Lead Image Credit: Andre Lyon and Instagram
While the show Indian Matchmaking raised hackles among empowered single women with Sima aunty gamely telling the girls to ‘adjust’ or ‘move’ countries unquestioningly, Sangeeta Wadhwani corners show producer Smriti Mundhra and the celebrated Sima Aunty to see how they as women, really feel about the institution of both – matchmaking and marriage.
Here’s a fun fact: Documentary film-maker and producer of Indian Matchmaking, Smriti Mundhra was herself one of Sima Aunty’s clients! “I call her Sima Didi, given her history as a family friend, and being a Rajasthan Marwari, yes, my parents were trying to get me married when I was about 28 years old,” she shares. As is wont to happen in our more equitable times, Smriti found her Prince Charming in her very own professional world – the Emmy award-nominated screenwriter, of Brazilian nationality – Christian Magalhaes. They have two beautiful children.
Smriti, her husband Christian and their two children, Isabel and Jag at home in LA on Diwali 2019
I ask her if matchmaking and the arranged marriage are a kind of ‘extreme remedy’ against the fickleness of the dating world. “Yes, extreme remedy is an interesting way to put it,” she smiles,” But honestly I think, what this paradox exposes, is the failure of marriage as an institution. There doesn’t need to be a paradox between ambition and marriage; we’ve just written a narrative that it is a binary. I, for example, am very ambitious, a workaholic, but I have a husband and a family structure that supports me and my ambition, and really builds an ecosystem around me that lets me work as much as I want to and as hard as I want to…and I know my children are taken care of, and I have a home to come back to. We live in a multi-generational household; we live with my mother, we have two children, we sort of designed this idea of marriage and family, that suits us. Now is it perfect? Never.”
Smriti and Christian on their wedding day in Los Angeles.
But to all of us, it is apparent how in Smriti’s own life, the ‘adjustments’ are mutual. Little wonder that there are memes, personal chat groups and even an AR filter of Taparia on Instagram, called Sima Roast – all mocking the stereotypical proclamations on caste, class, fair/dark skin, body size – as checklist points for ‘matches.’ In some ways the show has tossed under the social microscope, a need to examine the ‘filters’ applied to female candidates – “Aparna’s mind is not stable” to “Ankita is not very photogenic” to the universal desire for “Slim, Trim and Educated.”
“So Sima – I call her Sima Didi, as I have known her for over 13 years – I have seen her change a lot. Like when I first met her, she wouldn’t typically talk to the young person looking for partnership. However, in the last ten years, the whole mindset around marriage for her demographic has changed. She deals with the urban middle class, upper-middle-class, where now young people have much more agency, in the choices they make. She has evolved a lot, but that said, she is still a product of her generation,” admits Mundhra.
(L-R) A Suitable Girl directors, Sarita Khurana and Smriti Mundhra, with Sima Taparia and her family when they were filming A Suitable Girl. Sima’s daughter Ritu was one of the subjects of the film, Mundhra’s documentary directorial debut.
But what Smriti finds loveable about ‘Sima Didi” “is her willingness to adapt, and the fact that she is a businesswoman. She is not a therapist; she is not a philosopher; she speaks very plainly from her perspective.” Times have definitely brought new dimensions into the ‘together-forever’ stakes when the very sanctity of lifelong loyalty seems to create commitment phobia. Yet at the same time, in our tech-saturated worlds, we feel empty deep within, when feeling unanchored in a long term equation or a marriage. “I think we need more human companionship, and that is universal, whatever shape it takes,” shares the Oscar-nominated show producer. “I think even when you go on a Bumble or Tinder date, you are hoping that person might become a long-lasting companion of sorts. I think Indian Matchmaking aligns to our culture in that having the families involved in finding a life partner can be helpful.”
One points out to Smriti that her show has put a spotlight on the New Indian Woman – who does not fit into the ‘patriarchal’ filters unwittingly expressed by Sima Didi. Aparna Shewakramani being a strong case in point. In fact, the latter’s PR machinery has been spinning a sub-story over time – that she was trampled on by some early dates and suffered trauma which was “edited out!” Says Smriti, “We worked with the footage we had and tried to present as honest and accurate a portrayal as possible for all the participants on the show.”
That said, when one views the show through an Aparna’s eyes, it is impossible not to see the double-standards – 150 options for the non-committal boys, and one option at a time for the busy working career woman who dares have her own ‘criteria’.
“I think marriage is inherently patriarchal, whether it’s in the West, whether it’s in India, or anywhere! It should be examined, especially the very narrow definition we have of what we consider marriage. I think Sima is a party to that, but none of it surprises me. We have a version of that patriarchal model of marriage in the West as well. We see that pressure to marry among Western women too, who are single, accomplished, independent. I see it among my friends all the time; they are thriving in life, they are buying their own homes, have a successful career, great friends, but they feel something is missing because they don’t have the marriage. Even if they are in good relationships, they still want a ring on it! This is a programme we need to do, deep within ourselves, to challenge what ties our self-worth with marriage,” shares Smriti.
But being such an established storyteller, did she not feel like stepping in when such patriarchal slants were showing up on the show? “I am a behind-the-scenes documentary film-maker, I don’t have conversations manipulating the participants or the shows that I make. I just try to present as holistic a picture as possible, and let the audience decide, come to its conclusions. It’s not that the show doesn’t have a point of view, but I think the fact that none of the matches became long term partnerships in the end, also says something.” But that’s what one can’t help wondering… the participants did everything by the book, how come none of these connections really fructified into something more? “Look, I just betrayed my own bias, saying that none of the matches were really successful… actually some of them were very successful like Aparna is still very close friends with the men that she dated, Vyasar and Rashi, who dated on the show are still very close. In fact, it’s lovely to see that post the show, all of the cast, even though they have never met before, once they have met, have stayed friends, and are really supporting each other and uplifting each other on social media, because they are all in this space together, of becoming viral celebrities. So I think the question is, why do we look at friendship or relationship that doesn’t lead to something long term, or a marriage, as a failure? Any connection where we are growing as people and bringing more meaningful friendships into our lives is valuable!” Touché!