Like everyone else working their way through Netflix’s original content this summer, I recently binge-watched the new docu-series Indian Matchmaking. To say that the series—which follows Mumbai-based matchmaker “Sima Aunty” (AKA Sima Taparia) as she arranges marriages for couples in the US and India over the course of 2019—was a hit is an understatement. After its timely release (since it’s as close as we’re getting to attending a wedding this summer) everyone online has been talking about it.
But while I was celebrating what I found to be a super authentic look into the world of matchmaking, arranged marriages and Indian family dynamics, many reviewers and tweeters made me realize that I may be the only South Asian woman who was. Because it seems like Indian Matchmaking is the latest in “Things The Internet Loves to Hate.” The most common criticism of the show? That Taparia’s matchmaking approach, as well as her client’s requests, are often rooted in casteism, colourism and sexism—problematic issues that the show fails to interrogate. While these criticisms are valid and painfully obvious, in the context of a reality TV show, they’re also pretty unfair. Here’s why.
The show is not meant to represent all Indians
I’ve worked in film and television for many years (including on big films like Wonder Woman and Shrek: The Final Chapter) as usually the only South Asian person in the room, so I have a bit of a unique outlook when it comes to the series. For one, I’ve never worked on a project that featured a lead character—let alone multiple characters—who looked like me. So seeing that representation in Indian Matchmaking made me feel proud: Finally an Indian filmmaker had accomplished what we got into this industry to do: She put us on TV.
Indian Matchmaking could never be everything to everybody and still be the success it is. If there’s one thing I’ve learned sitting in development meetings and taking story notes over the years, it’s that if you try to please everyone and incorporate all notes (some of which are based on personal preference versus what would be truthful to the character or story), you end up with an unfocused mess, a project that doesn’t have an identity. As Indian Matchmaking‘s Oscar-nominated creator Smriti Mundhra told CNN, you can tell one story, not 1.5 billion. “There are very few [shows] that represent the South Asian experience,” Mundhra told the outlet, “so I think we are looking for each one of them to represent a lot of the South Asian experience, when in fact we are a billion and half people around the world.”
Mundhra says the show portrays “a very narrow slice” of Indian life, and that slice belongs to Taparia and her world. And, yes, that world is steeped in some pretty real, and pretty problematic traditions that we can’t pretend don’t exist.
Sima Aunty is real—and so are her views
With her judgmental, old-school way of thinking, Taparia is an obvious villain—but, honestly, I didn’t think she was that bad. She is, simply, a stereotypical aunty. Taparia is certainly not “woke” but, let’s be honest, nine out of 10 IRL aunties aren’t either. They stick their noses into other people’s business and tell it exactly how it is—not according to the modern world, but their traditional one, which is informed by patriarchy. For example, as a wedding guest I’m well practised in the “Namaste-and-run”; I pay my respects but don’t stick around long enough to get the beauty pageant once-over (“tall, slim, fair”) I know is inevitable. And on my first trip to India last year, I wasn’t exactly surprised when I was asked when I would get married. Every. Single. Day. Rarely does an aunty ask about my career or hobbies, if they don’t involve engagement rings or newborn babies, they don’t matter.
Similarly, on the show, Taparia can barely hold back rolling her eyes at the independent, career-oriented women, like Aparna and Ankita, while telling them to “adjust” and “compromise.” She tells divorced mom Rupam that she wouldn’t normally take her as a client because “your options are very less.” Meanwhile, she provides Akshay with as many biodatas as his boring heart desires. That’s because, historically, South Asian culture is patriarchal: We celebrate the birth of boys; we celebrate our brothers. To Taparia, a woman who prioritizes her personal growth over marriage is a self-indulgent woman who doesn’t know her place in society as a wife. A divorced woman is a failure. It’s a widely held traditional belief in South Asian cultures that divorced women are ruined or untouchable—Taparia and Indian Matchmaking didn’t make the rules, they’re just out there living by them.
