Netflix gave us our latest binge watch with the July release of Indian Matchmaking – a reality show which follows matchmaker, Sima Taparia on her quest to secure suitable spouses for her clients. Forever introducing herself as ‘Sima from Mumbai’ and providing plenty of meme worthy one-liners, this matchmaker claims to be the best in the business and her thousands of clients across the world are a testament to this. Whether your version of matchmaking entails algorithms and left-swipes or you’re actually quite familiar with bio-datas and arranged marriages, the show’s premise is exactly the kind of escapism millions of us desire to get lost in.

But for most people, the show ended up being more cringe than binge. It sparked many conversations online and in real life and has also resulted in a number of reviews, think pieces and op-eds. The criticism correctly hones in on the show’s nonchalant approach to views that are, to put it mildly, regressive. One user on Twitter described it as “a cesspool of casteism, colourism, sexism, classism” and with Episode 1 entitled Slim, Trim and Educated, it’s hard to argue otherwise. I’ll admit that it was around 9 minutes into the show –  when Aparna shared her confusion over the fact that married women are meant to see their husbands all the time and not hate them – that I began texting various friends telling them that they needed to start watching Indian Matchmaking. They mostly obliged and the first episode garnered a few laughs, in particular Sima’s smug insistence on what she called a “flop meeting”.

A camera-friendly, yellow and gold clad Sima, who herself entered into a successful arranged marriage at the age of 19, is the show’s actual protagonist and at first the audience is quite receptive to her ability to read people, match people and deliver harsh truths. It becomes very clear, however, that Sima relies on aunty tactics and the show becomes something of a glorification of the stereotypical ‘aunty gaze’. My friend, Shabina describes Sima as “problematic on so many different levels, but she is such a symbolic figure of the aunties we always refer to. She is the epitome of the ‘What will people say?’ syndrome.”
Shubhangi Misra agrees writing that “Taparia is the perfect embodiment of a typical aunty who perpetuates casteist, sexist and colourist notions throughout the show and believes parents know best.”

It’s also significant to note how these notions have travelled across the world through their preservation by diasporic communities and have been passed down from generation to generation. Most of the contestants are millenials and half of them are Americans of Indian descent, yet they broadly share the worldview of Sima and her fellow aunties and uncles especially when it comes to caste, colour and height in a potential spouse.

As is to be expected, fair skin is a criterion for many of Sima’s clients – both male and female who articulate this preference casually and with ease. In the last episode, a young American woman named Richa explains that she is looking for someone “Not too dark, you know, fair-skinned”. Much has been written about colourism within South Asian communities and the $8.3 billion skin-whitening industry was once again placed center stage when a slew of Bollywood celebrities, including Priyanka Chopra, Sonam Kapoor and Deepika Padukone, spoke out in support of Black Lives Matter and called out racism while actively perpetuating colourism by profiting off skin-lightening creams.

Throughout the show, caste is embedded in seemingly harmless language such as ‘similar backgrounds,’ ‘shared communities’ and ‘respectable families’, but as Yashica Dutt points out, rendering caste as something invisible does not remove the “dangerous consequences for those of us born into ‘lower’ castes.”

And then there is the issue of diversity. Dutt notes that the show’s creator Smriti Mundhra’s “biggest blind spot is her complicity in the normalization of Hindu upper-caste culture as larger Indian culture… Though the show is called Indian Matchmaking, it portrays no couples who identify as Muslim, Christian or Dalit – communities that represent close to 40 percent of India’s 1 billion-plus population.”

It’s clear that this show has a lot to answer for.

But should it? Sima and her clients didn’t make these rules – surely they are just abiding by them? And why should a Netflix show designed to entertain us be made accountable to answer for all the problems of bigotry and prejudice in a particular society? Are reality shows focused on white people held up to the same level of scrutiny?

And what about Vyasar – the high school teacher who was not fair, not trim and had a complex family history – yet won the hearts of viewers and Sima alike? Isn’t he proof enough that these preferences are not hard and fast rules?

Not quite.

While Vyasar is something of an outlier (and from what we see onscreen an amazing human being), it seems that he is only given a space in the show because he is a man. All the other contestants who do not fit the mold are ostracized, and they are all women. Rupam the divorcee with a child is told by Sima that she wouldn’t ordinarily be accepted as a client because her options “are much less”. Ankita, the entrepreneur is repeatedly described by Sima as “okay’” and “not photogenic”. Aparna, the attorney was told she was too picky when she rejected one suitor but Pradhyuman had rejected 150 woman and was left to carry on. My friend Shabina explains that “In South Asian societies, once you have a match that person is grilled to an unreasonable and unrealistic standard and usually the woman is vetted on a far more unfair scale than the man.”

