Entertainment

Casteism, Colorism & Culture: Indian Matchmaking Has A Lot Of Explaining To Do

It's not all dates at wine bars.

Netflix

It’s a classic dating show and rom-com premise: renowned matchmaker rescues hopeless singles, setting them up with suitable partners and paving the way for them to find lasting love. In the case of Netflix's Indian Matchmaking, it's Sima Taparia, a globetrotting matchmaker from Mumbai who's supposedly the best in the business, and these aren't just dates, but first meetings that could rapidly blossom into an arranged marriage. The show follows her as she sets up eight nitpicky Indians and Indian Americans while satisfying their rigid families. There's Akshay, a 25-year-old business heir who must marry to medicate mummy’s growing blood pressure; Aparna, a 34-year-old lawyer with an exhaustive list of criteria for a husband; and Nadia, a 32-year-old Guyanese Indian Bollywood dancer itching to belong, among others. Each of the singles’ experiences and level of desire for a traditional arranged marriage varies enough to convince the viewer that they’re getting a full picture of the practice — both the harsh realities of the regressive system and the unexpected upsides matchmaking provides in the increasingly fractured world of modern dating. But in reality, Indian Matchmaking is far less comprehensive in its view of arranged marriage than it appears.

In the time since its July 16 release, the show has become a lightning rod for controversy over its depictions of sexism, casteism, and colorism; memes, meanwhile, have flooded the internet. Aparna has gained infamy for her dislike of comedy, Akshay got trolled for being completely controlled by his mother, and Nadia found a legion of fans coming to her defense after a tragic ghosting. As the protagonist of the show, matchmaker Sima's reception was largely positive at first; her quick judgments and straight-faced curtness earned her instant virality. Many viewers loudly wished for a truth-teller and life-fixer like Sima Aunty in their own life.

But wishing for one's own Sima Aunty is to gloss over the implications of the Netflix reality series and the ideas it perpetuates about Indian culture. The world of Indian Matchmaking makes it easy for viewers to settle into this simplified view of arranged marriage, painting it as an antidote to online dating whose downsides can be passed off patriarchal but not harmful, regressive but not detrimental to society as a whole. And in Sima, the show has a camera-friendly narrator able to show her best face — and the best face of matchmaking, the system she represents —to the audience. As Vanity Fair's Sonia Saraiya points out, "Indian Matchmaking turns the tradition's hypocrisies and frailties into a carnivalesque background for individual stories to take place in front of." And the way the show presents that carnivalesque background raises lots of complicated questions about caste, class, and colorism — ones that fans and activists around the globe are now picking apart.

Netflix

Though caste is hardly mentioned on Indian Matchmaking, the very existence of arranged marriage in India has been a means to preserve and progress endogamous marriages within castes. As the matchmaker, Sima's work is undoubtedly informed by this practice. But rarely does the show bring up caste-based discrimination, even as it serves a mostly upper-caste list of prospective grooms and brides. Muslims, Christians, or any of the myriad faiths practiced in India do not feature on the show’s roster (Rupam, a Sikh divorcée with a child, is the show's only explicit exception). And neither do Dalits, the self-subscribed identity used by over 200 million Indians, who have faced centuries of violence, oppression, and exclusion from upper caste Hindus — even in diasporic communities like the United States, where a caste discrimination lawsuit was filed in California this June.

And though the word "caste" is uttered aloud only sparingly on Indian Matchmaking, Sima and some of her clients do emphasize their preferences as they relate to skin tone. "Fair, tall, trim" clients fare better on Sima's judgment scale than clients who are, well, not. As Sima says in the season finale about Richa, who enters the show in its closing moments (likely as a setup for a potential Season 2): her appearance, and those qualities specifically, means she "has the upper hand to choose the boys." Colorism has long been a part of Indian society — a hangover from India's colonial past — and dark skin has always signified inferiority and lower status, and by extension, lower caste identity. The hankering for "fair-skinned" matches, then, is not just racial prejudice, but also carefully coded caste prejudice.

