By Shweta Bhandral
With each episode of Indian Matchmaking, it appears as if the Netflix series is trying hard to sell viewers the idea of arranged marriage – cute old couples narrate anecdotes from their long married lives together, affirming that the system really works. The lead matchmaker of the show, Sima Taparia, repeatedly states that marriages are made in heaven while also asserting her role as some kind of divine emissary on earth. Educated, urban, successful, beautiful singles express their loneliness, helplessness and need for a partner as if an arranged marriage is the only solution.
And yet, even to those who don’t believe in the concept, or who grew disillusioned by it due to their own experience, the web series directed by Smriti Mundhra, whose short documentary St. Louis Superman won an Oscar nomination, has a kind of spellbinding, addictive effect, even if it’s in a revolting, triggering way.
Lying uneasily somewhere between reality and drama, the show is set in US, Mumbai and Delhi and follows Mumbai-based Sima as she goes globetrotting in search of suitable singles to match. Words like adjustment, compromise, and flexibility are thrown in every few minutes – they are the very essence of marriage according to her.
If a girl or boy doesn’t like the match she has proposed, Sima announces them to be “picky” or “fussy”. Her team – an astrologer, a face reader and sometimes her husband – make snap judgements of these clients, terming them “stubborn” or “rude in speech” as they see fit.
In the Indian marriage market, being fair, tall and educated are repeatedly pronounced as valuable qualities that give you bargaining power. Divorce is a badge of shame. A potential bride must be “flexible” and adjust with her mother-in-law and husband’s needs. A potential groom must give in to his mother’s wishes and submit to her choice of bride for him.
In essence, the regressive arranged marriage system that Indians had so far held close as an embarrassing secret is now out there in full glory, glamorized on screen, endorsed by the elite. There’s no place to hide anymore. The series is a mirror of the ugly, discriminatory and insecure truths of Indian society.
In that sense, we must congratulate the producers for creating self-awareness and bringing up the subject for conservative and modern Indians to debate. At the same time, I believe it should have come with a trigger warning: “Toxic matrimonial memories ahead.” It certainly sent me back 20 years to a phase I thought I’d put behind.
It is depressing to see that nothing much has changed in these two decades when it comes to Indian marriages. Around the year 2000, when the dotcom boom had just begun in India and more women were signing up for professional courses, the average age for a girl to get married was still 19 to 21 with metro cities being the exception, where it got extended to 23.
Just a month after my younger sister got married – which was problem number one – I was taken to a professional photographer to click a matrimonial picture to put up on a matchmaking website. My horoscope was prepared. Relatives in other cities were also requested to look for a prospective groom.
It was all done on a war-footing because I was apparently running out of time: I had just crossed 23 and age could be a major roadblock in matchmaking.
Problem number two was that I did not have many of desirable qualities people wanted in a bride – being slim, tall, fair, sharp-featured, homely and convent educated.
Problem number three was that I was a journalist. And, finally, problem number four was that I had already witnessed the stress my cousins had gone through and was averse to the matchmaking process before it began.
The first boy who came home to “see me” was an old-school businessman with a big mobile phone in his hand (a status symbol at the time) and a thick gold chain sparkling in his neck. After telling me his routine, he asked mine. I told him I left for office at 8 a.m. and there were days when I came back home after midnight. He said, “No issues. Things can always change after marriage.”
Boy two was well-groomed probably because of his training in the hospitality industry but even before he took his seat, he said, “I never thought I would marry a journalist.” When I asked him about his family, he replied, “Why do you want to know about my family? I want my wife to mind her own business and me to mind my own.” He went on, “I want my wife to look good beside me. I can say you will do a good job there.”
Boy three was busy pursuing success having done his MBA. He said, “You love your job, but I want a wife who can take care of my old parents.”
Boy four, an IIT graduate who walked in with a chip on his shoulder, couldn’t resist saying, “I hope your parents don’t think that it is final between us. The moment parents see an IIT engineer, they just want to marry their daughter off with him.”
Boy five, an NRI, was in a hurry. He was in India for two months in which time he had to quickly find a bride and tie the knot. His expectation out of marriage was simple: “I want two lovely daughters.” I was not impressed.
All the above experiences made me shelve the idea of getting married altogether. Until Cupid struck. I’ve been married 11 years now and we have a daughter together. Today I see more girls putting their foot down, being demanding about their partners, while boys are also trying to do things right. As a society we should encourage them.
Instead, shows like Indian Matchmaking come along and take us back to where we began – keeping bloodlines intact, matching horoscopes, seeing astrologers, being prescribed prayers to find a good husband, and mostly, adjusting, adjusting, adjusting.
Match by match, each person’s individualism and self-worth is broken down until they are not even sure of what they want or who they are anymore.
What intrigues me is how human love, respect and kindness are completely missing from the show – or is that yet another reflection in the mirror of how Indians really are? The only sensible message comes from an old couple where the lady says that girls should think about their careers and self-respect while looking for a groom.
I have nothing against arranged marriages – some people have a taste for self-flagellation and they should not be judged for it. But this show should have a disclaimer or an explainer to caution folks that it’s a satire or a parody on the regressive traditions of matchmaking in India, and is meant to serve as a warning not recommendation. Else, the next generation of young Indians has had it.
All photos: Stills from Indian Matchmaking / Netflix