Indian Matchmaking: A Case Study in Cultural Infantilization

“If the spirits are not aligned, then there is nothing I can do. I am only here to carry out God’s work.”

This, along with a number of other meme-friendly one-liners from Mumbai-based matchmaker Sima Taparia, has marked Indian Matchmaking as must-see quarantine TV.

Like a Whatsapp group chat with aunties, these eight episodes chronicling the romantic adventures of Indians set off a number of debate and questions:

Are harmful qualities like sexism, colorism, and caste bias still prevalent in Indian culture? If so, should they be chronicled? (Yes)

Are young Indian men and women just as tightly rigid and narrow in their search for a significant other as Americans? (Yes)

Can the Indian engagement process be that overwhelming? (Yes)

Can Indian mothers be that coercive in pushing their offspring to marry? (Yes)

Is there any science behind building a biodata? (No)

Along with these questions, the series has been blasted by Indian Americans and Indians alike for allegedly sidestepping a number of these questions and instead choosing to paint a rosier picture of arranged marriage.

In my time of quarantine writing I went back to my old journalism notes to refresh myself on what one should do when one sees something being universally slammed. I was always told to validate or invalidate assumptions. Then question the questioners. Their motives, messages, and maturity.

After reading over fifty reviews of this show, I am in agreement of the need to peel back the rotten onion of discrimination we see here and abroad.

But the brown ecosystem must ask if we as a diaspora are serious enough to genuinely confront the besmirched qualities of our culture.

Our response to a light-hearted docu-series suggests we’re not.

By and large, the criticism around Indian Matchmaking is banal and binary — much of the focus is a repudiation on raising cultural discriminatory behaviors or not raising it enough. It’s as if the larger Indian community thinks most viewers are children, where they need to be directly led to the conclusion or blatantly ignore tough conversations. (For those living abroad that may be a fair assessment of America these days).

But in reality, the pushback on Indian Matchmaking is nothing short of a community desiring self-cultural infantilization — where the pressing and gut-wrenching topics in our ecosystem need to be aggressively dumbed down or need not be reflected upon at all. Where updated realities are too much and unbearable snapshots need to be disregarded or not discussed because it’s too much of a mental burden.

These reductive takes also skip over a chance to have a broader understanding of the shifts in Indian dating culture. This reminds me of when Tagore once said, “how are we to understand humanity with these narrow walls of thought.”

In her response to her critics, show creator Smriti Mundhra notes, “I know this is a narrow slice of Indian culture. I wanted to hold a mirror up to our culture and let people reflect on certain norms.”

But this isn’t enough for the haters. It’s clear that they want to strip out the rich dynamism in our culture and how its continually evolving. Where the show must be seen through a two-dimensional lens.

Indian writer Yashica Dutt who penned the beautiful book Coming out as a Dalit, a novel about growing up in a lower caste, also rebukes Indian Matchmaking in an Atlantic article arguing, “ She (Sima Taparia) lumps an entire social system, which assigns people to a fixed place.”

However, it isn’t the show that aims to portray Indian culture as a monolith, but its critics. Take these review headlines that were written by Indians all over the world.

Indian Matchmaking: Is the show helpful or hurtful?

Indian Matchmaking: Stream it or skip it?

Indian Matchmaking: Telling it like it is or Pure Hate?

Indian Matchmaking: Love it or Leave It?

Indian Matchmaking: Great or Terrible?

Indian Matchmaking: Fails to the only true side of arranged marriage

Indian Matchmaking: A show made for those who hate India

Indian Matchmaking: Colorist or Homophobic?

Indian Matchmaking: An inaccurate advertisement for forced marriages

Indian Matchmaking: Gets arranged marriage wrong by saying it’s right

Indian Matchmaking: A puff piece for outdated India

Indian Matchmaking: A cringeworthy show that proves the creators love Americans or hate Desis

Indian Matchmaking: Cancel Casteism or Don’t Air Season 2? (A very reasonable ask from the Mumbai Times)

These binary depictions of the show fail to highlight the range of clients Sima has. These reductive takes also skip over a chance to have a broader understanding of the shifts in Indian dating culture. This reminds me of when Tagore once said, “how are we to understand humanity with these narrow walls of thought.”

It is true that Mrs. Taparia’s clientele belongs to a wealthier bracket, and thus the show only highlights high-income Desis navigating the modern world of love. But for an eight episode series, it does a commendable job of interacting with Indians from different professional backgrounds with unique ambitions and varying personalities. Even Ms. Dutt admits Sima has an extensive and wide-ranging global trekking business, “(She) travels tirelessly between Mumbai, Houston, San Diego, and Delhi.” (Ms. Dutt forgets to mention Udaipur, Jaipur, Austin, Colorado, and New Jersey. Along with the fact that she works in Europe as well.)

