Television

Indian Matchmaking Is Compelling Reality TV. Is It Also Irresponsible?

A woman wearing a yellow shirt smiles at the camera with her arms crossed.
Sima Taparia, matchmaker of Indian Matchmaking. Netflix

Netflix’s latest addition to the world of reality dating shows, Indian Matchmaking, follows Mumbai matchmaker Sima Taparia—or Sima Auntie, as she’s mostly referred to—as she tries to find perfect spouses for six different clients. Armed with a stack of profiles listing these potential partners’ pedigrees and qualifications, Taparia travels between India and the U.S., juggling not just her clients’ specifications for what they want, but what their families want, too.

The show has earned both rave reviews and criticisms for what Washington Post editor Mili Mitra describes as “unthinkingly normaliz[ing] some of the most pernicious biases that plague South Asian communities.” Another one of those critics was Slate copy editor Nitish Pahwa, so I invited him to discuss the series and his concerns. Below is an edited and condensed version of our conversation.

Rachelle Hampton: Indian Matchmaking is a window into a world that I think most non-Indian people have little to no familiarity with, beyond broad-stroke stereotypes. What did you think of how it presented that world?

Nitish Pahwa: I fucking hated it. Admittedly, I went into this with extremely low expectations, considering my own personal aversion to reality TV and dating shows, and my firsthand experiences seeing how arranged marriages and matchmaking have affected people I know well, but it was somehow even worse than I’d imagined. But please don’t let my vitriol keep you from saying what you’d like to say.

Hampton: As Slate’s resident expert on reality TV dating shows, I thought it was a lot better produced than it needed to be—I’m comparing it to its closest cousin, Married at First Sight. As Inkoo Kang wrote in her review for the Hollywood Reporter, it’s a reality show that aspires to be a docuseries, which I think gives it a sense of authority on a process that I didn’t really understand. From a reality TV perspective, it hits all the notes. There were moments that were super cringey and others that were emotionally rewarding. There are villains, like Aparna, who once turned down a man because he didn’t know that Bolivia had salt flats, and Akshay’s mother, who suggests that her 25-year-old son’s unwillingness to find a wife is somehow keeping his older brother from having a child? And then there are people I genuinely wanted to find love, like Ankita and Nadia.

I will say that a lot of the outright colorism threw me off. I think on American dating shows, physical preferences are largely left unspoken, so it was jarring to hear a client say, “I don’t want anyone too dark.” But in a way, I appreciated the transparency.

Pahwa: Yes, the colorism. It was a not-insignificant part of this show that also really bothered me, and it is certainly a toxic symptom of certain Indian communities and social structures. I cannot speak to other dating shows—you’re the expert!—but I wonder if that sometimes manifests itself in those more implicitly and insidiously than it does here, where it’s more, like you said, “Oh, I don’t want someone dark” or “I would prefer someone from North India.” I think transparency is not a bad thing in and of itself; what I take issue with is the show, and the people involved, taking that colorism for granted as part of Indian dating life. This also holds true for when Sima and some of the families would ask about caste, region, class, occupation, and so on.

I am not saying this is an infrequent problem in Indian communities both at home and in the diaspora. But to just throw those things out there without digging into or interrogating the structures that enable them feels to me irresponsible. There’s a reason certain families who set up arranged marriages and matchmaking for their kids tend to hold these prejudices. That is shown in a way, I guess, but never actually explained. It was all portrayed as a natural part of Indian dating. With the show generally ending on a note of positivity and optimism about this system and how it works—all of that left a horrible taste in my mouth.

I’m not someone who needs big blinking signs saying “BY THE WAY THIS THING IS BAD” in pop culture. I love a good show with an antihero. But when you’re engaging with certain aspects of Indian cultures and presenting them to—let’s be honest—white audiences, who already tend to exoticize and glamorize and hold noxious, incorrect views about the country and its people, I think you have a responsibility to go further. Especially if you’re a reality show that aspires to be a docuseries, with all the authority that entails.

Hampton: As someone who wasn’t necessarily primed to see or really understand the way that caste, religion, or occupation play a role in India, all of that wasn’t as overt to me as it seems it was to you, which is partially why I wanted to talk to you about it. From a purely American perspective, a lot of the “preferences” that families had felt very similar to the ones that I’ve seen contestants on other dating shows have. It’s not uncommon to hear people say, I want a professional or a partner with ambition on, like, The Bachelor.

Which is to say, I don’t think the show does a good job of providing specific cultural context, especially around caste. One of the most overt moments, where one client is concerned that her being Guyanese makes her less suitable to traditional Indian families, read to me as xenophobia, but a friend pointed out that it was more likely caste-based discrimination.

Pahwa: It can be both!

Hampton: I do think the show and Sima required women to “adjust” or  “be flexible” in a way that left a bad taste in my mouth. I’m thinking of when Ankita said she would like to have a conversation with her partner before they moved from the city where she’s built a successful business rather than just following him to wherever he went.

Pahwa: Yes, Sima’s requests for especially her female clients to basically change their natures for the sake of compatibility with some rando really bothered me as well. Again, this is certainly a problem in some Indian societies. And this is a big part of why I didn’t hate Aparna as much as everyone else seems to: While she certainly said some weird things, I found Sima’s demands of her to change herself for a suitor’s sake far more troubling. Indian women who marry into families like the ones depicted here are often subjected to heavy abuse and browbeating and gaslighting not only from their spouses and in-laws but even their own families who expect them to be totally deferential to their husbands. Again, I’ve seen this firsthand. For the show to center and elevate someone who is more than willing to be a cog in this, and is proud of it, is incredibly disturbing.

