“In India we don’t say ‘arranged marriage.’ There is ‘marriage’ and then ‘love marriage.’” Of all the platitudes — and she spouts a lot of them — issued forth by Sima Taparia, the self-anointed top matchmaker of Mumbai and breakout star of Netflix’s “Indian Matchmaking,” none land more true than this one. It’s not as if finding husbands and wives for unpaired offspring hasn’t been a fixation of anxious parents across centuries and civilizations, even if in Europe and the United States, love may have finally entered the chat and stayed long enough to become unexceptional. But for older generations in India, parents’ finding spouses for their children has been the norm for so long that the idea of those same adult children’s marrying for “love” is still alien enough for it to occupy an entirely separate category — now a reality-TV show.
“Indian Matchmaking,” whose third season premiered on April 21, follows the immaculately coifed, highlighted and bejeweled Taparia as she steamrolls through the lives of unhappily single men and women of Indian origin mostly living in America. She promises to find them the spouses of their dreams, as long as they don’t dream for too much. The cast varies (with some fan favorites and villains occasionally brought back) but most are seemingly well-off young people, urbane and cosmopolitan, who run their own businesses and attend boutique workout classes. This season’s standouts include an emergency-room doctor named Vikash, whose god complex extends to referring to himself in the third person as Vivacious Vikash and performing solo dances to Hindi songs at his friends’ weddings (and allowing video of himself doing so to be broadcast on the show); he wants a tall Hindi-speaking girl because he’s really attached to Indian “culture.” There’s Bobby, the over-energetic teacher who performs a math-themed rap that ends with him snarling “mathematics, boiii” at the screen. Arti from Miami lists weekly visits to Costco as her hobby.
The activities that these aspirant matchees choose for the dates they go on (wine tastings, yoga with baby goats) are straight out of gentrified Williamsburg. Interspersed in between these scenes are cameos from their stony-faced parents, astrologers dispensing sex advice, face readers, tarot-card readers and Taparia’s own peremptory admonishments reminding them that they’re never getting everything they want in a partner, so they better start lowering their expectations now.
She promises to find them the spouses of their dreams, as long as they don’t dream for too much.
That she has not yet made a single match resulting in marriage over the course of two seasons and 16 episodes has deterred neither Taparia herself nor the makers of the show from continuing this Sisyphean journey into a third. She is not one to suffer from impostor syndrome or even, apparently, introspection, so her matchmaking methodology remains resolutely unchanged. The only big departure this time around is the expansion of her hunting grounds to Britain, where she commences her reign of terror in London by telling a 35-year-old divorcee named Priya that she “should not be so much picky.”
To people like me, who grew up in this third-party matchmaking milieu, Sima Taparia or Sima Aunty (a nickname she gives herself) is just that — an aunty, an archetype we’ve known and avoided all our lives: the obnoxious and overbearing relative, neighbor or acquaintance with zero sense of boundaries. But to the global audiences who eagerly lapped up “Indian Matchmaking” during the early months of the pandemic, Taparia was a delightful novelty, in one moment tossing bon mots of conjugal wisdom with the serenity of an all-knowing sibyl (“You will only get 60 to 70 percent of what you want; you will never get 100 percent”) and in the next moment ordering a female client to get rid of her “high standards” with the brusqueness of a guidance counselor breaking it to an overzealous student that they’re not getting into Harvard.
In India, the business of parents seeking brides and grooms for their children is a cruel and cutthroat one, having originated as a way to preserve caste endogamy.
Throughout history, the coming together of two people in matrimony (holy or otherwise) has never been just about the union itself — it is the broader institution that reveals the deepest anxieties (financial, religious or racial) undergirding a society. “Indian Matchmaking” bills itself as just any other show about the caprices of trying to find love in a hostile world. It is predicated on the idea that seeking the help of someone as quaintly old-fashioned as a matchmaker is superior to the travails of dating online, where one must undergo far worse indignities like being ghosted or breadcrumbed. Here, at least, relationship expectations are mutual, and after all, what is a “biodata” (a curiously-named document Taparia uses in her practice) if not the same exaggerated dating-app profile but in résumé form and with fewer wince-inducing mentions about loving tacos and pizza.
But in India, the business of parents seeking brides and grooms for their children is a cruel and cutthroat one, having originated as a way to preserve caste endogamy, and it continues to be fraught with violence from every side, a reality that is at odds with the show’s portrayal of the process as a decorous, civilized exchange that takes place over tea and manners. The most pernicious aspects are hidden behind a flimsy veneer of fabricated gentility, apparent in the many euphemistic phrases in which Taparia, the singles she is matching and their parents communicate. The show’s title itself reads like an awkward, faux-anthropological translation, when in reality, the Indian here in “Indian Matchmaking” is merely a stand-in for outrageously wealthy, landed upper-caste Hindus (with an exception here and there).
Caste, one of the most malicious forces still dictating India’s social fabric, is gingerly intimated by low-voiced mumblings of “same community.” Openly declaring that you want to marry someone filthy rich would be uncouth, so the words “good family, good upbringing” are uttered frequently. Women cannot afford to be “picky.” Women have to be “flexible.” They must also learn how to “compromise.” My personal favorite of these, though, is “adjust,” one of the hardest-working euphemisms in Indian English, whose meaning linguistically can range from the squeezed addition of a third backside on a bus seat meant to fit only two, to a man’s parents’ demanding that the girl foredoomed to marry their son give up her professional career to pursue full-time daughter-in-law activities. Curiously enough, the men are spared the brunt of such exhortations.
“In marriage, every desire becomes a decision,” remarked Susan Sontag in 1956, a strikingly trenchant line that I recalled when watching the show’s participants being quizzed about their “criteria” for a potential spouse. Initially, they start out reciting millennial-speak straight out of the 2012 twee-internet era: the desire for someone “kind” with a “sense of humor.” But upon further prodding, out come tumbling the real demands, the decisions that display that their modernity hasn’t yet overcome the inherited prejudices that govern this entire phenomenon. Costco-obsessed Arti cannot help mentioning that her father would have really, really, really loved for her to marry someone from her “community.” Vivacious Vikash, meanwhile, for all his insistence on Indian “culture,” forgot to specify that he wanted a Hindi-speaking girl from America (a “same community” of its own) and not the “very Indian” woman with the Indian accent that Sima Aunty found for him.
Source photographs: Netflix