Netflix’s new light-hearted reality show about Indians looking for love is not merely the meme-able comedy it appears to be on the surface – it holds a mirror to the ugliest parts of South Asian culture.
It’s a warm summer’s night, and I am in a family friend’s flat in East London, dancing until my feet are sore. There is just over a week left until the wedding begins. The other young girls and I on the groom’s side are running around the small living room trying to figure out who’s going to carry the earth-coloured Ghara filled with rose petals.
I’ve just been dancing to Lal Gaghara, and I flop down on the sofa, trying to catch my breath as the heat from my flushed face radiates into the airconditioned room. The older women watch us and smile, thinking about their younger days when they too could get up and dance just as much as we did. In their hushed, quick Urdu they whisper about how young and beautiful we are, how full of life we seem, how the time to find husbands is drawing near for us too.
My heart drops. I know that many families start looking for matches for their daughters as soon as they turn 18, but I have no desire to get married yet. I want to finish university. I want to get my degree. I want to work for the diplomatic service. I want to travel to Japan and Iceland and Italy and Brazil. My grandmother’s reassurances that I can do all that after marriage sit uncomfortably with me. I turn back and keep dancing.
Weddings are always a fond time for many South Asians – it’s a time for dancing and laughing, for dressing up and taking photos, for making memories and reminiscing on old ones. It’s no surprise then that weddings are a multi-million dollar/pound/rupee industry, and estimates show that South Asian weddings often have a minimum starting budget of £30,000 – almost 15 times the starting budget for Western weddings. Weddings are considered incredibly important, and thus there is an incredible amount of pressure on many families to achieve the best ceremony, and most suitable match, possible.
This is the premise for Netflix’s new viral show Indian Matchmaking. The show follows Sima Taparia, a professional matchmaker, charging a fee for the job that our elder relatives and village aunties do for free. The eight episodes follow Sima trying to find partners for a host of single people – 34-year old Texan lawyer Aparna, 29-year old school counsellor Vyasar, and Delhi-based businesswoman Ankita being just some of the participants. Sima runs rampant across America and India, ‘biodatas’ reminiscent of CVs in hand, searching for the perfect partner for all of her clients.
At first, I was excited about this show. Seeing your culture on a screen for the world to see feels exciting, it’s like some inside joke between you and a bunch of other people around the planet, and feels like a satisfying ‘finally! Yes, I can relate’. I chose to watch it with two of my closest family friends, both also Pakistani, ready for some sort of South Asian Love Island that I could live-tweet about. However, while there was the occasional comedic moment or sweet gesture, I emerged from the other side of the long journey through the show with a sense of newfound sadness and a new perspective on South Asian culture, particularly towards matrimony.
One of the major things I took issue with was the show’s portrayal of strong female types as ‘the last pick’ in the marriage market, and as women who would struggle to find a partner. Two women, in particular, stand out in this case, the aforementioned Aparna and Ankita. Aparna is the first single the show introduces and one who we follow through the vast majority of episodes. She’s a legal counsel from Houston who is very clear about what she likes (travelling, her dogs, her independence) and what she dislikes (funny guys, dating other lawyers, children at weddings). The producers work to give this a comedic turn – she grills one of her dates after he asks her how she would spend a 10-day relaxing trip, as to why she needs 10 days to relax when she could do that in 3? At first, I found myself laughing along; I even fell for the trap that the show was laying, why couldn’t Aparna just be a little more open to the process? Surely, it’s wrong to have such rigid values. I’m a strong feminist with a strong set of values that I stick to myself. It worried me that here, I found myself criticising something I usually celebrate: a strong female lead.
It’s no doubt that the angle the show took stems from existing South Asian views on what a girl should and should not be. In traditional South Asian culture, a girl will often seek to satisfy the wishes of her elders, regardless of what she thinks or believes. The words ‘flexibility’, ‘adjust’ and ‘compromise’ frequently appear on the show, as all the women Sima deals with are expected to adjust to what Sima believes is best and if it doesn’t work out for them? They need to be more open. This patriarchal grip on the courses of our lives is an occurrence that almost every desi girl has a story about. For me, this most vividly occurred in regard to my education. My parents have always allowed me a lot of leniencies. Still, when I was making my decisions for my top university choices, my parents were less than keen when I was looking at Durham, Exeter and Cambridge. “It’s too far from home” I was told, “you can’t go that far alone!”, I said fine and chose a university in London, closer to where my parents lived so that I could come home every weekend. This could be chalked up to my mum and dad having separation anxiety and missing me if I moved too far away. However, there has been little of the same pressure towards my brother, who has settled on the University of Manchester, 4 hours away from home.