That gets into another issue with this show: In a lot of places, through a lot of ways, the show basically seemed to be saying, “Matchmaking is a big part of Indian societies and it may seem weird to you but actually in Modern Times participants are fully consenting and things often end up quite well.” No! The show only depicted certain middle- and upper-class families and clients who submit of their own accord. It doesn’t at all go into how horrible these arrangements can be, especially for poorer families who feel like they’re forced into this. It doesn’t get into how the very concept of arranged marriage is extremely a symptom of lingering caste systems that, although they certainly remain in India and in the diaspora, many Indians also now eschew. It doesn’t get into how even those who seem fully willing to be set up are responding to implicit pressures from their families and friends. It doesn’t really get into how traumatic it can all be for the clients, especially women. I was hoping Akshay could maybe be seen as an example of this (despite his wondering aloud how a working woman will find time to also take care of the kids), but from what I see on Twitter, few viewers seem to actually be factoring in how Akshay’s experiences with his family have so broken him. And, as we’ve seen in follow-up “Where are they now?” updates on the people involved, literally none of these matches worked out.

I do know people with arranged marriages that have worked. I have known more people with arranged or match-made marriages that were horrible and either ended in separation or mere stasis. I hate to think that people will walk away from this show thinking that arranged and match-made relationships aren’t so bad as all that across the subcontinent and diaspora. The “Indian” in the title is such a terrible shorthand that erases all the different cultures and societies within India.

Hampton: The way Sima crosses the globe so many times really does suggest that there’s this homogenous approval of matchmaking, which as you’ve said and I’ve seen in many threads on Twitter, isn’t accurate.

Your point about none of the matches working out really gets to the heart of one of the lingering questions I had about the show. One of the ways shows like these are marketed is to basically say, “You’ve failed at dating thus far, so why not put it in the hands of a neutral observer?” or “You’re overwhelmed by choice, so let someone else narrow down the pool for you.” Love Is Blind had a similar premise, as do Married at First Sight and Are You the One?, though the latter is a lot hornier than the others. But none of these relationships lasted. The only person who’s not single right now is Ankita, who met someone on a dating app, and possibly Rupam, who also met someone on a dating app. It raises the question: Does arranged marriage/matchmaking work when the participants can end the relationship whenever they want? Basically, without the pressure that Sima says no longer exists because the boy or girl can say no, will this process break down? And the answer seems to be … yes.

Pahwa: Right, that’s a great point. The system of matchmaking and arranged marriages is inherently based on power imbalances, whether those stem from caste, class, gender, or other factors. Just being matched with someone based on your dreams of marriage then leads to expedited conversations that, as mentioned in the show, would normally be saved for, like, years into the relationship, like household, ambition, location, and so on.

Putting aside everything else (which is very difficult to do), can we also talk about how inept a matchmaker Sima is? It was so darkly funny to me that she was like, I’m so good at this, people I match usually marry by the next day. Then you see her blaming her failures on the participants, on the “stars,” on “destiny,” and so on and so forth. She’s simultaneously claiming she can do what she does well while also saying it’s not under her control at all. Seems like … you’re maybe just a grifter?

Hampton: There was really very little evidence that Sima was Mumbai’s best matchmaker!

The astrology and face-reading [analyzing a person’s facial features to determine their personality] were really interesting to me. We’ve talked about this before, but it definitely gave me insight into your aversion to astrology and had me second-guessing the cutesy Co-Star form of astrology that I think most Americans are familiar with. Did I low-key want to get my face read? Yes. Did I want that determining my future marriage? Obviously, no.

Pahwa: Right. I’ve been to weddings whose dates were decided by how best the stars aligned, how auspicious these days would be for the marriage, etc. Some of those ended up being bad marriages. Which is why it bothered me so much, again going back to Aparna, when Sima tried to get her into astrology to see how the stars could determine her better matches since she otherwise seemed to believe Aparna to be hopeless. For what it’s worth, I don’t think there’s much harm in simple curiosity in such spiritual things, and I don’t want to knock anyone’s firm beliefs. I just resent how often I’ve seen stuff like this become a rigid determinator of Life.

Hampton: Was there anything you liked about the show?

Pahwa: LOL. I liked a couple of the people, like Nadia. This also is very much pandering to me, but I also liked that in one scene with a family, you could hear the classic Bollywood song “Mera Joota Hai Japani” in the background. What did you like about it?

Hampton: I mean I love reality TV dating shows, so this was right up my alley in terms of content. I really loved most of the women, though I was left with the same feeling I have on most of these shows, which is that they’d be better off finding someone … not on television. It was interesting watching it in the context of Netflix’s other forays into this genre like Love Is Blind, Too Hot to Handle, Dating Around. I think they’re really trying to diversify a very old format, to middling success.

Pahwa: Would you say the performativity inherent to the genre is something that helps prevent such dating from being successful?

Hampton: Oh, definitely, but I also think, rather cynically, that dating is largely just a game of losses and one or two eventual big wins. So, it makes sense that in trying to portray that, you’d mostly see losses.

Pahwa: I think the cynical view here is definitely the accurate one.

For more of Slate’s TV coverage, listen to Fred Armisen, Ana Fabrega, and Julio Torres discuss the making of their HBO show Los Espookys on Working.