Chuck The Cringe, Notice The Nuance: Netflix’s Indian Matchmaking Might Be More Than What It Seems

Chuck The Cringe, Notice The Nuance: Netflix’s Indian Matchmaking Might Be More Than What It Seems

A former classmate and an influential Indian businessman’s sole heir had once told me that when the time comes, he will have a merger and not a marriage. Quite the argumentative (liberal, feminist, millennial) Indian, indubitably, my first reaction was, “ … but how can you marry someone you don’t love?”

Author of Marriage, A History (2005), Stephanie Coontz tells us that for the longest time, marriage was the primary way to increase one’s family’s labour force, and make peace treaties and business alliances. She believes that the origins of marriage lie not in finding individual partners, but in finding in-laws.

The origin of marriage, therefore, was never quite as rooted in the idea of love as we believe it to be. Quoting psychologist Tulika Jaiswal, The Indian Express clarifies, “The Manusmriti, the text on which the caste classifications were put in place among Hindus, provides an interesting insight into the way ancient society in India understood marriage. “It advocates marriage to be a social obligation, rather than an individual’s private pleasure.”

Moreover, haven’t we grown up looking at the matrimonial pages of newspapers neatly divided into boxes labelled by the caste or religion one was looking to find a spouse in? Caste and class-based matrimonial platforms have long existed in India, and we only know them too well. And what do you do when you want to find a life partner out of a pool of total strangers? You ask them to suit your ‘criteria’.

For a people who have long been told that being dark-skinned is equal to not being good enough, it’s a ‘fair’ stranger that they would prefer. A ‘good height’ is only that which is just about as tall to ‘complement’ the male but certainly not daring enough to tower over his masculinity. Much like their 19th-century forefathers, men expect their wives to be educated but never ‘too much’, after all, a ‘fast woman’ doesn’t belong where a wife does (in the kitchen; you didn’t hear it from me).

Zikr-e-Dilli tells us, “some of the matrimonial ads published in the late 90s in Delhi categorically stated that ‘girls from JNU, Lady Shri Ram or Miranda House need not apply.’ The ads described the level of education that prospective brides ought to have; subject and college choices of the prospective brides were also emphasised by the groom’s families. Most of these ads demanded women with university education but with strict terms and conditions.”

The buck doesn’t stop at these matrimonial classifieds. An extremely large part of the pop culture that several generations of Indians have grown up consuming has depicted marriage as a compromising situation. It’s the thing that practical people do to ‘settle down’ and ‘start a life’, and thanks to our popular culture, India only knows too well that love without marriage and love within marriage, or well, even ‘love’ and ‘marriage’ are completely different and removed entities, and the only true kind of love is that which comes sealed within a wedding card.

The same Express article also quotes Abhijit Banerjee’s, Esther Duflo’s, Maitreesh Ghatak’s and Jeanne Lafortune’s 2009 study that says, “despite the economic importance of this decision, ‘status’-like attributes, such as caste, continue to play a seemingly crucial role in determining marriage outcomes in India. ... In a recent opinion poll in India, 74 per cent of respondents declared to be opposed to inter-caste marriage.”

So then, when Netflix released their supremely popular docu-reality show, Indian Matchmaking, that’s apparently being ‘hate-watched’ and tweeted and Instagrammed about at the moment, and that has already had more than ten dozen articles and videos written and made about it, it was perplexing to see the Indian audience not consider the fact that we have all actually grown up with the show. For, hasn’t Netflix just offered itself to become an uncritical,unfiltered eight-episode digital streaming version of the newspaper classifieds we have grown up glancing or ignoring, or maybe looking at and laughing? Taparia, who owns a marriage bureau called ‘Suitable Rishta’ in Mumbai (probably after her first Netflix appearance on A Suitable Girl), adeptly clarifies the aforementioned distinction and the show’s intentions by crisply putting it as, “In India, we don’t say arranged marriage. There is marriage and then there is love marriage. The marriages are between two families. The two families have their reputation and many millions of dollars at stake. So the parents guide their children, and that is the work of a matchmaker.”’

