Five years ago, I met with a matchmaker. I was reporting a feature on India’s $50-billion marriage-industrial complex — which includes everything from the dating app Dil Mil to the lavish wedding of Priyanka Chopra and Nick Jonas.
I went in scornful. Like many of my progressive South Asian peers, I denounced arranged marriage as offensive and regressive.
But when the matchmaker recited her lengthy questionnaire, I grasped, if just for a beat, why people did things this way.
Do you believe in a higher power? (No idea.)
Should your partner share your creative interests? (Must read, though preferably not write, novels.)
Do you want children? (Not particularly.)
By the time we’d worked through the long list of questions, I could almost imagine that someone out there would meet all my “criteria,” as matchmakers put it. I felt a similar empathy when I switched on “Indian Matchmaking,” Netflix’s new, controversial docu-series that follows Sima Taparia, a desi yenta who is paid to marry off clients in India and the United States.
The show has received sharp criticism — some well deserved — among progressive South Asians, including Dalit writers, for normalizing the casteist, sexist and colorist elements of Indian society.
But that doesn’t mean we should dismiss the positive ways “Indian Matchmaking” complicates and advances depictions of South Asian life. It explores the fact that many Indian millennials and their diaspora kin still opt for match-made marriage. The show reveals conversations that take place behind closed doors, making desis confront our biases and assumptions, while inviting non-desis to better understand our culture.
The series, which was produced by the Oscar-nominated documentary filmmaker Smriti Mundhra, presents people who want to find a middle way between parentally arranged marriage and contemporary dating. American career women hire Ms. Taparia of their own accord; relatives bully rich, hapless Mumbai boys into meeting her.
Ms. Taparia (often just “Sima Auntie”) married at 19 after speaking to her husband for 20 minutes. She’s a product of the old world and is serving the new one. That dynamic drives the show. She finds young people inflexible — they want partners who are affluent, improbably tall, well traveled and acceptable to Mom. (One man-child just wants a clone of his mother.)
There is more nuance to this depiction of arranged marriage than what’s been shown in other films and TV shows featuring South Asians, which have long disdained match-made partnerships. On the sitcom “New Girl,” Cece Parekh and her parent-approved betrothed narrowly escaped their union, instead finding love with white people. In “The Big Sick” and “Meet the Patels,” matchmaking served as the obstacle to South Asian men’s sexual liberty. Even Bollywood prefers meet-cutes.
In fact, Western viewers rarely get to see South Asians in romantic partnerships with one another. Hollywood deserves blame for this — for too long, one brown person on screen was revolution enough; two boggled producers’ minds. “Bend It Like Beckham” and “Mississippi Masala” featured Indian women dating outside the race. (“Masala” deserves praise for tackling anti-Blackness among South Asians.) On “Master of None” and “The Mindy Project,” the protagonists generally dated white people.
But by 2020, South Asians have arrived on screens in more formats. Hasan Minhaj is the new Jon Stewart on “Patriot Act”; Bravo’s deliciously tawdry “Family Karma” showcases rich Indian Americans in Miami. Netflix and Amazon are investing in stories for Indian viewers.
Now, desi creators can portray ourselves dating and marrying brown. “Family Karma” sees Indians courting (and sniping) within the community. Mindy Kaling’s comedy “Never Have I Ever” subverts familiar narratives: A woman trying to avoid a family setup ends up actually liking the guy.
“Matchmaking” also reveals more textured dynamics within the community. A Sindhi woman bonds with a Sindhi man over their shared love of business — playing on a stereotype that Sindhis are good businesspeople. A Guyanese woman’s quest to meet a man who understands her family’s heritage — as laborers who left India in the 19th century — points to a rarely depicted migration history, which unfortunately goes unexplored in the episode.
The series stops short of being revolutionary, and tacitly accepts a caste system that can have fatal consequences for those who cross lines.
“By coding caste in harmless phrases such as ‘similar backgrounds,’ ‘shared communities’ and ‘respectable families,’” Yashica Dutt wrote in The Atlantic, “the show does exactly what many upper-caste Indian families tend to do when discussing this fraught subject: It makes caste invisible.”
However, “Matchmaking” does compellingly examine the challenges faced by desi women who want a relationship with their culture and an equal partnership. The most poignant motif of the series involves the common Indian English mantra of “adjustment.” A Delhi entrepreneur says families think an independent woman “won’t know how to adjust.” A Mumbai mom says girls, not boys, must adjust. And yet Ms. Taparia’s “adjustment” advice also helps a pessimistic lawyer be more positive about her love life.
The show asks us to consider whether “adjustment” connotes open-mindedness, or gender imbalance.
The unsettling answer seems to be that it’s both. We should be able to hold multiple truths about the “Matchmaking” subjects — understanding why someone might want a partner who speaks the same language, eats the same comfort food and shares the same religious beliefs, while also seeing how such worldviews are connected to a hierarchical and discriminatory system.
It’s easy to applaud stories about rejecting old customs in favor of modern ideals. It’s harder, yet worthwhile, to sit with the subtler tension between tradition and modernity. This is what the great marriage plots have always considered: a mannered society, and how to live within it.
Sanjena Sathian (@sanjenasathian) is a novelist. Her debut novel, GOLD DIGGERS, is forthcoming in 2021 from Penguin Press.