Weekend Drama Report: Indian Matchmaking vs. Real Life

Anisa: We binge-watched the Netflix reality series Indian Matchmaking! Along with what seems like the rest of the world, and especially South Asians. We also caught the follow-up interviews with some of the cast that were released six days ago. Let’s just say…we have a lot of feelings.

Saya: I can’t believe I watched the whole thing in like, one morning. I don’t watch reality TV, but this was compulsively watchable.

Anisa: I sat down with my mother, sister, and Dadi (grandmother) and we finished it in like three sittings! (I do enjoy a good dating/matchmaking reality show though. Or even a bad one.)

Paroma: I’ve recently discovered a liking for reality dating shows after catching Love is Blind and Too Hot to Handle. Had a vague thought that a Desi version of such shows would be hilarious. Never expected someone to actually go make it!

Saya: When you recced it as “so bad it’s good”, Paroma, I thought this would be funny-bad, but it ended up hitting kind of close to home.

Anisa: I actually really enjoyed it, cringe and all. There was something about seeing this diverse array of people from both the homeland and the diaspora, around my age, struggling to navigate how to approach finding a life partner, that really resonated with me.

Paroma: Feels like it resonated with a lot of people.

Saya: Yes, completely, especially for the reasons Anisa says, compounded by the fact that many of the conversations the women had were ones I have to have regularly—the type where you have to stand your ground despite an immense societal pressure to do things a certain way, live a certain kind of life, meet very specific milestones. It felt so personal.

Paroma: It maybe felt this personal because a lot of the cultural conversation that we hear in the background were suddenly brought into sharp focus and it’s almost like some secret part of our lives were revealed.

Anisa: It definitely felt personal. For that reason, and because—keeping in line with a theme that we’ve been discussing a lot lately—it made me feel represented in a way I never have before. Even though, like, why does it matter if you feel seen by a reality matchmaking show? But to see American Desis, and not just Indians or Pakistanis “back home,” in such a high-level production with an insider point of view is nothing I’ve seen before.

Saya: It’s a little weird to me that it’s trending so high on UK Netflix—I mean, that means…all the white people are watching it. There’s something about that that is…I’m not sure what the right word is. Like being peeked on in your private life? (Though the show itself doesn’t have a voyeuristic gaze.) Actually, Paroma put it perfectly above. When I think of people outside the culture watching it, I’m oddly unsettled.

Anisa: I guess it speaks to the question of who the show was made for. There’s been a lot of controversy online around the colorism, the emphasis on problematic criteria when it comes to finding a match, the different expectations for men and women—but that’s real. And the show is not primarily speaking to a non-South Asian audience, which I really liked. Sure, it’s a frothy, over-dramatised reality show with all the usual tropes, but there’s a freedom in the way it just puts the whole hot mess out there. And that’s maybe a little squirmy for those of us who grew up conscious of the white gaze, but I’ve given myself permission to not care what anyone else thinks about this one.

Saya: What really struck me after the bonus episode was how the show framed Aparna—like they really went in for showing her like this sourpuss, lemon-mouthed, abrasive person with a difficult personality (which, you may already know, is the kind of personality I really relate to, haha). But in the interview, she was so much…more. I can’t explain exactly. She was so complete, and her strong opinions were given a rightful context which I think was taken away from her in the main show. Like, her sense of self-awareness and her obvious self-knowledge, and the fact that she’d chosen to become who she was, and she wasn’t prepared to trade that in or make herself less to meet some arbitrary standard of successful womanhood.

Paroma: I actually ended up loving Aparna the best. The show initially did her dirty. The problem was that the producers really wanted to create caricatures we could laugh at, not characters. So a lot of development and context was left out.

Anisa: Yeah. The show did eventually give her some backstory and development, so I already liked her a lot more by the end than I did in the beginning. But they did do her dirty, and even more than that, I’m struck by the strong negative reaction viewers had to her. I haven’t waded deep into the conversation around the show since I just finished it, but even I know that Aparna was being memed and talked about in a very different way from some of the male cast members. And some of these dudes were awful.

