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That Matchmaking Show

Indian Matchmaking has aggravated just about everyone

“I am Sima from Mumbai,” says Sima Taparia, star of the new Netflix series Indian Matchmaking, as she smiles and stares directly into the camera. A diminutive middle-aged woman with caramel highlights in her hair, Sima, or Sima Auntie, as she prefers her clients to call her, jet sets from Mumbai to the United States. She zips back and forth, from country to country, city to city, as she matches up lists of young men and women with each other.

All of it is an eye-opening look into the brutal truths of mate selection in India and in the Indian diaspora. In Mumbai, India’s growing cadre of newly rich are represented by a jeweler’s son. Pradhyuman rejects girl after girl, even as he treats his family (and Sima Auntie too) to flash-frozen delicacies whose creation he supervises, with a deferential servant always in the background. It is an interesting look inside the homes of India’s new capitalist class; even the household’s resident Goddess has her own spacious closet full of hundreds of outfits, designed by none other than Pradhyamun himself. (As practicing Hindus, they have a home temple with a Goddess encased in glass for daily worship—and in Mumbai, as in New York, true veneration is expressed by an allotted closet.) It is an odd evolution of gender roles, this: a young man who cooks and designs jewelry and clothes.

The other Mumbai man in the show is markedly different. Introverted Akshay has no qualms about marrying a woman whose attributes are chosen by his controlling mother. That mother, Preeti (who is in fact quite pretty), is perhaps the show’s offering up of the typical Indian mother-in-law. She declares that the home where her older son and his wife already live and in which Akshay and his wife will also be expected to live is run by her rules exclusively. Her silent husband’s most notable contribution to the unfolding drama happens when he tells a prospective bride and her family that Akshay’s mother is “very strict.” Preeti does not appreciate this small act of rebellion. “Akshay doesn’t really feel that,” she retorts sharply, without the slightest hint of apology in her voice.

Next to Sima Auntie herself, it is Preeti who has been the target of the show’s very vocal and very online detractors. One camp of critics has focused on her overt demand for a girl who is slim, trim, and educated, and whose height matches up with Akshay’s towering 6’2’’ frame. Women like Preeti, the argument goes, are the beams holding up a system obsessed with material wealth, good looks, and fair skin (and the objectification of women this represents). The other (equally incensed) camp points to Preeti’s controlling ways, her noxious demands that the young bride entering her house defer to her wishes with regard to everything.

Both are valid critiques but not necessarily culturally specific ones. The specifics Preeti vocalizes about what she wants in a daughter-in-law are not so far a departure from what others in Western countries might enter into a dating app or tell a close friend looking to set them up. As for Preeti’s penchant for bossing around the men in her life, some would interpret this as a sign of female rather than male dominance within the household. That two alpha females cannot rule over a single pack may not be a particularly Indian failing, but a universal one.

It isn’t pretty, this picture we get through Sima Auntie, but then the innards of capitalism, whether glimpsed in India or America, are a dreadful sight.

In the context of contemporary India and its aspirational appetites for acquisition, Preeti better resembles one of the Real Housewives rather than any traditional model of an Indian mother-in-law. Matchmaking, in family-centered South Asia, is usually the realm of those wanting to change their lot: those clambering up the ladder of social status and those lacking, for one reason or another, their own networks for rounding up suitable matches. Viewed within this context, Preeti is simply using her son to project the image she imagines the family’s rising business prospects require. A glitzy wedding for her second son, a nostalgia-infused recreation of the Indian joint family of centuries past, is all done toward the end of raising their profile even higher. It isn’t pretty, this picture we get through Sima Auntie, but then the innards of capitalism, whether glimpsed in India or America, are a dreadful sight.

Sima Auntie’s American clientele are a similarly complicated lot, their conversations with Sima are telling of the prejudices that lurk within the heads of diaspora Indians. Aparna, a lawyer in her mid-thirties, is rude and dismissive, with a mother to match. It’s terribly off-putting, all of their eye-rolling and general negativity, and it can render one befuddled as to why Aparna would like to marry an Indian man at all. As the episodes wear on, we learn that her mother was forced into a marriage she didn’t want: one she duly left when Aparna and her sister were little. It emphasizes the riddle of why the mother and daughter are so committed to fit into a system that can be so rigid, suggesting that perhaps Aparna, seemingly an extremely confident and self-assured woman, is, like Akhsay of Mumbai, marrying to live the happy Indian married life denied to her mother.

Vyasar, Sima Auntie’s client from Austin, Texas, also grew up without a father, his mother having divorced when he was a boy. If fatherlessness produced the headstrong Aparna, it also produced the pliant Vyasar, who early on declares that he would love to be “a stay-at-home dad.” It is all very good for jokes and chuckles, but the Indian-American women he dates do not seem to appreciate this bending of gender roles. The first prospect he meets through Sima rejects him for just this reason: he is not ambitious enough.

It is not surprising that Indian Matchmaking has aggravated just about everyone. Powerful, successful Indian-American feminists are rightfully enraged at having the strong Indian-American woman represented by the rude and tempestuous Aparna. It is brown feminism distorted, approximated through a trick mirror, where self-knowledge is reduced to self-absorption and ambition to being a workaholic.

It is also possible that what many Indian-American women of the diaspora want is to find mates that share their cultural and religious background. The fabric snags when, despite recognizing this, they balk at the idea of the “compromise” Sima Auntie preaches. It is hard to blame them; after all, how can a feminist of any color discern what amount of compromise is necessary for any relationship versus that which begins to add up to feminine submission?

It is a particularly difficult inquiry for those born or raised in the diaspora. Diasporic cultures tend to have a frozen conception of the culture “back home.” Cultural time stops at the moment when the immigrant leaves and remains forever static. Most immigrants remain in denial about the fact that the Indian culture they left behind continues to change and evolve without them. It is no surprise, then, that the most feminist woman Sima Auntie encounters is a young businesswoman named Ankita, who is not from the diaspora but from Delhi, where ideas are evolving more organically. After going on a single date, Ankita declares that she would rather focus on her growing business and on being an independent woman than hunt for a groom. Ironically, unhitched Ankita seems to be Sima Auntie’s most content client, happily plotting to move in with a friend as the two of them work a potter’s wheel. The way forward for all Indian (and Pakistani and American) women may be to ditch the entire dating/matchmaking enterprise and focus on self-fulfillment rather than partnering up.

Over the decades, the massive Indian wedding has become a standard part of the “exotic India” narrative so adored by white Westerners. It is unsurprising that Indians have found themselves catering to it in diaspora, such that creating the perfect Indian wedding (in part for white Western consumption) has become part of meeting these expectations. Indian Matchmaking, for all its elisions and generalizations (not all Indians are versions of this handful), exposes how the sausage is made: all the questions that must be asked and answered and all the minefields that have to be traversed to get there. Before there is the resplendent glamor, luscious color, the aromatic buffet of an Indian wedding, there is some version of a Sima Auntie who excuses discrimination and assuages materialism because she believes that falling in love is not about justice, and matchmaking has little do with fairness.