The fault does not lie in the stars.
Indian Matchmaking and
gender representations

by Ishita Tiwary

In the summer of 2020, in the early stages of the pandemic, like many others I got even more hooked to binge watching as a way of coping with the uncertainty and the stress of the world around us. I discovered a new-found appreciation for and morbid fascination with reality television. One such show, which seemed to be generating headlines, was Indian Matchmaking (2020/dir. Smriti Mudra) on Netflix. It was also the show that I had earlier been most resistant to watching. Because its narrative featured a “suitable girl” whose parents were on the lookout to get her “settled,” the show’s premise seemed to hit too close to home. Born and raised in South Asia and currently residing in North America, I found myself surprised that everybody around me not from that region seemed to be obsessing about the show and bombarding me with queries about the arranged marriage process in India.

With my curiosity now piqued, going against my own instincts, I grudgingly start watching Indian Matchmaking. My first impression of the show was how particular phrases were often used—“the girl has to be flexible,” “she should adjust, compromise,” “willing to be flexible, compromise,” “Isn’t marriage compromise?” These statements presented the thesis of the show wrapped in a glossy aesthetic. It has a mise-en-scene that highlights the lives of the uber-rich. It is either set in India, or it shows the tall skyscrapers in the United States where privileged immigrants reside. Cinematographically, it uses soft focus and soft lighting to frame the mid-shot talking heads. The aesthetic gives a veneer of glamour to the practice of arranged marriage.

As I noted, I was resistant to watching Indian Matchmaking. For many of my friends and me, the show was painful to watch as it reinforced the status quo of gender and caste hierarchies, was obsessed with the “fair skin” of a prospective match, and seemed to villainize the highly successful, independent women on the show. The show served as a manifestation of an institution that my friends and I actively work to resist, despite the intense familial pressures we face.

Curiously, or rather frustratingly, many of my non-Indian friends in North America loved the show and were puzzled by my resistance to arranged marriage as they found it a reasonable mode of dating and finding a match. This reception startled me, and made me go back to look at the coverage of the show in India. Going through the news coverage and social media, it was clear that many women found the show triggering in the way it reduced representations of intelligent, ambitious, successful women to a set of stereotypical adjectives and how it glorified arranged marriage as a harmless, quirky alternative to dating. Reception of the show in India was one of horror, at least amongst the small progressive elite. When discussing the show online, they circulated the hashtag #cringebinge.[1] [open endnotes in new window] One of the male contestants, for example, Vyasar, admitted that the show was “painful to watch” in the way it discussed and represented the women on screen.[2]

The show’s refusal to address caste was also noticed by commentators. It was noted that 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.'”[3]

The show’s director, Smriti Mudhra argues that the show does acknowledge the participants’ anxieties and discomfort with the process, in the way the camera pans repeatedly to the uncertainty or scepticism on their faces, or zooms in on clenched hands that tell their own story.[4] And most people who watch reality television enjoy its fantastic situations. As one viewer noted,

“It is a reality show, with the emphasis on show as much as on reality. So, let’s cut the producers some slack for giving in to commercial considerations and making it more a drama than documentary.”[5]

Such comments illustrate how understanding the representational strategy of the show is crucial to understanding its reception and critique. As I will argue, the tension between the show’s form and reception indicates that its mode of address is oriented towards a western audience. My own reception of the show and discussion of it across social media and Indian think pieces seem to confirm this orientation. However, the show’s genre nature and popularity escape an intense level of scrutiny.

The contours of arranged marriage in India are shaped by gender politics. The woman is subject to judgement and has to show her willingness to make the marriage work. Indian Matchmaking is set up in this way to elicit such a judgmental audience reading of gender expectations. Thus, to explicate a gender analysis of Indian Matchmaking, one needs to look at how notions of Indian womanhood are constructed in popular discourse and what role these concepts of “womanhood” play within the domestic and conjugal sphere. Seeing these notions as ideological is key in order to understand the arranged marriage setup in India and the way it is explicated in the show’s universe. Such an analysis is useful because it also clues us in more generally to how women are represented in Indian film and media.