Variously been described as the ‘scariest horror story about arranged marriages’, the show ‘we can’t even hate-watch’, and definitely, ‘problematic and cringey,’ the show is also drawing flak for being ‘ultimately a betrayal for Indian audiences.’ And, definitely, for reasons galore.

To a very large part of the viewership, the institution of arranged marriage might seem like an anachronistic idea, but as data, and this show itself suggests, it’s not going to go away anytime soon. Herein arises the need to stop hate-watching or cringe-watching, and start nuance-watching it, perhaps even studying it.

Writes Nehmat Kaur,“Taparia makes the stakes of this show infuriatingly clear in the introduction itself – marriage is about families, millions of dollars are at stake, caste is important and ‘adjustment’ is required.” At one point, Kaur says, “The show is stressful because it confronts us with our own loneliness, presents marriage as a solution and accomplishment, but then reveals the process of getting there to be an exercise in self-erasure – sorry, “compromise.”

If looked closely, however, what the whole show actually confronts us with is ourselves and our prejudices. In presenting to us, an ‘auntysplainer’ who would judge a woman for not being ‘sweet’ enough, or for having ‘too high expectations’ or not being ‘flexible’ enough (we have read too many Olympics jokes and seen ghost memes, okay, now, stop), or a young man of barely 25 for not being able to decide whom he wants to (at least, theoretically), spend the rest of his life, the show somewhere, confronts us with our own ingrained biases and prejudice, and when I say ‘we’, I talk about millennials and Gen-Zs like myself who, apparently, study and critique the very systems that have enabled us to ‘critique’ them.

A more curious analysis of the show that’s otherwise populated with the voices of aunties like the flamboyant Sima Taparia (or ‘Sima Mami from Mumbai’) and Preeti Auntie (with her unfortunately high BP), would present us with a diverse group of millennials hailing from different backgrounds and levels of ‘wokeness’, who, in some way or another, much like their audience themselves, are a coalescence of their conditioning. As are Sima Mami, Preeti Auntie, and Jotika Auntie (Aparna’s super strong and solid mother, who is actually an anomaly in the world of Indian Matchmaking mothers; we can talk about the trauma caused due to high-pressure parental expectations later).

And so, if you’re thinking TL;DR, the point is that each of the characters we meet on the show are just like us, perhaps also because they come from backgrounds not very different from their viewers. They are just as varied, as complicated and as flawed as we are in living our lives as products of societal conditioning and perhaps, education, or the lack thereof. Again, each of these people have also put themselves in a place of vulnerability, open for judgment, perhaps in a way similar to how they are supposed to be judging their prospective partners. While some choose to go with what the society and their families have to say, some hold the strength to carve themselves out into their version of correctness. Some, again, might have access to the kind of debates a lot of us have been exposed to, whereas some are not able to see through the parental or societal trap of insistence upon repetition. As viewers of the woke, therefore, it is incumbent upon us to read each of these people we are talking about, as for the show itself, in a much more nuanced way. That, perhaps, is also the only solution to the problems we have been discussing in the media at the moment.

The aforementioned transactional nature of the institution shines through every frame of the series. However, it’s worth looking into the reason behind each artifice.

Belonging to a generation where one is taught that marriage, rather than being about finding an equal partner for themselves, is a process that enables a person to ‘leave their family behind’ and ‘enter a new family’ to ‘fit in’, it comes naturally to someone like Preeti Auntie to think that her daughter-in-law should be ‘following her rules’, and being ‘flexible’ enough to fit in. Her US-educated son, Akshay, who has been accused of being attached to his mother by the umbilical cord, also doesn’t see a woman’s place being removed from the kitchen, because what is he even being asked for when he is asked to get married? A man who admittedly doesn’t know how to make his own bed or lunch (and I am looking at a lot of South Asian men here, including my own family members), doesn’t know how to perform these basic chores because up until now, he has never been confronted with the need to learn and do these things. And yes, Preeti Auntie is to be partly (or wholly) blamed for it, because she has taught him what she has learnt for herself. Much like a lot of South Asian women, she also has been conditioned to believe that a man’s place can never be in the kitchen — a man should never be ‘subjected to’ unpaid caregiving at home. With this mindset, what comes more than obviously to her is that her son’s wife should be someone who should be able to ‘mother’ him in a fashion much after herself. Again, this is why when Akshay says that he wants a wife just like his mother, he means that he wants someone to allow him the South Asian male benefits he has been privy to all his life. So, the question of ‘who will make the dabba?’ is essentially, that of, ‘who is ready to replicate my mother in the longer run so that I get to be the ‘boy’ my mother thinks I will always be?’

