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Opinion Netflix’s new hit ‘Indian Matchmaking’ misses the full story on arranged marriage

Pundit Sushil-Ji and Sima Taparia in Episode 5 of "Indian Matchmaking." (Netflix)
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This article has been updated.

It’s common to see Indian weddings portrayed as Technicolor fantasies — in Bollywood films, in the images of Priyanka Chopra’s wedding to Nick Jonas in 2018 and in stories about the extravagant wedding of Isha Ambani, the daughter of one of Asia’s richest men, with a bill that ran into the millions.

But “Indian Matchmaking,” the Netflix reality show released last week, makes clear the Indian wedding industrial complex is no fantasy, and not just because none of the show’s couples actually make it to the altar. Instead, it highlights how the marriage market is uniquely besieged by the same divides and prejudices that run through large portions of Indian society.

The show, created by Smriti Mundhra, follows “Mumbai’s top matchmaker,” Sima Taparia. Armed with stacks of “biodata” — carefully vetted profiles that list a person’s qualifications and background — Taparia attempts to pair up not just compatible couples but also compatible families.

Though Taparia is shown repeating chants to ensure “good vibes” and visiting astrologers for horoscope readings, the show doesn’t just present archaic caricatures of arranged marriage. It carefully explains to non-Indian audiences that arranged marriages are actually considered the default for much of India — the most common way couples get together. “In India … there is marriage and then love marriage,” Taparia says early on. Many of her clients have deeply relatable reasons for turning to her for help: wanting to find someone “serious,” looking for a partner who understands their culture, trying out alternatives to dating apps. There are also clips of successful couples who met through matchmakers and have been happily married for decades.

But the show also depicts people who unthinkingly normalize some of the most pernicious biases that plague South Asian communities. At no point does it make any effort to interrogate or dive deeper into these attitudes.

Arranged marriage is one of the ways Indian families self-isolate within their own social classes and groups, entrenching age-old divisions. While there are laws prohibiting different forms of discrimination in India, matchmakers and matrimonial advertisements — which are still carried in newspapers across the country — continue to draw on biases.

Numerous studies over the past decade have found evidence of caste discrimination among marriage-seekers in India. Other research has documented how women face pressure to be “fair,” while dark-skinned women experience significant colorism. Only an estimated 2 percent of marriages are between different religions, while wealth, class and language also play a role in arranged marriage. Many of these prejudices are brought up by clients and families in the show — caste and skin tone most frequently — but little is said to condemn or address these discriminatory criteria.

What about people who don’t want to get married or have children but are pushed to find matches because of parental or societal expectations? It was clear that many of those featured weren’t actually ready to get married, including Pradhyuman from Mumbai, who apparently rejected 150 potential brides. And what about the millions of LGBT+ Indians, including those who may be in the closet, who are often pressured into heteronormative relationships in a country where bigotry and stigma are common? The show doesn’t feature anyone looking for a same-sex partner.

Then there’s the question of what happens to people who find partners outside of the narrow criteria set by families and society. In India, couples can be excluded from households, families and communities, and can even face violence, for their choices. Families may also demand exorbitant dowries (which are illegal but still prevalent in India) for marriages between social groups. The clients on the show — all of whom were from wealthy families in India or had comfortable livelihoods here in the United States — probably wouldn’t experience this. Yet these patterns continue to affect many young Indians, and not just those from low-income or marginalized backgrounds.

Of course, it would be unrealistic to expect Taparia, the matchmaker, to address these issues directly. Mundhra, meanwhile, tackled some of these questions head-on in her 2017 documentary “A Suitable Girl.” But “Indian Matchmaking” had ample opportunity to offer more context and repeatedly passed up the chance. What we see is an incomplete picture of marriage and matchmaking in India.

The highlight of the show is the plot line surrounding Ankita, an independent business owner who overcame her insecurities and decided that she found her career more fulfilling than a relationship. Her entire arc was a breath of fresh air that left me craving more, precisely because it confronted the ramifications of societal pressure. But her story is the exception within the show — just as it is in Indian society more generally.

Read more:

Kavita Das: What ‘Indian Matchmaking’ gets wrong — and right

Thenmozhi Soundarajan: A new lawsuit shines a light on caste discrimination in the U.S. and around the world

Mili Mitra: What the Cut got so disastrously wrong about Priyanka Chopra and Nick Jonas

Barkha Dutt: Who’s afraid of Priyanka Chopra?