Growing up as the child of Indian immigrants in the United States, I frequently came across dismay and condescension at my parents’ arranged marriage. This custom of parents, relatives, friends or matchmakers arranging a marriage for others is prevalent in many cultures across Asia, but can be inconceivable for those born and raised in America. I internalized some of this skepticism toward arranged marriage at a very young age, embracing the Western ideals of choice and individualism and swearing off any notion that someone else would pick my future husband. Which is why after watching “Indian Matchmaking” on Netflix, I was shocked to find myself understanding the hidden value in arranged marriage.
Western cultures have centralized the idea of romance for centuries, putting love at the forefront in everything from Shakespeare to meet-cute moments in rom-coms to dating apps. It’s pretty simple: You find someone you like, fall in love, get married and remain committed to your partner for life. Arranged marriage turns this timeline on its head, with marriage coming first and love happening later, if it even happens at all. But it’s your life — how can someone else choose who you marry?
This is where “Indian Matchmaking” comes into play. With an unprecedented magnifying glass on both India and the Indian diaspora, creator Smriti Mundhra investigates the role of arranged marriage in the modern world in this documentary-style series. The show comes to life through the eyes of Mumbai matchmaker Sima Taparia, who collects marriage proposals and “biodatas” to connect single people on both sides of the Atlantic.
Taparia outlines the value of arranged marriage simply to a Western audience. By pairing people based on their backgrounds, preferences, horoscopes and her own knowledge of what makes a good match, Taparia can bring couples together without the muddled uncertainty of dating. The show producers further highlight the success in arranged marriages throughout the show, slipping in brief conversations of Indian couples who have been married for over 50 years to lend credibility to this model of marriage.
However, what was most surprising for me was witnessing the willingness of individuals to have their marriage arranged by a matchmaker. I had only previously heard stories of parents forcing their children into marriage, sometimes too young. Arranged marriage is a cultural norm in India, with the implicit expectation that parents choose their child’s future partner as their child enters their mid to late-20s.
My own mother is a strong advocate for arranged marriage, often telling me how parents have much more life experience and a keener eye for who can be a good life partner for their kids. Taparia agrees with this sentiment, stating that “In India, marriages are between two families, and the families have their reputations and millions of dollars at stake, so parents guide their children.”
But my mother also told me stories of how my grandfather never met my grandmother before their wedding ceremony, and how she herself only met my father a couple of times before tying the knot. I was horrified at the thought that someone else could hold the future of my life in the palm of their hands. I could never, willingly or unwillingly, consent for my own marriage to be arranged, and my coming-of-age in Western society only affirmed this notion for me.
But seeing modern, young, American men and women actively wanting their marriages arranged on “Indian Matchmaking” dispelled my cloud of misconceptions. I saw these 20- and 30-somethings, disillusioned by prior dating experiences yet eagerly wanting to settle down, turning toward their Indian heritage and embracing arranged marriage. The choice of whom to marry was entirely up to them, unlike the archaic marriage traditions of our grandparents’ generation.
The success of arranged marriage is due to the partial lack of control over who you end up with. All too often, people get caught up in the lust and feelings of initial romance, looking past the qualities that would make an individual an unfit partner. With 40% to 50% of marriages in the United States ending in divorce, the result of prioritizing feelings over aligning values and lifestyles is clear.
But whether it’s Sima Taparia from Mumbai or your own mother and father, other people can sometimes offer a better perspective into who can make a good partner. On “Indian Matchmaking,” Taparia herself steered her customers away from rejecting someone based on looks or initial impressions, instead telling them to trust her instincts and meet with her handpicked match before swiping left.
Aside from understanding the value of arranged marriage in the modern age, I felt most compelled when I saw parts of myself reflected in the show.
I empathized with Guyanese American Nadia, who felt othered by her American upbringing clashing with her Guyanese ethnicity and Indian heritage. I identified with Ankita’s prioritization of her career, and her realization that finding a partner would not complete her. And I deeply appreciated seeing an accurate portrayal of Indian culture in mainstream Western media, complete with an emphasis on respect for religious, familial and cultural values.
Even those who do not identify with the Indian immigrant experience could find value in “Indian Matchmaking.” Journalist and film critic Anna MM Vetticad told BBC that although she felt “like an outsider looking in on an alien world” while watching the show, she saw arranged marriage as “a practical Indian version of the dating game in the West and to that extent this show can be educational since it does not condescendingly suggest that one is a more modern practice than the other.”
However, the reception of “Indian Matchmaking” was not entirely positive. The show’s producers have received much backlash for its reinforcement of casteism, sexism and elitism, along with colorist sentiments, seen when Taparia comments on how “fair” certain female matches were. But the fact of the matter is that these elements are still very much regrettably ingrained in Indian culture. As the show’s creator, Mundhra welcomed this criticism of the problematic aspects of Indian society.
“I totally understand why people feel like ‘You’re exposing, some of them are problematic things that are in our culture,’” Mundhra said in an interview with CNN. “But that’s where we are. I would never want to make a show that sanitizes that because I think we need to have those conversations and we need to push to do better as a community and as a culture.”
By wholeheartedly showcasing the failings of modern Indian society, “Indian Matchmaking” can actually serve as an impetus for change toward the better. This is especially the case as Indian and Indian American youth shed the harmful rhetoric imposed on them by older generations.
Although the toxic form of arranged marriage still persists in India with young women permanently scarred by their forced marriages, the rosier portrayal of “Indian Matchmaking” presents a perspective on arranged marriage that I never thought existed.
Whether the show makes you feel entertained by its eccentric cast, appreciative of South Asian representation on Netflix or outraged at the stark inequities that persist in India, one thing is clear: Indian culture is still far behind in its evolution toward equality, but media representation is one avenue that can expose the very changes that need to happen.