Netflix’s <em>Indian Matchmaking</em> and the Shadow of Caste

Culture The popular reality series is a tacit defense of arranged marriages and the role they play in upho

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This story contains some spoilers for Season 1 of Indian Matchmaking.

“Marriages are breaking like biscuits.”

The Mumbai-based matchmaker Sima Taparia delivers this meme-friendly one-liner in the seventh episode of the hit Netflix series Indian Matchmaking. Her sentiment seems antithetical to the title of the show, in which she travels tirelessly between Mumbai, Houston, San Diego, and Delhi to find the “perfect match” for her clients. Indian Matchmaking joins other recent reality dating series such as Love Is Blind and Too Hot to Handle—except the first dates are often in the company of one or both sets of the daters’ parents and the sex is nonexistent. In her questions about her clients’ preferences and her scrutiny of their lifestyles (and closets), Taparia is no different from any other matchmaker who promises relationships that can last forever. But she departs from this well-worn model in her attention to one extra characteristic: caste.

This silent shadow hangs over every luxurious living room she leads viewers into. “In India, we have to see the caste, we have to see the height, we have to see the age,” Taparia, the show’s central narrator and driving force, says in the first four minutes of the series. She lumps an entire social system, which assigns people to a fixed place in a hierarchy from birth, together with anodyne physical preferences. Though it’s rarely mentioned by name on the show, caste appears on almost every criteria list that Taparia’s marriage-hopefuls lay out. By coding caste in harmless phrases such as “similar backgrounds,” “shared communities,” and “respectable families,” the show does exactly what many upper-caste Indian families tend to do when discussing this fraught subject: It makes caste invisible.

The pervasiveness of caste in Indian communities, even beyond the ambit of arranged marriages, has dangerous consequences for those of us born into “lower” castes. (I myself am Dalit, the self-chosen identity for people formerly known as “untouchables.”)

This prejudiced treatment includes, but is hardly limited to, workplace discrimination in the United States. For example, the state of California sued the tech company Cisco in June for allegedly failing to protect a Dalit employee from discrimination by his higher-caste Brahmin managers. When a popular show like Indian Matchmaking neglects this alarming fact of the Indian American experience, it quietly normalizes caste for a global audience.

Contrary to what some viewers might think, the caste system is an active form of discrimination that persists in India and within the Indian American diaspora. One of the primary functions of arranged marriage is maintaining this status quo. This can be confirmed by a cursory glance at matrimonial columns in Indian newspapers, which are full of “Caste Wanted” headlines, or at the ubiquitous matchmaking websites that promise to help users find an upper-caste “Brahmin bride” or “Rajput boy” while filtering profiles from lower castes. Marrying into the same caste of one’s birth is not, as Indian Matchmaking might suggest, a benign choice akin to finding someone who “matches your background” or has “similar values.” It’s a practice that helps dominant-caste folks preserve their power.

Caste, much like race, is an identity that you can’t change, erase, or escape. Marriage, especially between “dominant” and “untouchable” castes, can pose a threat to that hierarchy. That explains why people in dominant castes often carry out brutal violence toward their own family members who dare to marry outside their caste, particularly if a partner is Dalit. Just two weeks ago, three brothers from a dominant caste in India’s Uttar Pradesh state allegedly killed their sister for marrying a lower-caste man and shot the husband in the stomach. Last year, in Maharashtra, a father reportedly doused his daughter and her Dalit husband with kerosene and lit them on fire to condemn their intercaste marriage.

These attacks are part of a pattern of families punishing relatives for rejecting marriages arranged on the basis of caste. For Netflix’s Indian Matchmaking, that broader context appears to be irrelevant; the show seems to not only approve of arranged marriages but also champion them with casteist glee. Multiple episodes open with When Harry Met Sally–esque interviews featuring mostly older, straight couples in seemingly happy arranged marriages. (Same-sex marriages are not legally recognized in India.) The couples reminisce about their first meetings, many of which took place on the day of their wedding. They reveal that the choices that shaped the rest of their lives were made for them by family members, and yet they somehow still ended up deeply in love.