Saya: We are definitely coming back to the dudes.

Paroma: I liked how well Aparna took those memes though. It speaks well for how confident she is that she can brush off harsh judgement and social media mockery with poise. I also found myself triggered by the pressures on her to lower her standards. As she was shown going on those dates, trying to stay optimistic and positive, while constantly being called stubborn by Sima Aunty, I felt a powerful bond with her. It broke my heart to see her get less exacting about her requirements, like the Aunty’s words were literally sucking the vibrancy out of her. The HEA I was looking for by the end was Aparna firing Sima Aunty’s ass.

Saya: AMEN. Especially where Sima Aunty kept battering on about compromising, which honestly is one of those lines used to silence women. Like, how dare they have standards? It’s not like Aparna didn’t understand the concept, she just didn’t agree. She didn’t need to be schooled about what to make herself accept or how to make herself acceptable. People have things they can compromise on, but when you ask them, okay what’s your criteria? You can’t then tell them that’s where they have to make concessions. I mean, if they could concede, it wouldn’t be on the list. At least, it wouldn’t be on Aparna’s list. (Not everybody deserves that much credit *cough*Akshay*cough*Pradhyuman*cough*)

Paroma: I generally liked all the women, whereas only Vyasar saved all Indian men from being represented by idiots. I wonder if that was a deliberate choice or if South Asian men are really that bad. 😂 The other thing that I loved about the show was how well it hopped between homeland and diaspora cultures without it ever feeling jarring. Somehow this has seemed impossible for all productions before. Maybe it was the lack of sitar and tabla and shots of cows and beggars when the camera shifted to India? Not sure. 🤔

Saya: It was Crazy Rich Indians 😂 I have to admit, though, that until they brought it up in the bonus episode, I didn’t click how differently the women had been treated compared to the men, but the moment she said it, I saw everything. I was too busy being triggered by Sima Aunty to notice it before.

Anisa: Same here, actually. Maybe I just went in with my Desi marriage talk expectations hat on, or maybe I was bracing for it to be worse than it was. (That interviewer was great, by the way.)

Saya: You know what I find really funny? Like, funny-strange, not funny-haha. When Anisa and I first talked about our various matchmaking experiences and Paroma told us, “listening to you guys talk [about this] is like listening to people from my parents’ generation.” That came to my mind again when the interviewer, Dolly, said she agreed that the process was regressive. I admit that made me do a big double-take! I expect people from Western cultures to have that opinion, but it’s still really surprising to me that the feeling among our generation in the homeland is really so different from the diasporic attitudes and realities. Though perhaps I should qualify that as from a specifically practising Muslim perspective, and therefore a non-dating culture where the pressures are exerted in slightly different ratios.

Paroma: I can guarantee that the younger Muslim generation here have strong opinions about who they want to be married to. But, of course, the privilege of choice and making our opinions known isn’t available to every class and segment of society. Upper class Muslim families tend to allow their children more freedom of choice. It’s the same with upper class Hindu families. NOT to be mixed up with upper-caste Hindu families, who’ll likely take the worst of all our traditions into the 23rd century. 🤦 Let’s say I got lucky that my family is classist, not casteist. 😂

Anisa: I think there’s also an element to being in the diaspora that makes us more inclined toward arranged marriage. Because if you want to get married either to someone who has a similar ethnic background or a similar level of religiosity, people are so scattered, especially outside the urban multicultural centers, that sometimes these kinds of networks are the only way. And it doesn’t always work—but as the cast said, and as we can attest, it’s tough to find someone out here. If you really want marriage, you have to cover as many bases as you can.

