Three years back, I watched a documentary called A Suitable Girl, which tracks three Indian young women trying to find a balance between being themselves and being married. The subject wasn’t new, but it was done with empathy and sensitivity.
Co-produced and directed by Sarita Khurana and Smriti Mundhra, the 130-minute documentary cuts back and forth between its three main subjects, Dipti, Amrita and Ritu, separated by class and location but united by their goal of marriage being an end-game, buttressed, of course, by their families. Dipti’s desire to get married is so strong that it subsumes all else. City girl Amrita marries a businessman who lives in small-town Rajasthan, only to become an ‘adarsh bahu’, expert manager of home and hearth. Ritu’s mother, ‘alliance counsellor’ Seema Taparia, finds herself struggling to find a perfect match for her daughter. She finally produces one, and Ritu pragmatically heads towards a Dubai-based professional, who has a ‘chauffeur-driven car and servants.’
I flashed back to the documentary while I was watching Indian Matchmaking, Netflix latest reality show on arranged marriages through the eyes of a matchmaker named Sima Taparia. Yes, the very same ‘alliance counsellor’ Seema of the earlier film, who has metamorphosed into a much more polished and made-up version of herself, apart from having changed the spelling of her name. Clearly, her status has also changed. We now see her hobnobbing with people who have a certain level of wealth, much more so than in the earlier film: clearly Sima Aunty, as her ‘clients’ call her, has done well for herself.
Mundhra, who has gone on record about having hired the services of Sima Aunty back when she was looking for a match for herself, has created and executive-produced Indian Matchmaking. The overarching narration which connects ‘Indian culture’ and ‘arranged marriages’, without talking of any exceptions, makes it problematic from the get-go. It’s one thing to make a spare, quiet documentary, about those three girls and their journey towards marriage. It’s quite another to create such a show for a streaming platform which will have a much larger audience, which keeps out of its purview those desis, in India and abroad, who have not had arranged marriages. Apart from focussing on the ‘wanting to get settled with a suitable match’ younger people, the show gives us happy snapshots of older couples who have done thirty years and more: you want happiness? Here you go.
The documentary wisely let us listen to the girls talking about themselves and what they want most. But the matchmaker is a proud behalf-ist. In all eight episodes of the show, Sima Aunty talks loftily about how Indian parents and Indians ‘girls and boys’ should ‘compromise and adjust’, which is the only mantra for marital manna. She takes her ‘bio-datas’ to a ‘face reader’ (who had a starring role in the earlier movie too), who takes one quick look at the photo, and says yes, no, yes, no. Also, no kundali-match? No go.
Framing the story of three girls and their parents, in a non-judgemental way, gave us a narrow-focussed but honest portrayal of the pressure on young women and their families to get them ‘married off’. But the show is judgy from the get-go, and its worst sin is dissing a successful woman for being too ‘stubborn’. Seriously? In this day and age, a woman who has ambition is wrong? Of course, she doesn’t find a match, and the hard-working matchmaker sorrowfully shakes her head. Also, if a girl is tall and beautiful and slim and trim (oh yes, this is an actual line), her chances shoot up. If she is dusky, hmm, well, we’ll see. Fair and lovely wins the game every time, right? Those fighting against colourism, go stand in that corner.
The show doesn’t bother looking for young women whose sole ambition is not to get married, or a girl who wants to junk the whole marriage thing, saying she is quite happy where she is. The first instance of a woman who doesn’t want to go down this route, is to be found as late as the sixth episode, but even she is told that she needs a life coach to ‘shift’ her attitude, and yes, girls and boys, she does.
Why not have the ‘matchmaker’ say that the show is representative of a certain section of Indian society? Why not have contrarian voices balance out the narrative right from the beginning? This just reinforces not just the Western concept of Indians and their obsession with big fat marriages, but also those Indians who think that marriage is the be-all and end-all of all existence.
The men and the women we see in the series are mostly based in the US, and care has been taken to include different backgrounds. There’s a wistfulness to a few of them, and when they talk about their vulnerabilities, of being lonely and wanting companionship, is the only time you actually listen to this show. Some of these people come across as genuinely nice, and you do wish them well. But a couple of the guys (desis who live in India) come off as shockingly entitled (no surprise), in their constant waffling, and ‘rejecting 70 or 80 girls.’ And then you see where they are coming from: if you have a mother whose ‘bp will come down’ only when there is a suitable bahu for her darling beta, what can the said ‘beta’ do?
Also, given everything is so transactional in the business of Big Fat Indian Marriages, why do we never hear of any money? Sima Aunty’s ‘commission’ is something which is never discussed: she keeps talking of how giving happiness makes her happy, but no free lunches, right?
Under the guise of giving us a detailed look at a culture which privileges marriage amongst ‘equal’ families and not individuals, all kinds of classist, casteist stereotypes gets an airing. (‘See he is also half-Guyanese, I’m sure you both will match well’. ‘He’s also Sikh, it will be good’). Especially galling is the way independent-minded women are shown the door. And Sima Aunty has a get out jail card free up her sleeve. Of course, she does. Sab kuchh oopar waley ke haath mein hai, she says: she can keep finding matches, but if it isn’t ‘written’, then there’s nothing she can do. Talk about having your match and eating it too.
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