Sima Auntie, who calls herself the ‘nimit’, the person who is destined to introduce couples ‘made in heaven’ to each other on Earth, does not believe in ideals very much different from Preeti Auntie’s and she doesn’t filter these ‘preferences’, particularly when she deals with women. For her, someone as qualified, as headstrong and bold as Aparna who, in seeking an equal partner in marriage instead of a ‘husband’ like Askhay and also owning it up and behaving so, becomes too ‘difficult’ and ‘fickle-minded’ because she or her mother, Jotika Auntie, would not be one to give in to her ‘compromise’ and ‘be flexible’ advice. They don’t settle because they don’t want to settle, and so, they keep looking. Unperturbed by the desire or even the need to be accepted (remember, she likes herself), Aparna doesn’t give Sima Auntie the chance to find the chasm that most Indian women are brought up with — the chasm of confidence and self-belief which is ultimately filled by this ‘bend or break’ advice. Jotika Auntie, however, sets herself apart from other parents, who mostly choose to give in to Sima’s auntysplaining and mild gaslighting/anxiety, in how she knows who could be a ‘loser’ when it comes to her daughter. A self-made woman herself, she refuses to compromise or have her daughter compromise in any way.

A slightly milder and perhaps, bubblier version of the ‘difficult’ Aparna, Ankita, however, is merely labelled as ‘gregarious’, ‘too ahead of her times’ and ‘strong-headed’ by Sima Auntie and, sigh, her own seemingly modern parents who think that “a man’s support is a man’s support.” Sima Auntie knows that Ankita, who doesn’t need a man to take care of her, will not fit into a ‘traditional household’, which is why she gives her away to a more ‘modern’ matchmaker (let’s not get into the shady bits though). Then there’s Rupam’s Dad, who only wants the best for his daughter but doesn’t flinch in borrowing the judgemental glasses from Sima Auntie and Preeti Auntie, when it comes to divorced men.

All along, even though Sima Auntie keeps claiming that all she wants is for people to become the best version of themselves, she keeps categorising, generalising, and boxing them. (I mean, to her ‘Guyanese’ also assumes the form of caste!) She actively encourages people to do that too, and base their ‘criteria’ on value judgements. However, one part of the truth is also that the only thing that makes it a little less than real (or maybe because we have a pre-defined economic class in place), is the discussion about one’s annual ‘package’ on international TV. It’s funny even in being repulsive, but it’s not too far away from the uglier sides of the reality.

A few women were also able to come up on social media and speak about their harrowing experiences with the arrangement, which just goes on to confirm that, no matter how and what is said about it, Indian Matchmaking cannot be dismissed for what it depicts. This is because what the show also does is that it takes up all of our prejudices and judgements and shows them to us in a completely unfiltered manner. It takes us into the mind of a quinquagenarian Indian woman and makes us see the world through her eyes. What makes us uncomfortable is not how we see it. Instead, we get perturbed when it pierces through our wokeness and reminds us of the existence of traditions we have only started to problematise and maybe do away with. We are uncomfortable because we know that we do end up seeing familiarity even as we try hard not to. In reminding us that we are merely at the tip of the iceberg, or maybe not even there, Indian Matchmaking ends up becoming the non-satire satire that we probably need to open up discussions about the institution of arranged marriage in India.

So, if we try to sum it up, much like the girl from Mean Girls who ‘didn’t even go there’ but just had ‘a lot of feelings’, all of us have been bombarded with too many thoughts and feelings about this show and about the institution of arranged marriage altogether. However, what we need to understand is that marriage is a complicated affair and just for the reason that everything depicted in the show has its roots that go back to centuries, there is a need for the audience to look at it in a much more nuanced way.

Finally, as Tina Fey had once joked about a joke of hers , “the joke about the ‘sacred institution of marriage’ was probably the roughest.”

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