In the second episode, Taparia herself details how she got married at age 19 to a man chosen by her father. The camera follows her husband as he brings her a cup of tea while she stressfully combs through her clients’ “marriage bio-data,” as the résumé-style list of qualifications is called. The sequence all but confirms their loving relationship. Not only does nearly every marriage-hopeful admit that they changed their mind about arranged unions, but the series also ends with a glowing tribute to the tradition. A wholesome montage shows husband-and-wife pairs who joke around and tease each other before sharing how long they’ve been together (from less than 24 hours to 50 years).

Of course, many marriages arranged by the parents and families of the couple turn out to be perfectly sweet and happy. But many also come with a loss of agency, especially for the woman, who must be “flexible” and “adjust” to the norms of her husband’s family, as the show points out. The bride is almost always expected to bring with her a sizable dowry. Even darker, wives who experience controlling behavior, domestic abuse, or marital rape (which is not a crime in India) are socially conditioned to suffer silently.

The success of Indian Americans as so-called model minorities in the U.S. has been attributed to lasting marriages and strong family ties. But the happily-ever-after ideal of arranged marriage is beginning to show cracks. More young Indians and Indian Americans are rejecting the practice or walking out of partnerships that don’t work. Even Indian Matchmaking features at least three story lines about divorce, although the show is clear that leaving a marriage still carries stigma. In the episode dispassionately titled “Marriages Are Breaking Like Biscuits,” the series explores the stories of divorced individuals from both arranged and non-arranged marriages. The show illustrates how difficult it is for these clients to find a match in the caste-driven market, at times implying that being able to easily end a marriage may be a bad thing.

Sima Taparia visits a client, Rupam, to help her find a partner after divorce. (Netflix)

Despite Indian Matchmaking largely ignoring caste, the show, to its credit, doesn’t entirely gloss over the less-than-desirable aspects of arranged marriage. Some episodes highlight families or clients with unconventional pasts—such as the fan-favorite high-school counselor Vyasar. In one episode, Rupam—a 36-year-old single mom who divorced her cheating partner—successfully finds a match, not with Taparia’s help, but on good ol’ Bumble. Other installments examine the pressure that unmarried individuals can face from their married friends and siblings.

In one scene, Akshay, a 25-year-old who went to college in Boston and lives with his rich, Mumbai-based family, is accosted by his mother; she asks him to take a photo of a blood-pressure machine displaying her high reading, which she claims is a result of him not finding a partner. She then gives him three “options” of women to choose from, and declares that if he can’t make up his mind, she and his father will make the choice for him. For anyone, including myself, who doesn’t meet the neat requisites for arranged marriage and has had to fend off well-intentioned yet emotionally abusive family members, that sequence has enough material to generate weeks of trauma.

Since its debut, the series has drawn criticism from Indian and U.S. media for sidestepping issues of colorism, dowry, sexism, body shaming, and, yes, caste. Though the show is called Indian Matchmaking, it portrays no couples who identify as Muslim, Christian, or Dalit—communities that represent close to 40 percent of India’s 1 billion–plus population. Yet the series has also generated the kind of intense conversation that many shows with nonwhite story lines can only dream of creating. Memes, essays, and long Twitter threads flooded both desi and non-desi corners of the internet almost immediately after the show’s release. Many think pieces have labeled the series cringeworthy and problematic for presenting the requirements for an ideal bride (essentially a tall, slim girl from a high caste who can “compromise”) without challenging them. Some writers have complained that the show depicts South Asian culture as “burdensome,” while others have defended it for accurately portraying how Indian marriages are made.

The show’s creator, Smriti Mundhra, an Oscar-nominated filmmaker who directed a documentary about arranged marriage in 2017, told The Cut that she welcomes critiques of her show: “I want to be held accountable. Push me so I can push, too,” she said. Mundhra’s biggest blind spot is her complicity in the normalization of Hindu upper-caste culture as larger Indian culture. Many Indian Americans argue that it’s unfair when works of pop culture expose the ugly underbelly of our societies for the rest of the world to witness. But it’d be wrong to assume that these issues no longer exist or affect most people, especially Dalits such as myself, who sometimes spend our entire lives being wounded by these cultural minefields.

Indian Matchmaking doesn’t deserve criticism for holding up a mirror to the diaspora’s uncomfortable realities. It deserves scrutiny because it promotes a practice that has enabled caste to live, breathe, and mutate over centuries. Indian Matchmaking allows a few jagged edges to remain as it tries to assure skeptical viewers that, ultimately, Indian arranged marriages aren’t that bad. And that is the most chilling aspect of the show.

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