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'Indian Matchmaking' is bringing up uncomfortable issues my culture needs to address

In Indian communities there’s “marriage” and there’s “love marriage.” In a matchmaker's line of work, love is not part of the equation.
Every Indian person in my life has either binged "Indian Matchmaking," which spent its debut weekend as Netflix’s No. 1 show, or taken a stand against it as an act of protest.Netflix

Watching Netflix’s "Indian Matchmaking" brought back a flood of memories and, with it, emotions I had long buried: my mother cautioning me about going out in the sun in fear of me getting too dark because no one would want to marry me; the way that, as a woman, no accomplishment lived up to the accomplishment of getting married; my parents’ disappointment when, time and again, I’d rebuff their attempts to set me up with a potential suitor. Then there was the time my dad told me I was disinvited to his future funeral, because my preference was to date whomever I wanted as opposed to accepting an arranged marriage and that was an embarrassment to the family. He conveniently denies this ever happened, for the record.

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Every Indian person in my life has either binged "Indian Matchmaking," which spent its debut weekend as Netflix’s No. 1 show, or taken a stand against it as an act of protest. One thing is for certain: It’s forcing Indians around the world to confront a lot of uncomfortable issues. And we’re glued to the screen, soaking in the mainstream media representation to which we’re unaccustomed. In a recent panel discussion about the show titled “Misogyny, Materialism and Marriage,” Indian academics, one by one, shyly admitted that they loved the show. “I was riveted,” one panelist said, almost embarrassed, eliciting giggles from the others.

Akshay in episode eight of "Indian Matchmaking" on Netflix. NETFLIX

The reality show follows Sima Taparia, a professional matchmaker from Mumbai who travels around the world helping Indian clients find suitable matches for marriage. Notice, I didn’t say love. As Taparia says in the first episode of the show, in Indian communities there’s “marriage” and there’s “love marriage.” In her line of work, love is not part of the equation. Rather, marriage is a transaction between two families. Some of her clients are parents who are desperate to get their children married, others are marriage seekers themselves who turned to her service after they were unsuccessful meeting people on dating apps and elsewhere.

What struck me most was that, in many cases, the characters we meet are not seeking acceptance and affection from a partner, but from their own families. Seeing the pressure unfold literally gave me anxiety. There’s Pradhyuman, a 30-year-old from Mumbai whose older sister tells him he needs to get married because “half your life is over.” There’s Aparna, whose unrealistic expectations for a partner are driven by the unrealistic expectations her own mother set for her. There’s Rupam, a divorcee looking for her next relationship, all while having her dad rip her for the “blunder” of her first marriage.

Throughout the series, women are told they need to be “flexible” and “accommodating” and to lower their standards — something that none of the men are told to do.
Throughout the series, women are told they need to be “flexible” and “accommodating” and to lower their standards — something that none of the men are told to do.NETFLIX

And no one can forget Akshay, a 25-year-old mama’s boy who consistently looks like he was roused from a nap and who learned how to feed himself and do his own laundry, like, yesterday. He is being pressured by his mother, who is almost cartoonishly overbearing, to get married on an arbitrary timetable she has in her head (she’s already planned the wedding, just insert bride). Watching him I wondered: How is this man, who can’t even stand up to his mother, capable of being a partner to any woman? On the bright side, his storyline makes everyone else’s mother-in-law seem a lot more tolerable.

Critics have been quick to point out how problematic the show is. For one, while the experience is familiar to many Indians and the characters are archetypes many of us know, it obviously doesn’t represent all Indians. Everyone shown is relatively well-off, and there are no queer or Muslim characters. But it’s a tall order to expect a show to tackle all of that in a single season. After all, "The Bachelor" is 30 seasons in and they only now plan to have a Black bachelor, there’s only been one Black bachelorette, no LGBTQ bachelor or bachelorette and certainly no size diversity amongst contestants.

The blatant colorism, sexism and weight-related comments we witness in "Indian Matchmaking" is jarring. There’s so much emphasis on “fairness” as a desired quality in a match, which is a reflection of racist ideology that permeates Indian society. And throughout the series, women are told they need to be “flexible” and “accommodating” and to lower their standards — something that none of the men are told to do. The thing is, none of this is news to people in the Indian community. It’s just that now, everyone else knows it, too.

“So what would an audience — namely a predominantly white audience — take away from shows like 'Family Karma' and, more urgently, 'Indian Matchmaking?'” asks Buzzfeed’s Scaachi Koul. “That being Indian is a nuisance? That your family is constantly on your ass? That there’s no respite from the crushing, constant requirements set for you from birth? That our own inherent racism, classism and sexism is a scourge that no one is even attempting to fight against?”

Yes, yes and yes. That there is more to Indian culture than this small slice we see in "Indian Matchmaking" doesn’t negate the fact that this small slice rings true — however narrow the representation. It’s not the show that’s problematic, it’s our culture.

And while it’s embarrassing for this to be the content that defines us, there is an opportunity to hold ourselves accountable in shining a spotlight on the ugliest parts of who we are. It’s a deliberate editorial decision by creator Smriti Mundhra that now, more than ever, can bring about introspection as we all look at how we contribute to injustice. What the show serves to us is medicine with an addictive candy coating.

Rupam, a divorcee, is looking for her next relationship while her dad rips her for the “blunder” of her first marriage.Netflix

This show has sparked conversations all over the world — academic panels, a mountain of Op-Eds, transcontinental WhatsApp threads and memes galore — with Indians discussing the trauma of these everyday realities in a way that I’ve never seen happen before. We all knew this stuff was a problem, we just never knew how to address it. The show opened the door for dialogue, even with my own mom, who had an old-school style arranged marriage in which she didn’t meet my dad until the day of their wedding.

“Those moms are crazy,” said my mom, without a hint of irony, when I asked for her reaction. We talked about colorism and why it was wrong; how a family friend forbade her son from marrying a woman he loved because she was dark-skinned and what anecdotes like that say about Indians. We talked about how the burden of marriage in Indian communities is almost always shouldered by women. After years of touting how India has such a low rate of divorce, my mom finally admitted that maybe — just maybe — the reason for that is because women in the Indian community are stigmatized and ostracized if they get divorced, so it’s easier to stay in an unhappy marriage.

“The perception about what other people think has always been more important than what the individual thinks,” my mom said. When I asked her if anything changed for her after watching a few episodes of the show, she took a long pause, then said, “I think what the boy or girl wants should be more important than parental expectations. People should be able to marry whoever they want, or not get married, without fear of judgment.”

And that's change — in real life.