A Better Take On Indian Matchmaking, By The Creators Of Indian Matchmaking
All images from Netflix. 

It is difficult to walk the thin line between representation and endorsement. This is my main takeaway from Indian Matchmaking—currently the fourth most popular show on Netflix Singapore. 

The creator—Indian, female, Oscar-nominated—says she is merely ‘telling it as it is’. The critics, however, see a gratuitous celebration of casteism, colourism, sexism, fatphobia and classism.

It’s not hard to understand why. When arranged marriage/endogamy is repackaged with all the trappings of American reality TV, can it still be looked at, critically? 

The answer is: probably not. No more than The Bachelor can offer a radical deconstruction of gender norms. The medium will contradict your message—however well-intentioned. Saving Private Ryan or Hacksaw Ridge are supposedly anti-war movies, but they nonetheless undermine their own thesis by depicting individual heroism as the noblest and most American of virtues.

“His parents were okay with me, my parents were okay with him”

However, before you cancel Netflix, the show creator, or the entire internet, it’s probably worthwhile to check out another show about arranged marriages in India; one which offers an imperfect but more thoughtful perspective on the issue.

A Suitable Girl is a 2017 documentary also by the same filmmaker, Smriti Mundhra. It is also about marriage in India, but that’s where the similarities begin and end. Where Indian Matchmaking is glitzy, cringe-worthy and noisily American to the point of farce, A Suitable Girl takes a more intimate and discomforting look at marriage culture.

Dipti with her family
The show follows three women from different backgrounds as they embark on the marriage ‘journey’ (or ordeal). Dipti, 30, is a soft-spoken kindergarten teacher who desperately wants to be married. Amrita is a just-married Delhi girl who relocates to Rajasthan and becomes a full-time housewife to her husband’s influential family.

Last but not least is Ritu Taparia, an MBA graduate and EY consultant—the white collar middle-class professional par excellence. She is also the unmarried daughter of Seema Taparia, the vilified ‘Sima Aunty’ from Indian Matchmaking, who is shown putting immense pressure on her daughter to get hitched. 

Ritu Taparia with her mom, the matchmaker Seema Taparia
Needless to say, their mother-daughter relationship is ‘troubled’.   

It sounds boring, but what ensues is one-and-a-half hours of utterly gripping banality. Even though their daily routines are mundane, the documentary does a fantastic job of showing how marriage—and expectations of marriage—shape their every waking moment.  

Amrita, for example, basically changes her entire life post-marriage. Within a month, she goes from jeans-and-sweaters to saris 24/7 because her parents-in-law don’t like ‘western clothes’. 

She is also not allowed to leave the house for groceries, or to be anything more than a pillar of  the household—cooking, arranging, supporting. 

Dipti, on the other hand, is under tremendous pressure to get married. She is nearly 30 and her matchmaker thinks she cannot find a match because she is ‘overweight’. Her parents’ attempt to placate one sulky suitor borders on the absurd.

A newly-wed Amrita with her husband Keshav
The suitor just wants someone to ‘be with him and cook his meals’. So they tell him: “After school, she (Dipti) comes right back home. She doesn’t have a lot of friends.”

When the suitor does not call back, Dipti sinks into depression because it feels like a personal failing on her part. Everyone puts on a brave face, but there is no hiding the disappointment, however unwarranted.

So the question is: Why do it at all? Why not just reject the marriage plot and walk off into the sunset, self-attached? 

This is, I think, where the documentary really shines. It avoids reducing the whole enterprise thing into a trope and shows us the complicated and sometimes contradictory motivations behind their decisions. After all, the system, however flawed, must still be negotiated.

For some, like Dipti, marriage simply does represent the culmination of her life’s ambitions. (as it is for a great many Singaporeans). For Amrita, it’s a mix of genuine affection and a desire to not disappoint her family. 

She tells us: “You know, when people have a certain amount of faith in you, you try harder to stay true to it.” 

Marital bliss?
For Ritu and her Dubai-based husband-to-be Aditya, it’s basically National Service till death do us part. As he bluntly informs us: “I would definitely want to be reborn as a European, get married post-40, even if I have to.” Nonetheless, they conform to their families’ demands. The camera lingers over their stony faces, which conceal a world of mixed emotions as they go through the motions like prisoners on a death march.

The documentary doesn’t flinch from showing us the brutal realities for men or the happiness which can result from even a broken system.

At one marriage fair, the bachelors are called forth in turn to declare their income, caste and marital status. One by one, they are paraded around like livestock as the announcer’s monotonous voice declares: “Kshatriya, 15,000 rupees, divorcee …”

At Dipti’s wedding—when she finally meets her match—the couple is smiling so warmly and so shyly that you cannot help but be moved by their genuine affection. For a brief instance, none of it matters—the sexism, the patriarchy; the oppressive norms are dissolved, made irrelevant in bliss.

Man and wife
“You Lose Your Identity When You Get Married”

There is a great moment in the Taparia household where Ritu, ignoring her parent’s lectures about the importance of ‘family type’, chooses to devour her lunch in total silence. She doesn’t speak and it’s impossible to tell from her expression, what exactly she’s feeling.

Impotent rage? Practised boredom? A sense of resentful resignation? All of the above?

That single moment is perhaps more eloquent than the entire Indian Matchmaking series, which has that overproduced quality shared by all ‘reality’ shows. ASG, on the other hand, is so intimate and so awkward that you want to yell or throw something at the screen.

Still, ASG does not make it easy to scapegoat Aunty Sima the way Indian Matchmaking does. However regressive or fucked up her views on marriage are, she does love her daughter. Her notes on a young Ritu—written in one of her children books—are heartfelt. Arranged marriages have served her well. Why not her daughter too? As someone who was born into and has benefitted from the age-old institution, it is hard for her to see its problems; just as it is hard for Dipti to see that she might not need marriage to be happy. To vilify them would surely miss the point.

Is the documentary perfect? Of course not. By focusing mainly on the women’s interiority, it adopts a feminist perspective at the expense of a broader look at caste or class—which is once again mostly missing. 

For what it does tackle, however, ASG will sweep you off your proverbial feet for its runtime. It’s not exactly a love story, but just like a love story, it might leave you enraged, or in despair or violently, irrationally happy. Possibly all at the same time.

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