Nor is the show a blush piece for the Indian diaspora. Not everyone is cast in a positive light. Indian culture is not always shown through rose-tinted glasses.

*SPOILER ALERT* Akshay’s mother, who constantly and cringingly berates her 25 year-old son about finding a brown boo, is shown in the opening scene of the show and actually gets more airtime than most of the individuals looking for partners. Her insanity in trying to rush arranged marriage for her introvert son, who is incapable of folding his own laundry, is a glimpse into how troublesome arranged marriage can be. And that privilege does not squash dated traditions.

There is also Aparna. Who is terrible. Her lack of passion for her profession, dearth of humor, and zero growth mindset is a turn-off that she is naive to (along with the idea that loving traveling makes you uniquely cultured when it just shows you’re a basic boring Millennial). This case also highlights the number of Indians who have rigid demands and desire traits that are irrelevant for sustaining a successful marriage (no one cares that Bolivia has salt flats Aparna).

But it is in the uplifting and unique storylines that critics don’t cover which show our childish ineptitude at examining a modern crusade for Indian romance.

Rupam — the 36 year-old Sikh divorced woman — whose successful quest for love is found through a dating app is also chronicled and chronicled fairly. There is also Ankita — the 28 year-old badass fashion designer who has parents that support her modern brand of independence — who decides that she is not eager for a relationship and more focused on her flourishing business.

The story of two intelligent women, from two different parts of the world within their own agency, forging their own romantic paths and thoughtfully coming to their own conclusions would be a mystery to you if you read the reviews of the show.

The critics also make little mention of Vyasar, the college counselor from Austin, and by far, the most endearing individual on the show. This big brown teddy bear’s emotional vulnerability and the process he goes through to be more open, is in itself a reason to stream the show. Additionally, it is clear that even without a paternal figure, Vyasar’s family support system is the strongest out of anyone followed in the show.

It is not a coincidence that divorce, independent and resilient women, non-nuclear families, and absentee fathers are rarely mentioned in the dissection of the show or amongst Indians in general. I’ve interviewed over 1,000 Indians around the world over the past three years and no one would dare touch these topics. Indians, in America and abroad, don’t want to spend time thinking about diving into these important issues.

Why? Because our barriers of cultural discussion are narrow. Our approach to any discomforting subject is often juvenile. Where anything with too much modernity or one that lacks a boogeyman gets cast aside. Arundhati Roy once said, “If the facilities of nuance and complexity are not built, how can we as Indians see the world for what it is.”

And even if with the discussions of the things we are comfortable with — color, caste, and arranged marriage — these conversations and our commitment to them are as half-baked as a Trader Joe frozen naan.

While there is an uproar of colorism, do we as Indians fully admit our biases and bad history when they come to this issue (I acknowledge I am guilty here). Will we have a conversation on the multi-billion dollar skin fairing industry? Will we stop supporting the Bollywood actors who promote these companies or valorize them when they become more popular (I am looking at you, Priyanka Chopra)?

We all admit that caste bias is an enormous problem. Do we want to propose actual policy solutions to fix this and will Indians stop fighting redistribution education programs in our homeland?

While we bemoan the dehumanizing, dangerous, and archaic nature of arranged marriages, are we looking to replace it with a values-based and empathy driven process of connecting with others. Or have we uploaded our outdated matchmaking process online for the next generation?

Indian Matchmaking is a fantastic show. It has compelling plots. Captivating characters. Head-scratching moments that make you crave more. Many moments of hope. And an insight into many good-hearted people’s quest to find their partner. It’s airing is a sign of the progress and the promise of the talents of our people. I felt proud to be Indian when I watched that show.

It has jump-started a number of much-needed conversations that no other form of media has. Indian Matchmaking has indeed shined a light on the wrinkles in our culture and uncomfortable realities of our people. But for a diaspora that is home to some of the smartest poets, writers, engineers, software developers, businessmen, and lawyers, we are not ready to analyze those weighty issues.

The show’s creator, Smriti Mundhra, has openly said she welcomes critiques of her show: “I want to be held accountable. Push me so I can push, too,” she said.

Mundhra’s biggest blunder isn’t normalizing or minimizing certain customs and norms, it’s thinking we as a diaspora are mature enough to engage in such reasonable adult discussion.

Founder of Honest Wednesdays and pragmatic optimist.

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