Months after its release, Netflix’s Indian Matchmaking continues to leave a bad taste in people’s mouth, mostly because of its archaic take on arranged marriages in India, or just marriages in general. While I had sat down to catch up on a few episodes, watching Sima Taparia from Mumbai match her clients was agonising. Her piece-to-camera justifying why she does what she does, and how destiny, fate, heaven, stars etc., play a bigger role in bringing two persons together, were off-putting to say the least. It didn’t help either that some of her clients held disconcerting views on marriage and togetherness.
Which is why, the Australian reality series Love on the Spectrum — currently streaming on Netflix — pleasantly surprised me when I first began to watch it, not fully aware of what it had to offer. Documenting the love lives of people who are on the autism spectrum, the show proffers a healthier, funnier take on human emotions — a fresh departure from prosaic shows à la Indian Matchmaking.
Five episodes long, we are introduced to at least three storylines per episode. Each person documented in the show is on the autism spectrum, which means they have developmental disabilities, which make it challenging for them to pick up on significant social and communication cues. Dating, therefore, is a novel experience for almost all of them. But, they are aided by the show’s creators — specifically director Cian O’Clery, who is heard occasionally from behind the camera, asking specific questions to the participants — and experts, who join them every so often, to offer some help to people who have never been on a date before.
In the first episode, we are introduced to Michael who is certain he wants to become a husband. While he has never been in love, his optimism about finding a wife is endearing. Michael’s witticisms make for an interesting watch, even when things get awkward for him. Then, there is Chloe, a 19-year-old girl with autism spectrum disorder (ASD). Chloe realises early on that she likes women more than men, having been on dates with both the sexes. This leads her to Lotus, a giggly conversation in a sunflower garden, and a promise to meet again.
Thomas and Ruth are already in love. They have simple plans for the future, like buying their dream house. Ruth lovingly calls Thomas a fellow ‘aspie’ (person who has Asperger syndrome, also on the spectrum), and Thomas cannot take his eyes off of her. They are shown as engaged, with plans to settle down in the future. Just like them, Jimmy and Sharnae are a couple, too, and by the end of the series, there is a proposal and some happy tears.
Olivia, Kelvin, Andrew, Maddi and Mark are single. They have never been in love before; neither have they been on a date before the show. But, they do have a fair idea of what it may feel like to be in love. As we progress, their lives unravel piece by piece — much like Andrew’s penchant for solving jigsaw puzzles.
With their own quirks, gifts and distinctive tastes, the participants bring many interesting emotions to the table, including their disappointment when a date has not quite been to their liking.
There are some sentimental moments in the series, like when their parents share their joy at watching them go on dates. Or when they discuss what they should be wearing, so as to impress a prospective partner (also on the spectrum). You can tell they are as hopeful and invested. At one point, a father breaks down in front of the camera, sharing how it crushes him every time his son says that he wishes he was ‘normal’, just like everybody else. Or when another dad says bringing up a child with behavioural issues nearly broke his marriage.
In a world that is obsessed with heteronormativity and putting everyone is labelled boxes, Love on the Spectrum unobtrusively and respectfully brings these lives into the mainstream. It normalises disability and at least starts a dialogue around what it is like to live with ASD.
In one of the episodes, Olivia — who lives alone, and is a theatre artist — beautifully describes the heartbreaking reality of her life. She tells her date and the viewers that while disability does not ‘look like anything’, there is always a feeling that she is inside a transparent box, not really being able to reach out to people. As such, they cannot take a peek inside her mind and she cannot converse with them.
Maybe, Olivia is not inside a box. Perhaps none of them is. Maybe it is our own mind that is locked up somewhere, and all we need is a key to open it.
Would it ever be possible to document the lives of Indians who are living on the autism spectrum, and who, like their Australian counterparts are seeking love? This is a question I have been asking myself, and much to my dismay, I haven’t found concrete answers. As a society, we are still dismissive of a lot of issues that are, in fact, a reality for many. Mental health continues to be an obscure topic, and same sex relationships are still taboo. All of this makes me think that it is highly unlikely that we will get an Indian variant of the show anytime soon, even though it continues to be a wishful dream.
If you are planning to watch Love on the Spectrum this week, make sure you sit down with a box of tissues, because there’s going to be tears, many tears.