This was made perfectly clear through the constant instructions for the women to be flexible and to adjust, and prompted Ankita to remark to another (and possibly more problematic matchmaker) “You made women feel like inferior objects.” These sentiments were echoed across social media by women who had been through this process themselves, Nikita Doval tweeted “This is a system which reduced women to cattle, where you are repeatedly subject to humiliation and insult just because the other side can”.

However, it’s not only the men who are implicated – let’s have a chat about the toxic mothers shall we? We have Jotika who is “best friends” with her daughter, but is also unmistakably clear in what she expects of her children. Jotika explains that from childhood she has repeatedly told them, “Please don’t ever let me down and don’t make me look bad in our society, in our community. I don’t ever want to see a B on a report card. I don’t want two degrees. I want three.” Jotika also famously and repeatedly referred to Aparna’s first suitor as “Srini the loser” simply because he had different goals to her daughter. A user on Reddit wrote “Aparna and her toxic mom represent the pervasive narcissism in our communities. As much as she’s presented as a caricature, most of us know Aparna’s in our own lives, often to a fatiguing degree.”

Yet nothing is as fatiguing as Akshay and his mother Preeti. Preeti aunty is, simply put, a nightmare with her controlling nature and ever rising BP (i.e. blood pressure). This woman straight up commands her older son and daughter in law to postpone having children until Akshay is married – lest a baby prevent them from fully participating in the wedding functions. And said bachelor remains spineless, never actually takes his own decisions and vindicates every first year psychology student’s belief that Freud was indeed correct, as Akshay openly says “My mom is literally what I want to be looking at in a wife.” Yikes. 

It is against this backdrop of Sima, Geeta, Jotika and Preeti that for many young women Aparna became the unlikely heroine of Indian Matchmaking with many think pieces noting that the ambitious American lawyer was treated unfairly by the show simply for being uncompromising and clear about what she wanted. Some have pointed out that this is another example of the trope of the successful woman in her 30s who is “picky” and single and therefore turned into a villain – i.e. Jessica from Love is Blind – and Aparna’s defenders have written pieces entitled Why Does Everyone Hate A Confident Woman Who Knows What She Wants And Speaks Her Mind?

But hailing Aparna as some kind of feminist hero is a bit of a joke. Audiences were uncomfortable with her not because she was upfront and confident, but because she was obnoxious and actually quite rude – to her dates and when speaking to the camera. The scramble to race to Aparna’s defense is part of the current status quo in which women are afraid to call out toxic behavior in other women lest they be called sexist or ‘bad feminists’. But bad behavior is bad behavior and shouldn’t be given a pass simply for the sake of being a good ally or a good feminist. We do women a greater disservice by allowing them to continue in destructive patterns and someone rightly pointed out on Twitter that “The most astonishing part about Indian Matchmaking is the fact that it’s been 34 years and nobody has given Aparna a reality check yet.”

Having said all this, I do admire Aparna’s ability to be courageous enough to know what she is looking for in a spouse (arguably this was Jessica’s biggest problem in Love is Blind) and knowing what type of marriage she seeks. But if Aparna is allowed to be clear with what she wants, so should Pradhyuman and Akshay who are unapologetic that their chief concern is the looks of their future wife. Akshay even shows us that a hot woman and a couple of conversations consisting mainly of silence and “So what’s up?” are enough to secure a marriage (or a pre-engagement party at the very least).

And perhaps this is what the show can teach us – know what it is you’re looking for. It’s easy to point out that many of the contestants deferred to their parents while scrutinizing bio-data in search of a match, but how many of us similarly defer to ideals created by society or the standards encouraged by friends or communities when thinking about prospective spouses? How much of what say we want is a real articulation of our wants and needs and how much of it is what we think we should want and need?

Indian Matchmaking has no doubt started some important conversations and the show has been a hit across the world. I do wonder what people unfamiliar with South Asian culture make of people in their 30s and 40s being referred to as “boys” and “girls” by Sima and other parents (for some insight, read this article by Iman Kathrada) and whether or not they now view matchmaking and arranged marriages worse than they did before. According to my friend Shabina, for people who are South Asian, “It was important for this show to be made for us to actually see all this. How many of us cringe but at the same time we’re too familiar with this?”

While my ancestors are mostly Indian and I had a set of grandparents who were born in India and who had an arranged marriage, the world of matchmakers and arranged marriages remain at somewhat of a distance to me (my parents, aunts, uncles, cousins, relatives all have love marriages and bio-datas are not really a thing in South Africa). Yet I’d be lying if I said that comments about skin colour, ethnicity, height, weight, education and money didn’t come up once wedding invitations were sent – though mostly as flyaway comments or ‘observations’ rather than an obstacle to nuptials. The harsh truth is that matchmaker or no matchmaker, certain ideals remain engrained in many of our communities. The failure is not that Indian Matchmaking holds up a mirror to problematic aspects of Desi culture, the failure is that instead of taking a hard look, the show tries to convince us that the only mirrors that are useful are the ones used to make sure our wedding lehenga fits properly.