March 26, 2023

On a recent trip from London to New Delhi, I found out that an acquaintance I see once or twice a year had pulled out of her wedding just 24 hours before the ceremony. An almighty row? Infidelity? Good old-fashioned cold feet? No – her family had simply decided they weren’t happy with the groom and decided to pull the plug. Welcome to the world of arranged marriages.
As a woman who was born and grew up in India, arranged marriages – those planned and agreed by the families of the couple, rather than due to the romantic inclinations of the couple themselves – have never made sense to me. But they remain the norm in many South Asian communities. In a 2018 survey of more than 160,000 Indian households, 93 per cent of married couples said theirs was an arranged marriage. It’s not just older couples skewing the statistics – while 94 per cent of over-eighties had an arranged marriage, the figure remains over 90 per cent for married couples in their twenties.
And now Netflix has got in on the act with Indian Matchmaking. The show, in its second season, follows Mumbai-based matchmaker Sima Taparia and her uber-rich Indian clients around the world who depend on her to find them a life partner through the arranged marriage system. The families and parents are heavily involved in the process from day one – so much so that it’s not unusual (though it is uncomfortable) to see that the first date often involves meeting the family too.
Netflix claims the show offers ‘an inside look at the custom in a modern era’. But to me, it feels like it’s trying its best to be the South Asian version of Love Island – with a cast of cringeworthy characters creating unnecessary drama and tears. Take for example Taparia’s client Nadia, who seemed smitten with Shekar when she met him in season one. In episode two of the latest season, we see him meeting Nadia’s family at her house. But then Nadia hosts an event for Taparia and meets Vishal, a man seven years her junior. She ends up kissing him.
The cameras show an emotional Shekar admitting to being heartbroken, and he walks off screen close to tears. Taparia doesn’t approve of the new pairing, and neither does Nadia’s family. Nadia tries to convince them that a relationship with a younger man is a good idea by comparing her situation with that of 39-year-old Bollywood star Priyanka Chopra, who is married to 29-year-old singer Nick Jonas. She is shot down by Taparia who says: ‘But I don’t feel [Chopra and Jonas is] a good match. They are just married but it’s not a good match. He looks so small and petite in front of her and she looks older.’
Nadia ends things with Shekar, but the cameras show her lying to her family by claiming Shekar’s the one who hasn’t told her where she stands in their relationship. So far, so suitably TV-dramatic. And then of course comes the twist ­­– Vishal dumps Nadia and she’s the one reduced to tears on screen.
Vishal claims he just didn’t feel a spark, but it seems hard to believe this 26-year-old man was on the show genuinely looking for a woman to marry. Perhaps the greater appeal was the exposure it would give him – along with packing his Instagram page with stand-up comedy clips, he appears to follow the hashtag #castingdirector.
It all just reminded me of the latest series of Love Island, when viewers speculated whether ultimate winner Ekin-Su Cülcüloğlu was there for love or to further her acting and modelling career. (Since the show finished she has left partner Davide Sanclimenti back in the UK while she works on a post-Love Island fashion deal worth a reported £1 million in LA.) But I expect dramatic love triangles and endless crying from Love Island, which has been criticised over how it treats participants and looks after their mental health. Four people linked to the show have taken their own lives, and the latest series attracted more than 1,500 complaints to TV regulator Ofcom over alleged misogynistic and bullying behaviour by male contestants. I don’t expect any of it from a show about arranged marriages. Throwing participants together on an island and encouraging them to couple up to win money, as Love Island does, is a TV stunt in the first place; Indian Matchmaking claims to be helping its participants find a spouse for life, so why is it glamorising a toxic approach to relationships?
I fear what message it sends to young viewers when a fiercely independent woman like Viral – a home-owner at 29 and one of Taparia’s clients – is called superficial because she’s not attracted to a man that Taparia has introduced her to. Viral doesn’t want to settle for less in any area of her life: ‘All of my friends who are married or engaged, they’re not as successful as my friends who are single,’ she says. ‘My friends who are damsels in distress, all are taken.’ Taparia is unhappy that Viral wants someone who is handsome (is that really so much to ask?). She complains that her criteria for a husband are too tough and says to Viral: ‘I think you’re giving more marks to beauty.’
I consider it absurd and harmful to advise, as Tapira does, that you should settle down with someone you’re not attracted to – but it’s not an unusual opinion in the South Asian community. For years, my mother imparted the same advice, which I assume she inherited from my grandparents: that I shouldn’t look for everything that I want in a man and should instead settle with whatever decent guy who comes my way. It took two years of therapy to break this pattern ­– my therapist would repeatedly ask ‘Well, do you want to emulate your mother’s romantic life?’ to which I would scream ‘No way!’ since my mother has been trapped in an unhappy marriage for as long as I could remember. ‘Then you need to disobey everything she has ever taught you about dating,’ my therapist kept reminding me.
Wise words – and exactly is what I would say to any viewers of Indian Matchmaking who are listening to Sima Taparia’s advice.
Meehika Barua (@meehikabarua) is a freelance journalist covering culture, lifestyle and social issues.


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