Indian Matchmaking and the case of progressive dismay
Where are all these criticisms of the show coming from?
Ever since Netflix released its original series, Indian Matchmaking, the show has taken netizens in India by a storm. Perhaps a good measure of the show’s success is the number of memes and gifs it has spawned, of which we can confidently say there are many. At least for now, Netflix definitely has the attention of its Indian viewers. Not all of that attention has been approving, however. The show has also been heavily criticised. There’s been a lot of talk online about how Indian Matchmaking captures the worst of Indian culture: colourism, casteism, patriarchy. There are also those who can’t believe that a horrible institution like arranged marriage is being celebrated through a Netflix original instead of being definitely laid to rest, as it surely should be. Even journalist Faye Dsouza recently jumped into the fray, solemnly assuring young women in India who were watching the show; “You don’t have to be “adjusting” “flexible” or “compromise”. There are many wonderful, loving, supportive men/women in the world. Wait until you find the right one for you. This snake pit of patriarchy is not the whole truth.”
These are surprising responses. Since I couldn’t connect them and the condemnations therein to the show itself, I was compelled to ask — did we watch the same show? Sure, the show isn’t perfect. It’s not even brilliant. But neither in the show nor in its contestants could I see any malice or immorality. So why did some viewers find the show deplorable?
For the sake of contrast, and to put my surprise in context, let me share with you my own responses to the show.
Quite simply, I found Indian Matchmaking to be mostly hilarious and sometimes heartwarming. The standout feature of the show was its cast. More than the spicy editing and high-budget production, it’s the people featured in the show that make the magic happen. They’re all delightfully strange, and also convincingly, compellingly real. This is not the carefully curated cast of your average reality show. This is a bunch of human beings out and about in all their glorious variety. Unselfconscious in their conversations and in what they desire in their prospective partner/damaad/bahu, everyone in Indian Matchmaking gave me and my co-watchers plenty of laugh-out-loud moments, multiple raised eyebrows, and even some collective gapes and gasps.
They also give us some silent smiles. All of the show’s participants are navigating the deep and sometimes not-very-still waters of arranged marriage. On camera no less. They’re figuring out what they’re looking for in a partner, what kind of person would fit beautifully with them, but also with those they care about. They’re figuring out what they value not just today, but likely, for many years to come. Necessarily, they’re figuring out a lot about themselves in the process. We even see some of the participants grow as people through the course of 8 episodes, losing some of their hardness, loosening some of their knots. It’s difficult not to feel a sense of camaraderie.
My guess is Sima feels it too. She seems to be looking out for her clients, and she really does seem to want them to be happy. Through the eight episodes of the show Sima from Mumbai does more than a few cartwheels in her attempts to get her clients the happiness that the companionship of marriage can bring. Impressively, she doesn’t seem to be worried about what her clients will think once the show is aired and they see her plainspoken descriptions of them. As the show progresses, Sima Taparia emerges as a character herself — and a supremely relatable one at that. In several scenes she reminds me of the older women in my life, many of whom are the no-nonsense, straightforward aunties who apparently have joined the many groups that have a ‘gaze’ (I am completely stumped by this term ‘aunty gaze’, which is supposed to be right up there alongside ‘the male gaze’ and the ‘western gaze’, but that’s a conversation for another time). In other words, Sima Taparia seems to be of the real world, of this world. A big part of that comes from how matter-of-fact she is about her profession. She doesn’t have any airs about what she does, neither does she have judgements about what her clients want in their partners or sons/daughters -in-law. You want a girl from an industrialist family? Sure. You want someone good looking? No problem. You want a guy who has his career plan firmly in place? Got it. You want someone with a progressive mindset? I might not be able to find you that person, but I know someone who can.
Much like how Sima from Mumbai doesn’t quit in the face of her clients’ demands, viewers haven’t been able to stop watching (or even ‘hate-watching’) her and her clients in action, if Indian Matchmaking’s ranking on Netflix and all the buzz it has created online are any indication. But as we saw, not all of that buzz was the happy kind. So, to return to the questions that set off this article, why did some viewers find the show deplorable? Did we even watch the same show?
