Netflix’s original series, Indian Matchmaking has hit a raw nerve with audiences in India, Pakistan and many in the diaspora of South Asian descent.
While many societies around the world, including the liberal west (the supposed hub of marriage based on love alone), have a tradition of matchmaking services, the subcontinent stubbornly clings to its own special brand of “rishta culture”, where relationships are formed not just between individuals but entire families.
Enter Sima Taparia, an elite class matchmaker based in Mumbai, who is the kind of “aunty “everyone knows and fears.
Unfettered by any notions of political correctness, Taparia politely listens to her clientele: repeating the all too familiar mantra of “tall, fair slim, good-natured “ and introduces them to a potential husband or wife.
Her passive-aggressiveness aside, the looks of quiet judgement have made her a meme star and the series a hit.
The series is another version of the reality TV genre that has made diverse shows such as Big Boss, Pakistani Idol, Pepsi Battle of the Bands, The Great British Bake Show and The Real Housewives franchise big hits.
Most Pakistanis are familiar with the trolley routine where a girl brings tea for a prospective groom and his family, but that is not what happens on this show. Instead, the couples are shown bio-datas and asked to go on dates at restaurants and other public places to see if there is enough connection to take the matter further.
While this may seem more open than the more chaperoned Pakistani style of matrimony, the family control and sky-high expectations are strikingly similar.
One of Taparia's clients is a Houston-based lawyer named Aparna, who comes across as a perfectionist, one who needs her life partner to know that the country of Bolivia has salt flats because she is fond of travelling. Taparia spends a lot of time trying to understand Aparna’s “demanding “attitude with a professional face reader and a detailed astrological analysis. Meanwhile Akshay, a traditional young man from a wealthy family who wants someone just like his mother —has turned down over 70 young women on the basis of their photographs alone— is not so thoroughly examined.
“Demanding behaviour is not healthy, whether it comes from a man or a woman, because it represents a desire to control which is not an ingredient found in strong relationships“ says Dr Sheeza Mohsin, a marriage counsellor and family therapist who has been watching the show.
She added that the “the demanding label is sometimes put on women who are educated and economically independent because they may be less likely to tolerate emotional abuse or domestic violence.“
For many, though Indian Matchmaking has opened up a space for discussion and introspection, but finding a spouse is too often reduced to a stark algorithm of materialistic requirements.
But men do not escape judgment entirely in this show either; another wealthy young bachelor is Pradhyuman, a jewellery designer from Mumbai, who has rejected even more young women, (150 plus at last count) who also faced criticism. His self-absorption and lack of connectivity with any of the women he was matched with was pretty evident.
Similarly, Akshay may not have been criticised by Taparia but many on social media pointed out he was very immature and incapable of thinking independently of his mother. On the other end of the spectrum, we saw the more flexible Nadia, who despite her friendly, sweet personality and ability to like every person she was matched with was still unable to find commitment.
So, despite the veneer of modernity, the tradition of different standards for men and women and all the ancient prejudices end up being reinforced on the show.
Every one of the clients fits into the template of society’s expectations of success and materialism: education from top universities, accomplished careers, wealthy business owners, all seem to be achievers yet none can seem to make a connection. The one engagement or “baat pakki” that happened on the show was also broken off according to the Los Angeles Times.
I asked Dr Mohsin why relationship success seemed so elusive for these people?
She explains, “Unfortunately, the show focused on the part of our society where privileged people are looking to make an event out of their child’s wedding. I will repeat the word wedding because the show had very little to do with marriage, which is a commitment to make a life with someone."
Reality TV is not reality, a lot of “soft scripting” is involved and participants are chosen for their ability to create conflict and the dilemmas that give us an interesting viewing experience. Very few people are waiting to watch a series about sensible people making wise, moderate decisions, constantly agreeing with each other.
Indian Matchmaking achieves this melodrama on a microscale, but can, like life, drag at points.
From the safety of our couches, Sima Aunty and the rest of the cast can sometimes be funny, endearing and irritating by turns, and the show has gained a presence both on social media for both the issues it raises and as a fun watch for some.
The stereotypes have been particularly grating for some because they crowd out any room for a wider perspective and more diverse experiences in that same rishta culture. None of the individuals displayed any growth in understanding or maturity despite their experiences and their inability to find a partner, and end up putting a subtle, almost orientalist, lens on this traditional procedure.
Just as there are some who do not like the rishta culture, a more modified and flexible model of this kind of matchmaking has actually been successful for people and led to lifelong happy marriages.
Sadaf Siddiqui who writes on television and cinema for both Indian and Pakistani publications, says, “South Asians are doing so many things but again, representation on the international stage is reduced to the usual arranged marriages and how backward things are."
She continues, "One of the biggest stereotypes is the idea that highly educated women cannot sustain a relationship because they won’t be 'adjustable'."
Every one of the clients fits into the template of society’s expectations of success and materialism: education from top universities, accomplished careers, wealthy business owners, all seem to be achievers yet none can seem to make a connection.
Dr Mohsin weighs in on this saying, “Pew Research has conducted a study which shows the more educated you are, the higher the chances are that your marriage will last.”
She elaborated further by saying, “Women and men who pursue higher education are possibly more connected with emotional intelligence or EQ, also the more mature they are, the more they know how to manage conflict and how long a relationship lasts correlates with the ability to manage and resolve conflict.“
Superficially this might seem different to the Pakistani experience but, though we may not match horoscopes — the rest of the process seems startlingly familiar.
The demands for good looking trophy brides, wealthy men with property, doctor bahus (who are not allowed to practice medicine after marriage), and women who must know how to “compromise” staple requirements. There are less critical voices that have said: sit back and enjoy the show, why take what is obviously an augmented reality meant to help you spend a few hours relaxing so seriously?
For many, though Indian Matchmaking has opened up a space for discussion and introspection, but finding a spouse is too often reduced to a stark algorithm of materialistic requirements. Most of the qualities that actually make human relationships work such as patience, kindness, generosity of spirit and the ability to resolve conflict in a reasonable manner are too often completely ignored.