By Nanya Sudhir and Saumya Sudhir
(Originally published in The Quint on July 23)
Recently, the TV powers that be gave over two million Brown people a show none of us wanted but all desperately needed. Indian Matchmaking is Netflix India’s answer to the cringe-worthy, binge-worthy, reality dating shows we know and love, joining the ranks of Dating Around, Love is Blind, Say I Do, Love Island, and Too Hot to Handle, and many others.
The premise is simple: Indian matchmaker Sima Taparia (“from Mumbai”) travels the globe to help eligible Indian singles find [arranged] love. Episodes are loosely structured and new characters come and go, taking viewers from Houston to Mumbai to Denver within minutes. Being God’s mediator is a full-time job, and even Sima Aunty can’t do it all on her own. She leverages the talents of her work associates – a ragtag bunch of priests, astrologers, face readers, kundali-matchers, life coaches, fellow matchmakers/gossipy aunties, and her husband, Sima Uncle.
For us, the show was the hilarious centrepiece in an otherwise regular weekend. We guffawed at the orgasmic makhana-eating montage, gorged on the Freudian dynamics of India’s uber-wealthy and uber-clueless, and roared through the awkward moments of cringe that poked fun at the shamelessly elaborate sexism, colourism, classism, and casteism that come out within the context of arranged marriage. We could laugh not because we are not angry at these things or because we have not suffered them, but because there was finally a show that brought our society’s problems into the wide, gaping expanse of primetime TV in their full ridiculousness.
Apparently, not everyone enjoyed Indian Matchmaking in the way we did. Outrage posts surfaced on the internet within hours of its release. Some people hated it for portraying and perpetuating social evils. Others wanted it pulled down immediately, worried about what Western viewers might think. Yet others thought it was absolute trash that deserved no more of their time.
All of that, we think, was kind of the point.
The way we see it, Indian Matchmaking was made precisely to highlight and mock the problematic ideologies that often abound in the traditional arranged marriage process. It is made for a generation that grew up with mockumentaries and cringe comedy (The Office, Modern Family, Parks and Rec, Arrested Development, and Borat). It is also primed by Netflix’s particular brand of in-house moviemaking — where the leads are people of colour, queer, and don’t conform to conventional beauty standards, and storylines deal with a more nuanced self-actualisation than mainstream Bollywood would ever allow (Karan Johar, here’s looking at you). Indian Matchmaking fits perfectly into this genre of TV that pokes fun, but intelligently.
This is a show that can be watched in two layers. On the surface, its eight pocket-sized episodes add drama and entertainment to any viewer’s homebound (we hope) lockdown existence. But the viewer can also go deeper, zoning into the subtleties and moments of uncomfortable pause that draw out the real flavour of the show and take you behind closed doors into the blatantly problematic things real people say.
In a show that lacks a voiceover or a single-focused point of view, its subtle editing is the real narrator – and it’s a powerful one. An attentive viewer will understand that the show’s portrayal of arranged marriages is laced with critique and disapproval. Through awkward, lingering shots and close-ups that fill the screen with the characters’ winces and clenched knuckles, the director tells us what they really think about the worst aspects of the arranged marriage industry and the people who make them that way.
Take for example the cringe-worthy diktats that expose societal double standards for men and women. We meet 25 year-old Akshay, who doesn’t know what he wants from his bride-to-be except that “she is pretty,” is okay spending all day with her mother-in-law, and is “literally” like his mother. His mother so desperately wants him to get married that she has bed boxes overflowing with jewels for the potential bride. While she has a laundry list of requirements for the perfect daughter-in-law, Akshay is not even able (or expected) to answer the question “Tell me a bit about yourself” or to carry out a conversation longer than “What did you do today?” “Nothing” with the one candidate he is finally set up with. That Akshay is allowed to get away with the bare minimum life skills while expecting the world from his future spouse might sound crazy. But the reality is that Indian society does not ask that men be self-aware, handsome or even able to hold a conversation, yet demands that women be beautiful, light-skinned, well-educated and at the same time able to “compromise” (i.e. give up) on nearly everything that makes them an individual.
Through careful editing, the creators tell us exactly what they think of the characters and their beliefs. The camera hovers expectantly on Akshay when he declares that he wants all the qualities of the woman he once lived inside to be copy-pasted into the one he will live with for the rest of his life. Along with the camera, the audience waits for him to say “Psych!” or “Gotcha!” Spoiler alert: this moment never arrives. When his mother, in a separate conversation with friends, says that all boys eventually search for their mother in their wives, there is silence, and the camera awkwardly pans to settle on the thinly-veiled disgust dragging down the corners of a friend’s mouth.
We understand what Indian Matchmaking is really trying to say by everything it doesn’t. Far from condoning the mindsets that sometimes accompany arranged marriages, the show mocks them through sly camera movements and dramatic scene-cutting. We are forced to sit with the discomfort, not allowed to skim over the awkwardness of the moment as we often do in real-life social interactions. In being unscripted, the show’s editing acts as its backbone.