I believe part of the answer really is that we didn’t watch the same show. Take for instance Faye Dsouza’s tweet, which is in reference to Sima aunty’s alleged penchant for telling young women that they have to adjust, be flexible, and compromise, in order to find a groom. The allegation itself is strange. Because in the show Sima tells almost every one of her clients, including the rich boys she is matchmaking for in India, that they’ll have to adjust, be flexible, and compromise. Those bashing the show for celebrating patriarchal mindsets were either unable to see this fact, or simply considered it irrelevant to what they had to say. Both of which indicate that most people expressing disgust or dismay aren’t really responding to the show at all. Logically, then, what actually happens in the show doesn’t matter to their responses. That’s some malpua for thought.
I am also bewildered at the bad rep that ‘adjusting’, ‘flexibility’, and ‘compromise’ seem to have. It’s like they’re dirty words. It only takes a moment of looking at our own relationships to acknowledge that adjusting, being flexible, and compromising are actually pretty valuable in any relationship, be it with friends, with family, with colleagues, and even in those fleeting bonds with co-passengers in cramped public transport from the pre-Corona days. In the delectable khichdi of human relationships, adjustment, flexibility, and compromise, are actually essential ingredients. Without them we’d all be individual grains of dal and rice that don’t talk to each other. To hammer the point home, are there any mythical creatures, who, even after being in a dream relationship with the partner of their dreams, have not adjusted, been flexible, or compromised? The horrified outrage over adjusting, flexibility, and compromise in responses to Indian Matchmaking belies what we know from our own experiences. Did the authors of these responses not look at their own experiences, at their own relationships, before pronouncing grave denouncements? Are they idiots, in this regard? Or worse still, are they lying? The mind is boggled.
The idea of mythical creatures in perfect, adjustment, flexibility, and compromise-free relationships, actually brings us to the next part of the answer. A lot of people who found Indian Matchmaking immoral, also have a deep discomfort with the idea of arranged marriages. This is strange when you think about it. As Sima aunty pithily pointed out, in India we say marriage and love marriage. In other words, arranged marriages are much more common in India than love marriages, and this has been the case for the last several decades at least (going by what our grandparents and parents remember and report on the issue). So surely, most of the marriages we see around us are arranged marriages. Some of them are unhappy from the start, some start off happy and then sour over time, for reasons perhaps unknown even to those whose marriages they are. Many arranged marriages around us, however, are actually doing quite alright. Some of them are even resounding successes, healthy and happy and deserving of being #goals. What then explains this strong discomfort with arranged marriages?
For the most part, I think it’s an actual inability to see these marriages for what they are, much like the inability to actually see Indian Matchmaking for what transpires in its 8 episodes. Most of us are woefully blind to the marriages of our parents, grandparents, friend’s parents, or even of our friends, siblings, and cousins. We don’t know what makes these marriages tick, we don’t know what works, and what doesn’t. We don’t know what makes for a happy marriage, nor what breaks one. And perhaps most regrettable of all, we don’t want to find out. We have either accepted the ridiculous, outlandish ideas of romance and marriage fed to us at the movies or, conversely, we are passionate defendants of the equally non-existent 50–50 marriages, mythically free of adjustment, flexibility, and compromise. In other words, we are satisfied defending ideological notions of how one ought to find a partner (“exercise your choice!” “how can you marry someone you don’t love?!” “why are you going for arranged marriage, you’re good looking and progressive, you can find someone on your own!”) and what marriage ought to be like, and have no interest in observing what happens and often succeeds in practice. This may be our state. Notably, it isn’t where most of the participants of Indian Matchmaking are coming from. As many of them explicitly state, they’ve tried dating, and it didn’t work for them. So now they’re looking to try something different. In several responses to the show, this choice, and the process of looking for a partner through matchmakers or arranged marriages, has been labelled everything from un-empowered and regressive to straight out bigoted. This is astounding. It is also true of most ‘progressive’ responses to the show.
But consider this; If those who have the choice not to (and here I’m not talking only about participants of the show), choose arranged marriages as the way to find their partner, they must be doing so after having learnt something about the process of dating, and about themselves in it. They must also have observed successful marriages around them, many of which will be arranged. Surely then, when they choose arranged marriages, they are acting from experience and from some kind of knowledge. To explain their choice as bigoted, or worse still, ignorant, betrays a deliberate blindness. Most notably, it demonstrates the expectation for people to root their choices not in knowledge or experience, but in slogans. How is this “progressive”?