Dalit writer Christina Dhanaraj confirms this. "I was particularly taken by Richa. She says, 'Any caste is okay as long as they’re...' and then the segment changes. I'm curious to know what she said after. She then also says that she wants someone 'not too dark, fair skinned.' I couldn't wrap my head around that. This is a person who could possibly be a first generation Indian American, who has lived around, and been to school and college with people from multiple ethnicities and nationalities. Why would she say 'not too dark’?"

In an interview with Indian publication Scroll, Indian Matchmaking creator Smriti Mundhra pushed back against criticisms that the show normalizes a deeply regressive practice. "The job of the show isn't to sanitize the world of matchmaking and arranged marriage and make it seem more progressive and inclusive than it is," she said. "We tried to look at this tradition, which is so deeply rooted in our culture, with nuance and through multiple points of view, without denying that a lot needs to change."

But despite such claims of authenticity, the show rarely pauses to explore the limitations of Sima's worldview, through which viewers are introduced to the practice of arranged marriage. Sima not only favors superficially attractive clients, but is also averse to broadening her clientele with non-traditional prospects. Independent and headstrong women and divorced women on the other end of 30 are almost always asked to compromise, unlike her male clients. About Rupam, the divorced, single Sikh mother, Sima as much confesses: "If anybody comes to me with a child, I mostly don't take that case, because it is a very tough job for me to match them." It's a brutal admission treated as fact, but while it may be a fact in Sima's world, it turns out Rupam doesn't need her. She meets a Sikh man on Bumble and chooses to pursue a long-distance relationship with him instead.

Viewers are left to imagine an alternative to endless Tinder dates, where someone like Sima Aunty can deliver them the perfect partner that both they and their families can love.

Part of Indian Matchmaking's sensational success can certainly be attributed to the stir it's causing in India and among the Indian diaspora. But it's clear that with its English-laden dialogue an Netflix US backing, Indian Matchmaking is aiming for an international audience that has always been fascinated by the arranged marriage practice through jokes peppered in storylines featuring Indians in the West (look no further than hundreds of hackneyed comedy routines, and the long and complicated history of The Simpsons’ Apu character). Like my fascination with the Essex accents of Love Island and its couples sharing a bed minutes after their first meeting, international viewers can laugh at an adult man who wants to marry a woman like his controlling mother and ship a couple for their shared hatred of ketchup. With her love of a face-reading Panditji, and unfiltered, politically incorrect zingers and catchphrases, Sima is the perfect reality TV fodder: she says enough to become meme-worthy, but offers little to no nuance or self-introspection. As she travels the world armed with her rolodex, viewers can be left to imagine an alternative to endless Tinder dates, where someone like Sima Aunty can deliver them the perfect partner that both they and their families can love.

One can argue — as the Indian Matchmaking creators already have — that this is simply Sima's world, but the producers are none too forthcoming about a practice that has led to honor killings of inter-caste lovers and suppression of women’s autonomy. The latter was explored in another documentary, A Suitable Girl, co-directed by Mundhra. Sima even appears, too — though not as a confident know-it-all, but as the nervous mother of an uncertain bride. In the film, glamour and celebrity is abandoned for real, palpable precariousness. Indian Matchmaking likes to pretend that it's showcasing a more modernized version of the practice, where suitors and their matches go on dates at wine bars instead of meeting one another on their wedding night. But under the watchful eyes of parents, caste and cultural hegemony, and a society that still looks down upon the unmarried, there aren't many options.

Even so, none of Sima's matches actually lasted once the cameras stopped rolling. But the criticism can’t be limited to the practice and the series alone — the culture as a whole has a long way to go. "We only got to the stage where we are very ferociously countering and opposing the system of arranged marriage, but we haven't reached the stage where we are willing to bravely hash out the politics of desirability," Dhanaraj says. "I think that's where the crux lies."