Written by Amitesh Grover
The series director of Indian Matchmaking, Smriti Mundhra, pitched the idea of the show to a TV producer a decade back, but the show was rejected for “essentially not being white enough”. Mundhra, after having produced a similar show titled A Suitable Girl, pitched the show to Netflix, which found it “super exciting”.
The eight-part series, which everyone can’t stop talking about, chronicles the business of matchmaking in India — the arranged Indian marriage — through the elite clients (both NRI and resident Indians) of a Mumbai-based matchmaker. Frankly, I fail to see what is exciting or new about the show, except the fact that it intends to pivot the gaze of a global audience around the voyeuristic gratification of watching Indians express unfamiliar desires that are strange and cringe-worthy. The profit-guided intention of the show is to demonstrate (and oversell) Indianness, and what better way to do it than to insist that the practice of Indianness, or indeed a return to it (in the case of NRIs) is possible in the tacit acceptance of one of its central traditional institutions — the arranged marriage. Following the ideological winds that blow, the series focuses exclusively on the Hindu custom of arranged marriage as the Indian Matchmaking ritual.
Arranged marriages have long been the norm in South Asian societies. The majority of Asians, especially Indians, have their marriages planned by their parents and other elders of the family. While recent studies suggest that Indian culture is trending away from traditional arranged marriages, still fewer marriages are purely arranged without parental consent and that the majority of surveyed Indian marriages are arranged with consent.
Love marriages (or self-arranged marriages) are still an exception to the norm, and are associated more with urban living and a generally progressive outlook, particularly in the urban parts of India. Love marriages in off-urban parts do exist, but not without traumatic incidents that lead to “honour killings” or of stories that entail runaway brides/grooms. Rarer, still, are the interfaith marriages. Several major religions are mute on the issue, and still others allow it with requirements for ceremony and custom.
In sharp contrast to the cliched narratives and desires of privileged Indians in Indian Matchmaking, here is a real life story that has all the makings of a thrilling docu-series on Indian weddings — my best friend at theatre school had an interfaith love marriage with his long-time lover, daughter of the very person responsible for his father’s killing.
A generation ago, my friend’s parents fell in love and committed to an interfaith wedding which, back in early 1970s in rural India, was far more uncommon than it is today. The village’s sarpanch threatened the newly-wedded couple with dire consequences, came armed with unemployed but eager musclemen (aren’t they always), and successfully drove them out of the village. His real prize came later when his men began squatting at the tiny piece of land the family tilled and owned, which he grabbed in his name eventually.
After years of living as poor migrant labourers, my friend’s parents decided to return to their ancestral village hoping to find a less hostile neighbourhood and their abandoned house dilapidated but still standing. Within days of their return, the sarpanch sent a party of hitmen who accosted his father at the local market and beat him so badly that he succumbed to his injuries hours later. His mother, instead of fleeing the village in fear, took guard in front of her four children and vowed never to set foot outside the village again.
What followed was a tough life of social isolation in a village so small that none of the houses had a proper address. The direction to every house was described by keeping other houses in relation to the destination. My friend’s postal address was “the house behind the blue one and next to the peepul tree”. Yes, this was a real address and so was his family’s solitariness while growing up. His mother was a gifted classical singer, and she kept her children close, loved, and protected from resentment by singing to them every evening.
My friend — let’s call him A — grew up learning ragas and talas on the back of his hand, and decided to earn a living by opening a self-run school of music on the outskirts of what was now his small town in middle India. A gentle young girl — let’s call her K — took admission and began learning music from him, and soon started putting in extra hours to stay back longer. She didn’t possess the gift of music, neither the throat nor the ear for it, but she was besotted with her teacher. A, her teacher, was a few years younger than her, but one who did not ever display the careless boyishness of others his age around him.
A and K fell in love, but their histories caught up with them. Weeks into their romance, they discovered the respective families they came from. K was the daughter of the very man — the sarpanch — who had had A’s father killed and who had driven his family into a life of isolation. Torn apart by ethics and morality, compounded by the fact that they belonged to different faiths, they decided to keep their love under wraps for years.
A came to Delhi to learn theatre, and K came to visit him occasionally under the guise of some official work or another. Finally, after six long years of being in love, they decided to tell A’s mother about their relationship. Upon hearing the news, his mother broke into tears, kissed her boy on his forehead and vowed to protect them from any future harm.
Later that year, they came to Delhi and got wedded on the fifth floor of a building that was still under construction. So fearful they were of the violent threats which the girl’s family had issued upon hearing the news of their marriage that they did not wish to rent a building with a half-decent address. Weeks before the wedding, A’s family strategically moved towns knowing very well that their ancestral village would no longer be the place for their future lives. Meanwhile, K simply plotted her own disappearance from her house one night, and never returned to visit her family again. She knew that if she ever did, she will be shot by her father who had blood on his hands of the very family that she had decided to embrace for life.
At the wedding, A’s mother sang in raga Shivranjini, the musical composition meant for the time when the bride leaves her parental house. A’s mother insisted that she represents the girl in the absence of her family at the wedding. She had no hesitation in disowning her son temporarily in favour of adopting her husband’s murderer’s daughter as her own. I don’t remember how this wedding ended because I was struggling to keep my tears to myself through it. A decade and half later, their family is settled well, strong and happy as never before.
Some Indian weddings are not a stale pursuit of preserving obsolete hegemonies of caste and patriarchy. Some Indian weddings are an avowal of love and togetherness.
The writer, a performer, director and curator, is Assistant Professor at the National School of Drama