One of the unaddressed problems with Indian Matchmaking, as I suggested last week, is that it seeks to club too many disparate worlds under Sima Aunty’s umbrella — leaving some out in the wind and weather. But if you think about it, many of the candidates with whom Sima Taparia has the least success — Aparna the opinionated lawyer, Nadia the hopeful dance trainer, Vyasar the good-humoured schoolteacher, Rupam the divorced single mother — are Indians in the West, for whom she is but one of a bouquet of options. Taparia’s claim of custom-made choices may seem a great option to these people bruised by past relationships and the dating game, but they also know they can always go back to meeting people online or off-: to non-Indian matchmaking, if you like. This is true even when they want a partner from a particular community: Rupam, for instance, manages to find a Sikh American man on Bumble who fits better with her familial priorities than Taparia’s prospects. Also, though the explosion in dating apps and marriage websites is kept rather obviously to the sidelines of IM’s India-set narratives, the reality is that Pradhyuman in Mumbai and Ankita in Delhi, too, have many options besides the mythified personal matchmaker.
Taparia’s inability to match most of her clients on the show ends up making her look foolish, even redundant. But it’s a setup designed to fail. No lone matchmaker, no matter how well-networked, can possibly provide the range and variety of prospects needed to cater to IM’s selection of clients: so distant in location, age, social and educational background. It’s no accident that the only success on IM is the engagement of Akshay, whose mother is the real mover on both marital deadline and choice of bride. And while the show doesn’t vocalise it, the way Akshay and Radhika’s families greet each other with “Jai Shree Krishna” suggests membership of the same religious sub-community.
In Mundhra’s 2017 film on arranged marriages, A Suitable Girl, all three young women she tracks get married: two within their communities, and the third to someone off Shadi.com, only after failing for years to find a match within her caste. Meanwhile, other than Rupam’s dad wanting only a Sikh husband for her (interesting, given that her sister’s husband is African American), IM mostly elides the biggest factor in real-life Indian matchmaking: caste and community. The ‘reality show’ also leaves out an even more ubiquitous vector of Indian arranged marriages: money.
These realities that reality TV apparently can’t deal with appear constantly in our filmi fiction. The Hindi film and OTT industry has, in recent years, revelled in weddings as sites of ugly social revelations. From Mira Nair’s 2001 Monsoon Wedding (MW), to Bittoo Sharma and Shruti Kakkar in 2010’s Band Baja Baraat to the rather posher Tara Khanna and Karan Mehra in 2019’s hit OTT series Made in Heaven (MiH), our fictional content is positively chock-a-block with the planning of weddings. Weddings, as anyone who’s organised one knows, are not just logistical nightmares but sites of social drama. Runaway brides have been with us since DDLJ, but there have many more since (MW, Tanu Weds Manu, Three Idiots, Shuddh Desi Romance to name just a few). More recent crises have included secretly gay grooms (MiH, also Shubh Mangal Zyada Savdhan), cross-cultural wedding negotiations (Vicky Donor, 2 States), an immature groupie bride who sleeps with a celebrity right before her suhaag raat and an ubergenteel IAS groom emerging as cowardly dowry-seeker (both MiH).
In many of these depictions, comedy works to make the medicine go down. At least two films — Habib Faisal’s Daawat-e-Ishq (2014) and Dolly Ki Doli (2015) — have featured trickster-brides who dupe the men lining up to marry them. What screenwriters likely depend on to make these heroines remain likeable is the commonly understood fact that marriage in India is a market, and a market loaded so unfairly in favour of the boy’s side that the girls are being driven to illegalities.
That Indian weddings are social and financial negotiations is becoming clearer and clearer in Hindi films — and any deceptions at the time of signing can later make the contract radd. In Bala (2019), the Tiktok-famous bride (Yami Gautam) marries Ayushmann Khurrana for ‘love’, but when she learns his floppy hair comes off at night, her love turns to be skin-deep, too. In Motichoor Chaknachoor, Athiya Shetty’s tall, fair Annie (urf Anita) believes Nawazuddin Siddiqui’s Pushpinder is employed in Dubai. When it turns out, post-shadi, that the Dubai job is long gone, Annie’s only reason for marrying — Pushpinder or anyone else — crumbles, and suddenly she can only ses that he’s shorter than her, and darker.
Motichoor has been much berated for its political incorrectness. Indeed, the fatshaming of Pushpinder’s (Nawazuddin) first marital prospect feels like a horribly unfortunate throwback to our Tuntunobsessed childhoods, and there’s an exasperated slap he delivers that he never verbally apologises for, but his non-verbal attempts to make up for it felt more persuasive to me than Thappad’s. And I was as impressed as Annie by his dowryrejecting stance.
But what’s refreshing about these comic plots is that they’re honest about Indian marriages, showing them as exactly the fat-shaming, skin-colour-obsessed, dowry-driven transactions that they are — but also as the inescapable structure within which most Indians must seek whatever agency they hope to have. Even the conventionally attractive and wonderfully sassy Annie in Motichoor doesn’t feel free to actually refuse an arranged marriage — so her only leverage is in rejecting rishtas. And with no other way to see the world, she decides a foreign-located husband might as well be her ticket to ride. Age, looks, jobs and dowries are openly treated as chips to bargain with — but how else is one to play if arranged marriage is the only game in town?
(The first part of this column appeared on August 16)