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Contestants aren’t immune to these traditional values either
Like the criticisms of Taparia, several people online were unhappy with the traits the participants prioritized when looking for their partners. At the top of the most-hated list is how often “fair” skin was brought up as desirable—by both the participants and Taparia. (It’s literally like “must be over six feet” on Tinder). Taparia herself judges a woman’s marital value by how light her skin is. For example, Ankita is dark-skinned; coupled with the fact she has modern viewpoints, she therefore only receives one match. (In typical hypocritical fashion, Taparia doesn’t mind if the men have darker complexions, never commenting on Vyasar’s or Akshay’s skin tone). Within the participants looking for a match, Aparna asked for a North Indian (typically fairer-skinned) while Richa specifically says she’d like a man with fair skin. It’s a statement that may be shocking for some viewers, but it really shouldn’t be.
In many cultures, fair skin is seen as the epitome of beauty; an ongoing remnant of colonialism, with light skin signifying that you’re of a higher caste and from a well-off family. Yes, it’s a discriminatory sentiment and saying it on the heels of the Black Lives Matter movement makes it even worse. But, it’s not unique to this show, or even to South Asian culture. Skin lightening creams are a billion-dollar business in India, Asia and Africa. Recently, Fair & Lovely came under attack for promoting colourism, and in response they removed “Fair” from the name; however, the product, which promises to lighten skin tone, remains the same. Taparia and Richa are not alone in valuing fair skin, they’re just openly admitting it on TV. Before we condemn them for upholding a racist ideal, let’s also interrogate the people in our own families and circles who undoubtedly rank beauty in the very same way.
Despite its flaws, the show is paving the way for better representation
Even many of the supporting characters—like Rupam’s dad, who bosses her around, and Akshay’s mom, who is obsessed with getting him married—have been met with less than fond reactions. Critics, and even some of my friends, found them to be stereotypical and ugh-inducing Indian parents, their worst qualities reminding people of their own fathers and mothers. But I found their familiarity exciting, because I knew these people. I was either related to them or grew up running into them at the temple. Watching the show, this was the first time I’d seen a real overbearing Punjabi dad on English-speaking TV. Not to mention the fact that Akshay’s mom, who blames her high blood pressure on his marital status, had me laughing so hard I fell off the sofa. (FYI, high blood pressure is a constant conversation in Indian families and she’s definitely not the first mom to wield it as a weapon.)
Instead of being embarrassed, we South Asians should commend these parents for going on TV and giving us authentic representation by fully being themselves; especially considering most Indian parents I know would be too concerned about how other people would perceive them to go on TV in the first place. (Don’t believe me? Look up “Log Kya Kahenge”). And not only did these parents just go on the show, but to be fair, some of them did portray some real growth. For example, a story line that has been glossed over in discussions about the show is that of Rupam’s sister, Manu, who is married to a Black man. This was a standout moment for me because it quietly showed the duality of growing up Indian in America, where one sister is choosing to have an arranged marriage while the other one married for love. Then, to make things even more American, the sister having an arranged marriage quits listening to her dad and finds love on Bumble.
I wholeheartedly agree that it would be great to see a show featuring more of these characters, South Asians that are more in-step with the social movements of our time, but as Mundhra told Variety: “We had to be authentic to Sima’s world. We’d be having too heavy a hand as producers if we said she has to do a match for an LGBT couple or a Muslim couple, etc.” Understandably, due to the casting, this isn’t that show.
Taparia brought her aunty antics to the small screen, and South Asian critics tuned in with the expectation that their “representation” hopes and dreams were safe in her hands. It’s no wonder then that they were equal parts frustrated and unhappy about how they were being portrayed. Indian Matchmaking highlights the old world and the (some may say) unlikable aspects of South Asian culture. The show isn’t entirely palatable or politically correct, but neither are the culture and traditions. But it’s a story about arranged marriages, told through what millennials deem to be an anti-heroine’s lens. And because there are so few of us on mainstream TV, South Asians are holding it to an unrealistic standard that’s not fair.
Ten years ago, Indian Matchmaking was rejected for being too Indian, making the fact that it’s on Netflix now so epic and important. That’s why it’s imperative for critics to recognize that, in this case, the medium is more important than the message. Indian Matchmaking, if nothing else, is an English reality TV show starring Indian people. It straddles two countries and cultures without missing a beat. It has a high production value that proves, even with our flaws, we’re worthy of the time, money and air space. In the future, there will be other stories, and they’ll be told from all the different perspectives that make up the diversity of South Asian people globally—but they’ll only get produced because this one was a success.