Like any self-respecting Brown person with Netflix, I binged Indian Matchmaking as soon as it hit the streaming service. Being that I’m Indian, 31, and unmarried, the subject matter hit close to home—and frankly, was triggering. The series, which dropped on July 16, is centered around Sima Taparia (a.k.a. Sima Auntie), a professional matchmaker who’s praised as a savior with the answer to everyone’s problem: how to find a spouse.
How it works: Taparia comes to her client’s home to find out what they (or, more often, their parents) are looking for in a partner, then digs into her stack of bio-datas for matches. A bio-data is essentially what you’d get if LinkedIn, Bumble, and MyAncestory.com had a baby. It’s your relationship résumé, and she calls these potential matches “proposals.” No pressure.
I understand why her no-nonsense approach would appeal to an old-school sensibility. Arranged marriages are nothing new in Indian culture—it’s been the standard for centuries—and Sima is efficient. My parents met all of one time before getting engaged. That was just what you did. Things have certainly changed since then, but Indian Matchmaking highlights that the practice is still very much in need of an upgrade.
Being Indian is one of my life’s greatest honors—the food, the clothes, the choreographed dancing, simply put, rock—but I was also hardwired to make life choices around the phrase, “What would [insert name] Auntie think?” Your choice of degree, career, and who you marry are all a part of this cultural status program. I consider myself lucky because my parents were a bit on the chill side, so I studied journalism and theater with little pushback (though I was the topic of much auntie gossip for it).
That pressure is there in Indian Matchmaking, which felt like watching Live Tinder with extreme gender roles. Female clients are called “difficult to match,” while men are just “picky” or “unsure.” Nadia, an event planner, Bollywood dancer, and all-around cool girl, is immediately labeled a hard match because of her Guyanese background. Aparna, a successful attorney, isn’t perfect—at one point she takes issue with her date talking too much to their server—but I think it’s unfair of Sima to label her as mentally unstable for being unapologetically herself. Ankita owns her own small business but is considered difficult because she has modern sensibilities and, I quote, “is not photogenic.” (Not true!) Meanwhile, male clients like Pradhyuman and Akshay are offered a parade of women, none of whom are to their liking. Sima doesn’t disparage their physical or mental state, she just offers them more options.
Women needing to be more flexible is a central theme of this show. As one client’s mom tells Sima, “The girls have to adjust many things rather than the boys, that is the value that we have been brought up with.” There’s also an extreme emphasis on physical appearance over personality. The best thing you can be, in Sima’s eyes, is fair and slim. That law degree or small business you’ve built? Secondary at best.
The practice of matchmaking isn’t going anywhere, I get that. But as our values change, how we look for partners needs to as well. So I wanted to speak with the show’s creator, Smriti Mundhra, to learn more about her own experience with matchmaking and where she feels there’s room for change. Her insight was both realistic and hopeful.
Glamour: What was your opinion on arranged marriages before the show?
Smriti Mundhra: I think a lot of women, not just South Asian women, have a complicated relationship with the idea of marriage. Because I’m South Asian, specifically Indian, I am from a relatively conservative background. Even though my parents are pretty liberal, I grew up with a feeling that a lot of my self-worth was tied to whether or not I was married. In my late 20s, I broke up with a boyfriend that fit every expectation I had put on myself. I was heartbroken and vulnerable and feeling like I had failed. So my mom took over. She made a profile on Shaddi.com [an Indian marriage site] and took out an ad in the matrimonial section of an Indian newspaper. My bio-data was floating around to various matchmakers, including Sima Taparia from the show.
I learned a lot about myself and got a nuanced look at the whole idea of matched marriages. Part of it was deprogramming things I had internalized, like feeling I was incomplete and not living up to my expectations of being a good daughter until I married. Part of it was recognizing that people of an older generation, like my mother, were coming from the only place they knew. They had been raised that the best way to protect their kids, especially daughters, was to make sure they were married to someone who could care and provide for them. I softened a little bit after I recognized the pressure she had on her shoulders, but I also had to figure out what was right for me. Meeting Sima was one of the best things to come out of it. Not because she found me a partner, or was even looking in the right places for me, but because I found her to be an interesting person who offered a perspective on a world I had run away from.
When you set out to create this show, what was your goal?
I wanted to show that Indians from the Indian diaspora are not monolithic. There are different people with different perspectives and different priorities and relationships to the idea of marriage. It’s such a big aspect of our coming of age, whether we are running away from it, opting in, or struggling with it. Because of that tension, I wanted to show that range. I also wanted to make a dating show that presented the South Asian perspective. It’s not possible to show the entire perspective, of course, and the show leaves a lot on the table. At least it put us in a space that’s been dominated by Western and white ideas of relationships, dating, and marriage. I wanted to explore how marriage is a great litmus test to see the ways our values as a culture and society are progressing…or not. I wanted people to not feel as alone as I did during this process, so we can air it all out and talk about what we want to preserve in our culture as well as the things we need to reevaluate.
You filmed both in the states and in India. Did you see a difference in the process between the countries? What was most surprising to you?
