaining: Viewers can relate to the characters’ dating struggles while indulging in just a bit of orientalist voyeurism.
But what becomes clear while watching the show is that while the means of matchmaking have been updated, the system itself remains brutal for the women involved. Perhaps not physically so, like it is for so many Indian women and girls, but certainly mentally and emotionally. If the real Indian matchmaking process was presented without the trappings of wealth, the series would come off as a human rights documentary.
When I discussed Indian Matchmaking with my friends, some of them married and some not, their only complaint was that it’s harshly transactional. But I think that’s the one thing the show actually gets right. Open up any newspaper in India and you’ll see matrimonial ads as abundant as classifieds, and most of the time as blunt.
Marriage has always been an inherently practical decision. Only since the late eighteenth century has love-based marriage become mainstream. And since the mutual understanding people develop naturally in an organic romantic relationship is absent when you meet a stranger with the intention of sharing a life with them, it only makes sense that those questions—do you want kids, what’s your earning potential and where do you want to live—be addressed right away.
But historically, Indian arranged marriages have not been built on equal compromise. As the show depicts over and over again, the responsibility of compromise falls squarely on women. This is most evident in the case of Ankita Bansal, the progessive Delhi woman who rightly questions why she has to give up her own life for her potential husband. She’s so chided for wanting to be an independent woman, she walks away from matchmaking.
Maybe the biggest issue Indian Matchmaking fails to address is the need to get married at all. Taparia presents two options: arranged marriage or love-based marriage. But to her privileged clients, some of whom are clearly not ready to get married and dragging their feet, she never asks why they need to be married at all. Instead, she accepts the fact that Indian parents require marriage from their children. The status quo does not need to be questioned.
The palpable parent pressure serves as a constant undercurrent through the eight episodes, most evident when Akshay Jakhete’s mom shows her son a shot of her blood pressure reader and blames his reticence to get married for her health condition. She gets her way eventually, when he meets a meek girl with no personality. He visibly cringes when she says she wants to keep working after marriage. If she works, he asks the camera, who will take care of the kids?
In his defense, most of India still expects that from a married woman. Thousands of Indian women are still forced into arranged marriages, undergo abuse, and live with the threat of domestic violence. As much as the show tries to brush that reality off, it exists. Arranged marriage is a convenient practice for some privileged Indians—an alternative to dating apps, with more family meddling—but even then, it demands more from women and their families, both financially and emotionally. India’s divorce rate is in the single digits, but that’s because women are often unable to support themselves if they choose to end marriages, and will not be able to survive the societal shame that comes with being a divorced woman.
On that infamous Thursday phone call with the proposal, I asked my mom how she responded to her friend’s attempts at matchmaking. She’s the one who still has to live in Indian society, she said, and so told her acquaintance she’ll consider it, took a polite amount of time pretending to think about it, and then texted her response.
“My daughter is not interested in marriage,” she wrote in text. “But his profile is great and I can send it to my friend.”