Saya: Yeah, this is really true. And I appreciated how with the NRI cast, they took the time to show the complexities of finding a partner whose life experience and backgrounds they could relate to. Like, more than one of them talked about the lightness of being that came from not having to explain everything all the time—that you got to exist in the full scope of your identities. I think for many of us who grew up conscious of the white gaze (as Anisa so succinctly put it), we’ve had a lot of experience of hearing “arranged” as a dirty word. I liked that the show offered a fuller picture of marriage as a collective endeavour with social value as well as personal meaning (though hopefully primarily for the happiness of the couple involved).

Anisa: And those interviews at the beginning with the older couples were so nice! I always love hearing people’s couple origin stories, and as much as I enjoy a swoony K-drama romance, it’s so good to see couples who got married in the ways our parents did, in a similar way to what our own stories might look like (although with a lot more talking to each other beforehand!). And we get the sad, difficult side of that, like with Aparna’s mom, but we also see that it leads to happiness just as often as “love marriage”.

Saya: Wasn’t that an on-point comment? I can’t remember who said it, but they said that in India, there was “marriage” and there was “love marriage”, which basically exactly sums up our conception of what is the norm.

Paroma: What left me less satisfied was the resolutions of these characters and their journey. They seemed to end abruptly. Which may not be the fault of the show since they can’t force a connection where it doesn’t happen, but still. It almost felt like a subtle push from the show to view “arranged marriages” as an inadequate solution. I guess it’s more that we like our happy endings. And while with dating shows, you have no expectation of permanence for the couples who match up, with a ‘marriage’ show, the lack of a final pairing makes the whole process look flawed.

Anisa: I think there’s also the obvious element that they clearly chose this cast of characters as variety show “types”, and while I do feel like they’re sincerely trying to find someone, the show’s primary focus is entertainment. Even though that trashy reality-show tone is tempered by the director’s gorgeous shots and low-key colour palette. (Director Smriti Mundhra is a documentary filmmaker who has in fact also produced a more nuanced look at arranged marriage.)

Saya: I initially felt a sense of “is that all?” when it finished as well, but as I thought about it, it felt very appropriate as it was—complete in its incompletion. In the vein of that directing style, it ultimately seemed more like a slice-of-life reality show than a dating show.

Anisa: Right. And it’s about the process itself, and how it can look so different for everyone, rather than specific outcomes for individuals. I especially got that sense because of how the show concludes on a new client with a long list of requirements, and Sima Aunty’s look of “here we go again”.

Saya: Though can I say I was a little annoyed that it was Akshay—blank, dull, pathologically flakesome mama’s boy Akshay—who got the classic weddingly end. The world does feel a little put to rights that it didn’t work out though. THOUGH ALSO I AM SO UGHED BY HIS INTERVIEW. Also, yeah, you TOTALLY DID MEAN you wanted your wife to do everything for you exactly as your mother does. YOU WET-WIPE OF A MAN.

Anisa: Hahaha, yes! I was NOT BUYING his lines about how he’s talked to his parents and they’re suddenly completely fine with him breaking his engagement and living his own life. Dude was clearly doing damage control! That Mummy’s BP is in no way “completely fine”.

Paroma: There’s actually a pretty convincing theory out there that CA Radhika was a plant and not a real rishta candidate. Or at least, that the roka was fake. Did you guys not notice how absolutely EMPTY that wedding hall was? This is the engagement ceremony of a dude whose mother brings out jewelry worth millions to show off in front of the camera! There’s no way they would have such a tame roka. The theory basically goes that the show wanted at least one pair to end on a ceremony at any cost. Otherwise Sima Aunty looks far too incompetent.

Anisa: Dang, you’re right. I’m on board with this theory. Those two could barely speak three words to each other, how is he suddenly claiming to be in love?

Saya: Uh. Akshay could barely speak, full stop. And when he did, he was so mind-numbingly dull that watching him was like having a heart attack in my brain.

Anisa: My mom did say that they were both so dull they were perfect for each other. 😂

Paroma: That they were. But at least the girl seemed to want something out of life.

Saya: I honestly was convinced he was gay.

Paroma: Oh man, so was I! So was the rest of the internet. Heh.

