The Neflix hit show romanticizes and normalizes customs, practices, thinking and behavior that have no place in a civilized society.
Full Disclosure: I am the product of an arranged marriage.
My origin story starts with my father meeting my mother in her bucolic village in coastal Kerala nearly 24 years ago. Needless to say, the meeting was arranged by my two late grandfathers.
As a second generation immigrant living in the United States, the concept of arranged marriages is an antiquated one to me. Growing up in America, it’s been a topic of discussion among my friends, especially Indian and South Asian Americans. We have often wondered how any of us would react if were in a situation where we would be choosing a spouse through an arranged marriage.
I am aware that, till the dawn of the 20th century, much of humanity chose their partners through arranged marriages. Even now, the practice remains popular in many parts of the world.
As much of a bad rep I give arranged marriages, I can admit the process seems slightly more appealing in today’s day and age, where the children have more of a choice, which wasn’t the case before. However, the key word here is slightly, at least as is depicted in Netflix’s new original Indian Matchmaking.
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The premise is what you would expect from the name: the unscripted reality dating series follows professional matchmaker Sima Taparia — “Sima from Mumbai” — as she guides a host of clients in their 20s and 30s as they attempt to find a spouse.
Before I dissect the show, I will admit, I’ve never been a huge fan of reality television, or dating shows in general. So if you had told me I was going to binge watch an entire season’s worth of it in the company of my father, I probably would have laughed.
But that’s exactly what the two of us did this past weekend, in the middle of this global pandemic. Matchmaking has no problem in keeping your attention.
In what I think is a stroke of genius, the show introduces one of its two most infuriating characters in its opening minute. Sima is chatting with Akshay Jakhete, who doesn’t reappear until the fifth episode, and his mother, who may as well have just left Akshay in his baby diaper in his bedroom next door to talk to Sima alone.
The two women discuss everything that Akshay — really his mother — is looking for in an ideal spouse. Among those things include: smart, outgoing, above 5’3, and flexible. When Sima asks Akshay how he is, the grown man remains completely silent as the camera pans to a wide shot and playful music plays, resulting in about four seconds of the most awkward television watching I have ever experienced.
It was exactly then I knew that this show would both give me a headache and make me laugh, two elements key to the success of reality television I suppose. And it seems that audiences worldwide would agree, as evident by its place among Netflix’s top ten rankings. Indian Matchmaking is currently the 6th most popular television show on Netflix in the United States and the third most popular in India.
After some brief exposition, the show introduces us to Houston-based lawyer Aparna Shewakramani.
She, along with Akshay, is the show’s most controversial figure and her appearance on Matchmaking has created a firestorm of attention on social media, some of it positive, as many have praised her confident, fearlessly unapologetic, brash personality.
Here are a couple of samples on Twitter:
— LIL ASTRO (@Astr0Isha) July 20, 2020
aparna's a whole mood
— smokesheeshaplayfifa (@emoshunned) July 21, 2020
However, most of it is overwhelmingly negative. The Houston lawyer has been getting absolutely thrashed on Twitter, with thousands of people criticizing her attitude and demeanor. Common adjectives include: insufferable, egotistical, arrogant, annoying, stubborn. (Funny enough, Sima also uses similar adjectives to describe Aparna on the show as well.)
That Aparna girl reminds me of my freshman year dorm roommate in college and I just wanna kill myself thinking about it
— m (@thegreatmsa) July 21, 2020
— Magali (@magsssssss_) July 20, 2020
— Courtney Neu (@cw8268) July 21, 2020
Whether you love her or hate her, you can’t deny she is captivating to watch and is a big reason the show is as popular as it is.
Aside from the watchability, the production quality of Matchmaking must be praised. Each episode features beautifully shot cutaways of various U.S. and Indian cities. Skylines of Mumbai, Houston, New York, Chicago, San Diego and Delhi are captured aesthetically in every episode, with buzzing streets and drone shots of lavish high-rise buildings.
Characters are their surroundings are similarly introduced with gusto. For instance, close-ups of diamonds in a jewelry store, amid the hustle and bustle of Mumbai, quickly give a glimpse into the extravagant lifestyle of Pradhyuman.
That’s about where all the praise from me ends. The show itself is devoid of substance, at best. It’s mindless television, at worst. It can even be argued it’s harmful.
Matchmaking perpetuates an outdated concept of marriage, reinforcing the idea that wives be subservient to their husbands through its characters. In one of the show’s most infamous scenes, Akshay, who I’m convinced has an oedipus complex, said “… if she’s busy with her work, who’s gonna take care of the kids and all?”
This was in response to a meeting he had with Radhika, where she says she wants to be an independent, busy, working woman.
Although it is probably a very common theme in many Indian marriages and households, for this to be an explicitly expressed expectation from your life partner, is such an antiquated way of thinking. Upon Googling, I found out that Akshay actually called off the wedding with Radhika too, most likely due to these ideological differences. (The show was taped in 2018.) Regardless, it goes to show how this mindset is still so pervasive in the Indian culture. It is scary that a millennial raised in India’s most cosmopolitan city, the so-called Maximum City, unabashedly makes such demands on global television.
Aside from the obvious sexism, the show perpetuates classist, casteist, and colorist elements.
Several times throughout the series Sima makes remarks complimenting women for having fair skin and clients often want potential spouses coming from a “good family,” a sugar-coated way to talk about castes.
The disturbing part is, for most of the characters on the show, it is second nature. The thinking, deeply ingrained in our culture, has been normalized.
I truly felt bad for one of the women, Ankita Bansal, in this sense. She was deemed not photogenic enough by Sima and told by Geeta, a quote-on-quote “progressive” matchmaker, that it is her duty as a woman to understand that in a marriage she gives up more of herself emotionally.
Obviously, Ankita was disappointed after the meeting, having felt that Geeta made women feel like inferior objects.
On the flipside of the arranged marriage spectrum, you have cases like Akshay. Young men who are coddled and handed everything to them on a silver platter. Someone more in need of a babysitter than an actual wife.
Despite Indian Matchmaking’s massive popularity, its portrayal of women has caused the show to receive terrible reviews. Thousands of critics have flocked to Twitter and social media to criticize the show.
Netflix has its defenders, too, who argue that the show is merely holding a mirror to the Indian society and culture. While that may be true, its storytelling consciously or unconsciously romanticizes and normalizes customs, practices, thinking and behavior that have no place in a civilized society.
And that’s the issue.