The show also uses humour as a holding space where viewers can inspect and place a mirror against the discriminatory beliefs, archaic ideas, and generation gaps that mottle their society. Humour draws the viewer closer to the real tapestry of the show, which is its commentary on antiquated social roles. Vignettes from every candidate highlight gender disparities. For example, only the women are ever told to be flexible and accepting. Aparna, a high-achieving lawyer raised by a single mother, is chided by Sima Aunty for knowing what she wants (i.e. not an insecure, unfocused, laid-back person whose success is a property of their being a man and having family wealth). Sima Aunty feels fatigued when engaging with Aparna’s clarity, but merely chuckles when Akshay and Pradhyuman turn away scores of proposals for reasons they cannot begin to articulate. Deal-breakers are also vastly different for the genders. Sima Aunty addresses Vyasar’s troubled family history with an openness and understanding that’s uncommon in the community. But she cannot extend the same acceptance towards Rupam, a divorced single mother. She emphasises how much Rupam’s marital past inconveniences her, as she tells us she usually doesn’t take on clients with children and presents her only with divorced candidates because “her options are limited.”
In interspersing lighter moments (giggly brunches, first-date banter, goat yoga) with reminders about the contrasting expectations from men and women, the show shines a spotlight on the toxic notions that continue to plague arranged marriages and South Asian society as a whole. By laughing through the cognitive dissonance and inconsistencies they see in their world, viewers can use this discomfort as a starting point to move in a different direction. Smriti Mundhra, one of the creators, has stated that the show was created precisely to inspire these conversations.
As for the concern that non-South Asians will draw inaccurate assumptions from the show - who cares? One trashy show does not negate the thousands of years of solid cultural content (art, literature, music, and film) that was created in the subcontinent and is often used as inspiration for the rest of the world. Netflix finally made a show that unites Brown people all over the world. For once, we’re the intended audience of a high-budget, guilty pleasure reality show that talks about the shortcomings of our own society. We are the ones who are supposed to hate it, relate to it, laugh at it, learn from it, or even be traumatised by it. We are also the ones who can build on this momentum by creating more content that captures reality in all its shades.
If anyone else wants to watch it, that’s great. But the onus is not on Brown people to defend/explain the show, to explain that we’re not all like this, and that the show is a parody. If Keeping Up with the Kardashians, Jerry Springer, Big Brother, and The Real Housewives franchise don’t represent an entire culture, the same should be automatically understood about Indian Matchmaking. If anyone needs more convincing, White people were literally on the production crew of this show. They were present when decisions were made to showcase rather than gloss over the ugly parts of society just so we don’t “look bad” to the West yet again. They’re already in on it.
People should enjoy Indian Matchmaking for what it is: a roast of arranged marriage and the people who are dogmatic enough about it that they will defy all reason and logic. It’s not a life-changing, Golden-Globe-deserving masterpiece. It’s just an entertaining show with a lot to laugh at (and criticise) — like the judgments of Sima and every other Aunty, which are as off as their choice of words. Rich families are always deemed “cultured” and guilt-tripping mothers are “caring,” while clear-headed and ambitious women are “stubborn.” Kundalis are “insurance” for a happy marriage and anyone who’s remotely pleasant (and above size 0) is “jolly.” By caricaturing conversations usually had behind closed doors, the show puts parochial stereotypes under a magnifying glass. It warns us, tongue-in-cheek, what might happen if we let ourselves skip over these notions, internalise them, and inflict them upon future generations.
Even if the humour of the show was lost on many people, ultimately its biggest joke was the one it played on itself. Turns out, arranged marriage isn’t perfect, and Sima isn’t that great at her God-given job after all (as she frequently reminds us: it’s not up to her, it’s up to “destiny”). She brings together singles who live in different cities and have nothing in common, and gaslights them when they call her out for it. Possibly the funniest part: none of the couples from the show have remained together. The producers had to know that a generation raised on a steady diet of Googling everything would instantly figure out that the matches didn’t work. But they continued anyway. What better way to poke fun at Sima Aunty and the broader architecture that holds up her ideologies?
So enjoy the show, meme it, share it, get enraged at it. That’s what it’s for. Every valuable/successful/insert-your-own-metric-here piece of art is a capsule of social context meant to provoke conversations and bring about change. Stereotypes are broken by asking the stupid questions so we can get over them and start undoing the damaging ideas they bring with them. The memes launched by Indian Matchmaking suggest that ground-breaking conversations about these stereotypes aren’t too far off. Memes about the things Sima Aunty says that are plain wrong, the things she says that are relatable, the things she’d say if she were woke, the hilarious mummy’s boy complex, and South Asian parenting stereotypes are just a few of the thousands that have perfectly captured the inherent humour of the show.
Memes are also a crucial starting point for important discussions. Yes, we are saying that memes change culture (and we aren’t the first). They defuse tension around serious topics that could otherwise not be discussed openly. They express a wealth of emotions and references by condensing many feelings into one picture or phrase. And they communicate powerful ideas with many people, very quickly. By forming a repository of collective references, memes have the power to shape cultural memory. The many memes birthed by Indian Matchmaking are symbols of the broader cultural conversation we desperately need.
In a way, Indian Matchmaking was released at the perfect moment. The combination of drama, pause, and cringe serve as an allegory for our times. We’re sitting on our couches in the middle of a pandemic rethinking the very axis of our reality, with what feels like nothing more than memes and digital smoke signals to send out into the void. The show’s creators seem to have presciently understood this. They have consciously coaxed out social evils with humour and hyperbole, and laced them with a strong - if subtle - disapproval that encourages the viewer to react and change. The show’s instant success has birthed more than memes. It has opened up very real, very needed conversations about archaic societal notions that need an overhaul. We don’t know about the participants finding love, but maybe this was the show’s “destiny” after all.