Anisa: There are so many pitfalls of pressuring people to get married when they clearly aren’t ready, or don’t want to at all. These parents are so sure that they know exactly what their kids need, but most of them never listen to them. Ankita’s were pretty great though. And Nadia’s. Vyasar’s too, although he seemed to be the only man with reasonable elders in his khandaan.

Paroma: His entire family was super adorable.

Saya: Having an atypical family history does seem to be the defining factor of getting people to break out of cultural prescriptions. Or just an atypical family?

Anisa: It can, but I also appreciate that we got to see Ankita’s parents, who were not supportive of their child because of past trauma, as Aparna’s and Vyasar’s understandably were, but just because that’s how they show their love. And we complain a lot about how our parents’ generation does things, but there are people who don’t follow those norms, and not just in the diaspora. My father’s family in Pakistan is full of highly educated women who married late and happily, or not at all. And that’s also a function of class privilege as well, as P pointed out above.

Saya: Yes, absolutely agree and have seen this play out in my own circle, too. But you know my jaw dropped when Ankita told us how she got harshed for her weight. Like WHAT? She was curvy and gorgeous and NOT AT ALL FAT—though there would be nothing wrong if she were—but I was like, I literally cannot see what you are seeing. What nether-reality are people in?!

Paroma: In Aunty’s words, the only way you get to have choices in the marriage mart is if you’re “slim, trim, and beautiful”.

Anisa: That was so upsetting, though sadly unsurprising.

Saya: You know at first, I thought Sima Aunty was super chill—so non-judgemental! People came out with these specific shopping lists of “qualities” and requirements, and she didn’t bat an eye. Cool, I thought. And then as the show went on and she started pushing back—at Aparna, at Ankita, at Rupam—about adjusting their criteria, dismissing their needs and opinions, I realised actually it’s because she was one of them. She believed the same things as the parents, but had a slightly bigger inkling of how kind or unkind reality would be. But largely, she was in the business of fulfilling that list. And yeah, exclusively at the expense of the seeking women.

Paroma: Aunty triggered me more than any other aspect of this series. I know these women. The well-meaning, righteous ladies, who firmly believe that they’re serving a higher purpose by pressurising and shaming families into cutting off the choices of their daughters.

Anisa: I can’t say I’ve personally met ladies like her, and she did have a lot of wise things to say from the perspective of, well, being a realist. But the problem is that she’s perpetuating the same norms that she claims she can’t do anything about, and women just have to accept.

Paroma: That’s ‘cause she’s running a business that caters to the parents and not the bride and groom. She’s incentivised to match status, ethnicity, caste, religion, and gets paid regardless of how unhappy the couple may be with the whole arrangement. The more “fickle” and “stubborn” women are, the less they’re likely to go along with her matches, and the less these families would need her.

Saya: I think I only get Aunty Simas.

Anisa: I also feel that although I praised the diverse geographical locations of the cast, on the other hand they aren’t diverse at all, because they’re all from Sima’s customer base, who certainly don’t reflect the diverse religious, class, and linguistic backgrounds of Indians. Even though a part of me felt represented by the American Desis, it’s clear that people who don’t fit the mainstream idea of who Indians are were absent. And I know that’s because we’re only following this one matchmaker, but the show isn’t called Matchmaking with Aunty Sima. It’s called Indian Matchmaking.

Saya: I agree with you. As much as I appreciated the close look at culturally familiar practices, I was always aware that it represented a very specific cross-section of people. I mean, not even a cross-section, but a non-random sampling of a particular level of Indian society, domestically or abroad. But it undeniably adds something different and new and very welcome to the conversation, and, well, I’m definitely here for a season two, if there is one!

Anisa: Same here! The show had the binge-tastic qualities of the best/worst of its genre, with the added enjoyment of showing us something I didn’t know I was hungry for. And despite its modest reality TV aspirations, I appreciate the way that the show has sparked a lot of very thoughtful conversations that were perhaps long overdue for some.

#IndianMatchmaking #Netflix #WeekendDramaReport