I’m very careful when I talk about generalities in Indians because the only true thing you can say about India is that for everything you say, the opposite is also true! But I did want to show that in the U.S. we’ve had a bit more space to live outside the traditional norms of marriage and the linear, heteronormative “ideal.” There’s been a little more space to pursue careers or different kinds of relationships and develop our own ideas around marriage beyond the traditional ones our parents grew up with. I also wanted to show that in spite of all that, a lot of us do still feel bound to wanting to preserve our traditions. How do we be us?
On the flip, in India, I wanted to show the wide range of perspectives on marriage. From the traditional side—like Akshay and his parents—to someone like Ankita, who is daring to forge her own path. She’s shrugging off the mantle of patriarchy. Then you have Pradhyuman, who is in between. He has a lot of options, he knows he wants to live a certain kind of life, but he comes from a relatively traditional background.
A lot has evolved in one generation. From my mother’s time to mine, it’s dizzying how many more options there are. But that kind of rapid change can be messy. Not everyone is going to catch up to it at the same time.
How do you think the process is different for men and women?
Maybe I’m saying this because I am a woman, but the pressure for women to conform, to follow this life plan, and bend to accommodate a life partner is much bigger than it is for men. That’s true of western culture too. They might have had more time and space to push back on it, but it does exist. In Indian culture, we are raised with an idealized vision of what a woman should be: pretty, soft, accommodating, pleasant, intelligent enough but not too intelligent as to intimidate a man, ambitious enough but not too much so a mother-in-law will feel like you won’t be able to take care of a household and children. It’s a lot to parse through and can be incredibly frustrating. We’re not in an equitable place yet. Not just in India, but in society in general. I’m happy when I see women pushing back on that. Whether it’s someone like Ankita, who bucks that expectation of who or what she should be, or even someone like Aparna who is unapologetic in her expectations. She holds herself up to a high standard, and she expects that out of her partner. I like that about her.
There was a lot of difference between how Sima interacted with her male clients versus her female clients.
Yeah, definitely. I’ll say that with the caveat that I don’t think it’s with bad intention or a conscious choice. Sima is a very matter-of-fact person, and she’s coming from a place of what she knows. Her own life and perspective are that women are always expected to compromise more to have a successful marriage. She’s seen that time and time again. She is coming from a well-intentioned place to make things as easy as possible for her clients and being realistic about the world we still live in. But I totally get how that can grate on people. I think she is coming into more of an awareness and growing in her ideas on gender roles. For her, the change will come when the clients demand it.
Do you think there’s room for feminism for a matchmaker-made relationship?
That’s a really good question. I think that comes down to the fundamental question of: Is there room for feminism in the institution of marriage, period? I don’t know if I have the answer. I do think there’s more space for equitable partnerships. The more we push these rigid ideas of marriage and redefine it for ourselves, the better off we will be. I’m married and very ambivalent about the idea of marriage, and I am in what I consider to be an equitable partnership! Marriage and arranged marriage is what we define it to be, so I hope we continue to push to make it more favorable for women.
This applies not just to women but also nonbinary and LGBTQ+ people. Marriage in its purest form is a partnership. All people can relate to that need. I’m speaking in sort of gender binaries because we as a culture are so far away from having these conversations, in a South Asian context, about equitable partnership and access for LGBTQ+ and nonbinary people. In the heteronormative sense, at least, we can push harder for women.
Were there any social issues you encountered while making the show that surprised you?
The biggest one was recognizing that people of my generation living in the U.S. have internalized what they’ve been told to value in a partner. I would have never in a million years expected that fairness in skin tone would be a priority for people in my generation. I really thought that wouldn’t be something here in the United States. I was surprised that people who otherwise consider themselves progressive still subscribe to some of these conservative notions. There is a lot to deprogram, and it takes a while to get there.
Now that the show is out, what conversations occurring are you excited about?
I love hearing, “I binged the show, and then my parents did.” It opened the door to some conversations we were dancing around: finding agency, finding a partner, how we want to live our lives, colorism and casteism. I’m glad the show is causing people, even as they cringe, to think about the things we internalize. I also really appreciate that for a dating show, there’s more diversity than most in terms of body type, backgrounds, divorce, children, etc. It’s not the typical 25-year-old, white, perfect-body type of person. We hope to widen the aperture of who is included on a show like this. As a start, I hope people can recognize and see themselves and some of their vulnerabilities and struggles in some of the participants.
What does the future of matchmaking as a concept look like?
We need to rip it from the grips from these gendered heteronormative ideas. It’s good for business: The more clients you serve, the bigger your business can get! I hope that people recognize that feminism and wanting to hold onto your culture don’t have to be at odds to finding companionship. That is a very human need, and I don’t think there’s anything wrong with that. I also don’t think there’s anything wrong with preserving aspects of your culture and values coming into a partnership. I just hope we reconsider what those values should be based on.
Now that the show is out, how do you feel about arranged marriages and matchmakers?
One thing I do give credit to India and these big institutions there is that they are adaptable, so I am optimistic in that regard. Absolutely, I concede and agree that arranged marriage was designed to preserve caste and class and to subjugate women, but I think it’s evolved from that. I am optimistic that it will continue to evolve, but it will only do that if we push it. I am really happy with the conversations the show has caused. We can recognize where we are with arranged marriage and push the definition further.
Manasa Vedula is social media strategist and photographer based in New York City. Follow her on Instagram @manasavedula.
Originally Appeared on Glamour