We are in the middle of a pandemic. Work from home has started taking a toll and there are at least a million things to worry about at the moment. Like jobs, making ends meet, daily chores that never seem to end. And yet, all people could talk about over the weekend was Indian Matchmaking, a Netflix docu-series that appear to fan all the stereotypes about Indians and the system of arranged marriages.
And we can see why.
For starters, the series - which takes off with Akshay’s mom (yes, that’s how people recognise her now) meticulously listing out the qualities that her to-be daughter-in-law should possess - is unbelievably gripping. It has all the ingredients of a bingeworthy reality show – there’s a helicopter mum, a man who wants his wife to be exactly like his mother, a driven and ambitious career woman (translated in Sima aunty’s language – “the hardest type of candidate to match”), two astrologers, one face reader, a life-coach, and glamorous scenes set in Austin, Texas.
All these various bits and pieces are tied together with the expert narration of Sima Taparia, the matchmaker from Mumbai who finds life partners for girls and boys from the upper echelons of society. Her go-to statement in all difficult situations is – also a famous online meme now – “Everything we have to agree, whatever the client says.”
Thus begins the eight-episode Netflix series, jumping between Texas and Mumbai, offering glimpses into how life and marriage is conducted among the rich and privileged Indians and NRIs. In these circles, where family reputation closely aligns with the bride and groom’s social status, the onus of adjusting and compromising for a “happily married life” falls largely on the women.
Because, as Sima says, “marriages are breaking like biscuits” and “Indians are scared of bahus who are lawyers.”
But Sima Aunty is not entirely wrong.
MAKERS India spoke to people in the matchmaking business, to find out what could possibly spark such statements. And as it turns out, sometimes, art imitates life. These very stereotypes - that have sent netizens on an overdrive and intellectuals scratching their head over why Netflix would even pick up such a show - are rooted in real life.
As much as it pains viewers – comprising mainly of millennials and Gen Z – seeing parents dictate the lives of their children, making key decisions on their behalf, and choosing a daughter-in-law as one would shop in a supermarket, arranged marriage in India, especially in privileged circles, are treated like transactions.
“As shown in Indian Matchmaking, when we speak to our users, a majority of the guys have a similar list of things they look for in a girl - like Pradhyuman (one of Sima’s clients) stated (looks, family values, physical attributes, etc),” says Neha Kanodia, the Co-Founder of GoGaga, a dating app. “And the same is true for the list specified by Nadia or Aparna (Sima’s clients) when it comes to girls (responsibility, maturity, loving, caring, etc),” she adds.
Neha, who launched network-based dating app, GoGaga in 2018, in an attempt to do away with hook-up culture and the typical caste-based selection on matrimonial sites, is aware of the prejudices that drive this industry.
“Most of the stereotypes actually exist because relationship or partner search has become ‘relation-shopping’,” she weighs in. In her opinion, in a country where the matchmaking industry is still at a nascent stage, three-quarters of the singles’ population hasn’t yet adapted to online matchmaking.
Even as non-traditional online services pick up steam, matrimonial sites and professional matchmakers remain hugely popular. Partly, it is due to the lack of trust and in some parts because of the cultural taboo associated with the word ‘dating’.
For online apps and services with a modern approach to matchmaking to thrive and survive, suggests Neha, it is imperative that they generate trust, safety, security and reliability.
At andwemet.com, a matchmaking platform targeted at urban Indians aged 25 and above, Founder Shalini Singh is witnessing small waves of change, and instances where parents and the family is accepting of the individual’s partner preferences. But, Shalini adds that there are still incidents where parents continue to micro-manage the matchmaking.
“We have had instances of parents of urban Indians signing up on behalf of their children and then realising that the sign-up process requires responding to questions that are best addressed by the individual seeking a match themselves,” the entrepreneur recalls, adding that in most cases, the individual has been asked to sign up by their parents.
Shalini started andwemet in 2019 to foster meaningful relationships and create an inclusive environment and stir conversations around practical topics such as health issues, relocation to another city/ country, need to support parents etc.
Shalini believes that these are the kind of conversations modern India needs to have rather than questions of caste, colour, religion and so on. But it’s easier said than done.
Says Shalini, “The tendency to stereotype as well as the associated biases or prejudices are a result of deep social conditioning. For example, those who have not had a successful relationship and are divorced ask us if andwemet is for them.”
This is because, explains the matchmaker, as a society those who had a divorce are ostracised to such an extent that individuals who are unhappy in their relationship stay on to avoid being labelled.
Hate the game, Not the player
Though Indian Matchmaking has some absolutely non-negotiable moments – the way Geeta, an associate of Sima Taparia, treats Delhi-based entrepreneur and match-seeker Ankita Bansal – it is still quite reflective and introspective, and a refreshing change after the recent barrage of experimental dating shows.
Much like arranged marriages in India, Indian Matchmaking works for some and doesn’t for others. As long as there are more options on the watch-list – and in real life, the freedom to choose who to love, how to love – it’s all cool.
(Edited by Athira Nair)