Television

The Sly Power of Indian Matchmaking

The Netflix series has stakes The Bachelor can’t begin to feign.

Aparna and a date sit across from each other at a table and clink cocktail glasses.
Aparna accepts a toast. Netflix

Early in Indian Matchmaking, Netflix’s haute-reality TV show about the arranging of arranged marriages, one of the subjects explains why she would rather use a matchmaker than Tinder: seriousness. A matchmaker’s matches may flame out—and on Indian Matchmaking, not a one of Sima Taparia’s dozens of setups worked out—but at least a woman knows the men she is meeting are interested in marriage, and not whatever they might be looking for on Tinder: possibly marriage, or possibly sex, sexts, flings, rebounds, side action. You could say something similar about Indian Matchmaking itself: Compared with other reality shows that purport to pair people off, it has a seriousness, a chewiness, a depth. The show’s psychological complexity doesn’t come from navigating the pitfalls of reality TV, but from life. It’s not a panopticon. It’s a mirror.

On Indian Matchmaking, Mumbai-based Sima Taparia attempts to arrange marriages for a wide variety of young people living both in India and America, traveling back and forth to meet her clients and their families, gathering and sharing biodata about prospective matches. The show leans heavily into a documentary, as opposed to a game show, aesthetic, boosted by the fact that it’s about a practice many Americans are unfamiliar with. It’s upscale, informative reality TV, even as it tracks with tawdrier shows. It has a villainess; it regularly deploys tried-and-true reality TV workarounds, like giving the shy and laconic Akshay the full The Hills treatment, pairing him with a chatty interlocutor and leaning heavily on his decontextualized but freighted facial expressions; and it’s sly about its outcomes, which are apparently worse even than The Bachelor’s.

But unlike most reality shows, which have long since become shows about what it’s like to be on a show, the cast here is triangulating so many desires—their own, their families’, their dates’—that the camera has to take a number. How can you present yourself as one type of person when there are so many people, also on camera, who know you as another? The web of relations holds everyone in place. If there’s another season, I doubt this will remain the case: The reality camera knows how to shoulder its way to the front of the line. But it gives this first season, at least, a rare and satisfying texture and psychological heft. It’s about people, not about people starring in a reality TV show.

Just look at Aparna, a prickly, defensive, picky, and demanding thirtysomething lawyer living in Texas. She’s extremely close with her adoring, demanding mother, and they make two peas in the “Aparna is perfect” pod, a constricting little delusion. She says that she doesn’t want to change a thing about herself—even though she wants her whole life to be different. She’s a hater—of comedy, sports, podcasts, and many other things—and she offers up these hatreds as proof of self-knowledge, self-awareness, and self-acceptance, a self-defeating strategy that keeps most people at arm’s length. She has been greeted as the show’s villain, and like other series’ scenery-chompers, there is a fundamental disconnect between how she comes across and how she thinks she comes across. But Aparna isn’t just playing it up for the camera, and that’s why we get to watch her try to do something reality TV villains almost never do: change.

Sima sends Aparna to an astrologer and face reader for outside counsel. Aparna appears unable to take criticism from anyone evaluating her and not her planetary alignment, but when the astrologer sees in her chart that Aparna has been unhappy and confused for the past few years, Aparna takes it in. (When her mother asks if she wants to reflect on the astrologer’s insight, though, Aparna blows her off like an Arctic gale.) She tries to soften herself, to approach dates differently, and she teeters up to the edge of admitting what everyone, herself included, already knows: She’s not perfect. Consistently thinking about yourself and who you are and what you want and how other people see you—all things Aparna is trying to do—can give you real insight. Maybe that’s why so many of the show’s participants say they valued Sima’s help, even when she didn’t get them married. The process alone pushed them to self-reflection.

Though Indian Matchmaking prescribes marriage instead of therapy as the cure-all for its subjects’ ills, it shares a lot with polished therapy programming like Showtime’s Couples Therapy and the podcast Where Should We Begin? With Esther Perel. (This is a particular genre favorite of mine: all the gossip, less of the grime.) In therapeutic terms, its subjects all have a problem: They want to get married, or their family has decided they should get married, and they have turned to Sima for expert advice. Sima is decidedly not a therapist, and though one senses she is exceptionally gifted at assessing people, she’s not trying to fix anyone (or their biases)—just fix them up.

One of the most transfixing things about the show, from a non-desi, American cultural perspective, is how Sima possesses both a deeply familiar “the customer is always right” mentality and a deeply unfamiliar indifference to the myth of self-improvement—the idea that good things come to those who deserve them, and so you ought to be making yourself more deserving all the time. The logical extension of the latter—that if you haven’t gotten what you wanted, you must not be deserving—is the fount of the “what’s wrong with me!” anxiety that hangs over so much of American single life. Sima takes the position, particularly with her male clients, that good things come to those who can afford her services (and are not divorced women with children living in India). Your biodata is who you are, oppressive and freeing at once. A match will happen when a match happens.

But what about when one of the participants doesn’t want a match to happen? The one person who Sima did seem to get married (she didn’t) is young Akshay, a sheltered, awkward, very rich mama’s boy who turns down more than 100 prospective matches. Since the show hit Netflix’s Top 10, Akshay’s mother has gotten more attention than him, the perfect exemplar of the familial pressure to get married in India. She guilt trips Akshay about marriage constantly. She is genuinely distressed, embarrassed, and distraught that he is so “behind.” She makes her older son’s having a child contingent on Akshay’s wedding. She shows him how he’s ruining her health and blood pressure with his dawdling. It’s a lot. But to me, even more astounding is the low-key, hangdog way in which Akshay resists that pressure—and is apparently still resisting! Here is a man who says over and over that he loves his mom, adores his mom, wants a woman who is exactly like his mother, and then he spends the whole series shuffling, laughingly, disobeying his mother! He doesn’t need to be on someone else’s couch, because he’s on mine. I could do this with just about everyone on the show (and, honestly, I have). There’s so much there there—and that’s not even touching on all the cultural questions, tensions, omissions, and failures that so many critics have written about.

One way to think about Indian Matchmaking vis-à-vis other reality shows is that it revives the Marriage Plot, treating marriage as a serious lifelong commitment permanently entangling not just spouses but entire families. That gives the show stakes that The Bachelor—its own kind of matchmaking business, after all—can’t begin to feign, no matter how much it plays up the “hometown visit.” But that’s not quite what I took from Indian Matchmaking, which accentuates the Divorce Plot that’s always been the Marriage Plot’s flip side. The way its subjects are dating ultimately doesn’t look that different from high-quality variations on a Tinder date—with, sure, lots of parental input. It’s not just, as Sima explains over and over, that the young people have the right of refusal; it’s that, even after a few promising dates, they show no signs of haste toward tying the knot. Especially for the Indian Americans, it seems like a way to begin with a person you know is serious, but then you still go through all the stages of courtship, if in slightly accelerated fashion. It’s not the dating, in other words, that stands out quite so much as the fear of getting divorced, which is more possible than ever but stigmatized almost as if it’s not. Past divorces, parental divorces, the knowledge that once you’re in you can get out only at great social cost, hang over everyone—even the show’s divorcée—like some future ghost.

Perhaps that’s what’s short-circuiting the camera in Indian Matchmaking: not just that the show is in a first season and not just that there are so many dense, preexisting dynamics. It’s the multiple cultural contexts, in which something like divorce resonates differently to people both in India and other parts of the world, to people in the culture and outside of it, to a younger generation and an older one. That’s so many angles, the subjects can’t work them all.