Let’s Discuss Caste and Colorism in ‘Indian Matchmaking’
My roommates in Rome, co-workers in Washington, D.C., and friends in New Delhi all have something to say about Netflix’s new reality series, which pulls back the curtain on a facet of arranged marriages in India and the South Asian diaspora, matchmaking. For the few who have managed to miss the show’s viral popularity, matchmaker “Sima Taparia from Mumbai” works to connect her clients across the world with suitable candidates for marriage. The key word here is suitable, which in the world of Indian Matchmaking means upper caste, light-skinned, Hindu, nondisabled, straight, thin, tall, educated, and employed.
The research on arranged marriage’s popularity over time is largely inconclusive, but as Taparia explains when stating, “there’s marriage and then there’s love marriage,” formal and informal matchmaking is still a common practice in South Asia and the diaspora. Though the show is hardly representative of every South Asian’s path to marriage (for one, Taparia’s services cost $2,000 to $5,400, far out of reach for most families), the types of discriminatory and exclusionary practices central to arranged marriages and matchmaking depicted in the show are as widespread as they seem.
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On its surface, the show is painfully relatable for many women, not just South Asians, for laying bare the double standards between men and women in relationships. Aparna Shewakramani, Matchmaking’s breakout star, was constantly described by Taparia as overly negative, unstable, and stubborn when she rejected suitors, but male leads who rejected hundreds of female matches were portrayed as selective and discerning. The women were constantly told by the matchmaker, their families, and religious advisors that they had to be “flexible” or “willing to adjust” if a potential husband wanted to move to a new country for his career or wanted his wife to radically change her habits and lifestyle after marriage, but the men were never expected to adapt. Another one of the female leads, Ankita Bansal, was described by Taparia as someone for whom it would be very hard to find a match because she was “not photogenic,” despite the fact that Bansal is objectively beautiful and, in fact, extremely photogenic. In reality, Taparia was referring to the fact that Bansal was perhaps not as light-skinned or thin as the South Asian ideal.
The show is painfully relatable for many women, not just South Asians, for laying bare the double standards between men and women in relationships.
Similarly relatable is Sima Auntie, as she is often referred to on screen, as representative of so many South Asian aunties, especially in her tendency to overpromise and underdeliver. This is never truer than when she assures the mother of one of her clients that she often meets a client one day, they’re engaged the next day, and married the third. This promise and her title as “India’s top matchmaker” are especially baffling in light of the fact that not a single one of her matches led to marriage. Taparia’s constant complaints about how difficult her clients will be to find matches for, their unreasonable pickiness, and projections that finding candidates willing to accept many of her clients may be impossible can lead the viewer to wonder how Taparia ever made a career out of her matchmaking services if she holds her clients in such low esteem and is so regularly convinced that even she will not be able to find them suitors.
Despite Taparia’s seeming ineptitude, the answer is simple, though euphemisms like Bansal’s “photogenic-”ness as well as “good family,” “community background,” and “good upbringing,” render the truth likely invisible to audiences less familiar with the nuances of South Asian culture. As the current pandemic makes clear the failings of Western hyper individualism, it may seem that the appeal of Taparia’s services is in providing a solution that places increased value on family, community, compromise, and respecting the wisdom of elders. However, the reality is that the practice of arranged marriage has its roots in enforcing the hegemony of upper-caste South Asians and its normalization continues to support exclusionary homogeny to this day while hiding behind phrases like “introducing two people who normally would not have met,” or “making sure values and culture are compatible,” to ostensibly increase the relationship’s odds of success. That’s a huge part of why matchmaking and arranged marriage have survived relatively unchanged as many other parts of traditional South Asian culture become increasingly Westernized.
To assume that caste plays no factor in marriage in the modern day would be optimistic to the point of foolishness, as around 90% of South Asian marriages are still within one’s caste. Some studies put this percentage at as high as 95%. Despite many characters saying caste wasn’t an issue for them, each biodata or personal dating resume shown on-screen still noted the character’s “community background” often followed by a caste name or caste-adjacent term like an ancestral last name or a village name. The rampant colorism displayed on the show is also hardly unrelated to caste, since skin color is often used as a proxy for caste. Taparia even admits that caste is central in her matchmaking process, stating in the first episode, “In India, we have to see the caste, we have to see the height, we have to see the age.”
But maintaining caste purity isn’t just endemic to Sima Auntie matchmakers. Conferences across the world have been created for the explicit and implicit purpose of arranging marriages within caste, caste has yet to disappear from matrimonial listings in newspapers, and matrimonial sites and dating apps don’t just allow users to select by caste but often actively require disclosing one’s caste or “community” when creating a profile.
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This issue isn’t just one for anti-caste activists, it’s a feminist issue as well. As Suraj Yengde states in “Apartheid in Fancy Dress,” “Brahmanical [arranged] marriages profoundly undermine women,” explaining that the Indian Development Human Survey found that only 55% of families took their daughter’s input before settling an arranged marriages and recounting the sexual violence historically experienced by women of lower castes within the confines of the arranged marriage system. These days, women who marry outside their caste often face murder or violence from their or their husband’s families.
The rampant colorism displayed on the show is also hardly unrelated to caste, since skin color is often used as a proxy for caste.
Arranged marriage can be successful for individual South Asians and, perhaps, so can matchmaking, despite whatever does or does not happen on and offscreen in Indian Matchmaking. Further, many South Asians and South Asian Americans do not engage with the practice of marriage for the explicit or conscious reason of perpetuating caste-based or any other type of discrimination. However, these realities do not erase or counteract the violence that Dalits, religious minorities, disabled South Asians, and so many more experience due to practice of families and communities arbitrating their worth from a collection of traits written on a biodata. For a series seeking to explore the unfiltered reality of the Indian matchmaking system, the exclusion of these discussions from the show’s narrative is not just careless, it’s dangerous.
Though the show succeeded in showing the real discrimination that divorcees and Indo-Caribbeans face in South Asia and the diaspora, it has received widespread criticism for its failure to highlight the similar struggles queer or Muslim South Asians experience while dating by not featuring any on-screen. However, these critiques only capture part of the problem. It is impossible for every show to cover every facet of every community and the expectation for all South Asian American media to be fully representative of every facet of the community often says more about the dearth of representation than the content itself.
The real solution isn’t just more representative casting or for Taparia to take on a more diverse set of clients, it requires that a show premised on providing a look inside South Asian matchmaking culture actually address on-screen the prejudice and exclusion central to the institution it documents rather than pretending they don’t exist through selective omission.