The roots of the constant need for women to obey and conform lie in traditional stereotypes and the celebrating of the birth of sons who can carry forward the family name. Aparna’s mother, Jotika, takes a heart-warming view towards her two daughters when she says that daughters come to those who had good karma in their previous life. However, her attitude is not shared by many others.
Unwanted, a research project into femicide in India, reveals some harrowing statistics about the treatments of girls in South Asia. Their figures show that roughly 26 second-born girls were missing for every 100 boys from educated mothers in 2001 and that every 50 seconds, a parent in India kills their daughter. Many families undertake such actions as they cannot afford a second dowry for another girl, or are angered by the failure of their daughters to live up to the conventional image of the ‘seen but not heard’ obedient woman.
These occurrences do not stop when girls grow older and get married; the pressures put on women by their in-laws and husbands lead to a significant proportion of violence against women. A study by the United Nations in 1999 found that an estimated 50% of women in Pakistan had been physically abused by their husbands, while approximately 90% had been emotionally abused. In India, the National Crime Records Bureau found in a 2012 study that a crime against a woman is committed every 3 minutes, and another report found that 70% of women have faced some form of abuse within their marriage. Violence takes place in the form of various methods such as honour killings, beatings, and acid attacks, with the latter of the three being at an all-time high in South Asian households. Reasons for such horrendous acts include revenge for refusal of marriage or sexual advances, demands for dowry, and jealousy. A 2005 study into acid attacks victims in Bangladesh found that the leading cause for such violence against Bangladeshi women, at a stomach-turning 55% of cases, was the refusal of a marriage proposal.
Here, the complexity of feminism in South Asia emerges. It should be noted that violence and abuse are in no ways the story of every single desi woman and that there is a strong growing feminist movement in South Asian nations and amidst the diaspora across the world. Women like Aparna and Ankita, who rejects Sima and her colleagues’ coercions that she bends to conform to the stereotypical image of what a wife should be, highlight just some of the incredibly strong women challenging the status quo of what our communities accept and preach. However, this is not a luxury that all can afford. The women in Indian Matchmaking have no shortage of stories to tell – Jotika raising her two daughters as a single mother, Nadia facing prejudice for her Guyanese background, Ankita being described as ‘unphotogenic’ because she is not as fair-skinned as others – but their experiences are primarily tales from the middle-to-upper classes. Feminism is, unfortunately, a luxury that mainly those living in urban comfort can afford. While there are certainly trailblazers in poorer communities, the aforementioned issues of abuse, femicide and violence primarily occur within the lower classes. These women are often the ones left behind, the ones that are forgotten about when our communities say, ‘well women have the vote, women can drive, women can decide who they want to marry, what else is there to be done?’. While we laugh at the controlling parents and grumpy husbands in the show, it is uncomfortable to think that while this is all mostly light-hearted joking for these individuals, it is not the reality for those less fortunate who are abused, ostracised and even killed by such mothers, fathers and husbands– all in the name of marriage.
Whether Indian Matchmaking intended to highlight such issues or not, the show holds a mirror to South Asian society and exposes the misogyny, colourism and privilege that plagues our community. The reason I chose to write an article about it was because I make no secret of the fact that I am a very proud Pakistani member of the South Asian community. Still, for all the pride I take in my culture and history, as a self-identifying intersectional feminist, I would be a hypocrite if I didn’t call out the flaws of it. It’s an uncomfortable truth to reckon with but one that we must nonetheless face head-on. So I make a conscious effort to stop my mum from fretting over getting a tan because fair does not equal lovely, I tell my grandmother not to scoff at the women marching for their rights on TV because not everyone lives in comfort as we do. I remind myself to educate myself on the wider plight of those fighting for feminism who do not have the privilege of living in a nation that affords me the freedom of speech and expression.
The journey that Indian Matchmaking sent me down into further studying the lives of women and girls in South Asia left me with a newfound perspective on my homeland and a sense of awe and respect for the women I call my behney (sisters). If you want to watch the show at its surface level of matching single hopefuls from various Indian communities to potential future spouses through science that our elders have perfected over the centuries, then you can do so. I, however, recommend any South Asians or even non-South Asians who watch the show, to watch it with a critical eye. To challenge their perceptions about what is acceptable and normalised within their communities and their elders. Indian Matchmaking is more than just a show to give you a bit of a chuckle or a new meme to share with your cousins back home. It is a show to get you angry, a show that – albeit unintentionally – forces you to face the most uncomfortable parts of our culture and shared experiences as South Asians.
I, for one, know that if I am ever back in the middle of a humid room, shalwar kameez clinging to my body with sweat as I plan a dance routine, life plan still not at a point where I want a spouse, and hear an auntie ask my mother ‘isn’t it time you get her married?’, I’ll turn around and say “hell no”.