The construction of Indian womanhood in popular anti-colonial and colonial discourses hinges on the woman being a representation of tradition and nation (Mani, 1989; Chakravarti, 1989). The site of the home in this discourse is seen as a feminine sphere, where tradition is maintained by women through female modesty, dress codes, and the use of a vernacular idiom in the “natural” habitat of home (Chatterjee, 1989; Kaviraj 1989). This notion of womanhood is constructed through both the imagination of and the social enforcement of the conjugal sphere, hence the importance of marriage in Indian society. Although instances of love marriages are on the rise, arranged marriages are still the status quo. 90% of marriages in India still go through this route. Arrangements are made now through the aid of matrimonial columns in newspapers, matrimonial apps and websites, family priests, relatives, neighbours or the “ matchmaking aunty.”[6] In that case, a matchmaking aunty is either a professional or an acquaintance of the family on the lookout for a prospective match for their friends’ daughters/sons. Using her social and kinship networks, this matchmaking aunty facilitates potential conjugal matches for the families to evaluate.

In Indian Matchmaking, this role is taken on by the lead protagonist Sima Taparia. The matchmaking aunty facilitates conversation between two prospective matches and their families. Significantly, in the arranged marriage setup, marriage means not only as the coming together of two individuals but also two families. Hence social stakes are high, minimally reinforcing the status quo, optimally consolidating wealth and kinship structures. Thus, Indian Matchmaking’schoice of having the matchmaking aunty as the protagonist is canny. She functions as the distant observer yet is somebody who knows the practice intimately. This role, especially as a protagonist for a reality show, aids in helping viewers, unfamiliar with the cultural context to get a base understanding of how arranged marriages function in India.

As an Indian film and media studies scholar residing in Canada, when thinking of Indian Matchmaking aesthetically, textually, and in terms of its reception, I find it especially useful to turn towards intersectionality as a critical framework. Intersectionality, a term introduced by Kimberlé Crenshaw (2000), has been a method for understanding the simultaneity of multiple influences on the experiences of women of color. That is, as Isabel Molina-Guzmán and Lisa Marie Cacho (2014) note, feminist media scholarship has increasingly embraced the concept of “intersectionality” to discuss how race, class, gender, and sexuality need to be analysed in relation to one another rather than as either individual or additive identities. They argue that intersectional feminist media scholarship can be applied to an increasingly diverse, global, and digitally networked world. As an analytic methodology, intersectionality can also be used to examine how structures of domination intersect, such as race and heteropatriarchy.

In a post-colonial context, Radhika Parameswaran (2001), through ethnographic work in India demonstrates how gender as a category is informed by local and global culture and explains ow understanding gender in the Indian context must be further problematized through the intersection of class/caste, religious, and political identities. Parameswaran and other postcolonial feminist media scholars look at the global flows of gender through an intersectional lens to illustrate how analyses of gender must take into account gendered and racialized discourses and the geopolitical spaces in which cultural texts are produced and interpreted. Intersectionality will thus be the key intellectual vector through which I unpeel the layers of this show’s representational politics.

Arranged marriages are preferred in the Indian community especially because the practice reinforces societal status quos of caste, class, religious and gender hierarchies. That this ideology is internalized is evinced in the show when participants express their desire to be matched with somebody from their own community so they will have similar cultural backgrounds. For example, Aparna, a successful lawyer and a diasporic Indian, expresses a desire to be matched to somebody from the Sindhi[7] community as she herself is Sindhi, or Akshay’s mother, who resides in India, wants her prospective daughter in law to hail from the same caste. Even though we see women as active players on the show, later in the paper I will demonstrate that the hierarchies embedded in the arranged marriage setup are played out through the very body of the women participants. Moreover, the show hints at but glosses over the dark oppression embedded in not only in its gender representation but of its lack of addressing caste as well.

Indian Matchmaking was lauded for showcasing diverse portraits of women and for showcasing “in-your-face misogyny, casteism and colourism.” (BBC, 2021)[8] As writer Devaiah Bopanna points out in an Instagram post, that is where show’s merit lies” "Is the show problematic? Reality is problematic. And this is a freaking reality show.” (Bopanna, 2020) [9] Intersectionality, thus, contributes to conceptualizing individual identity and subjectivity. In this case, Robin M. Boylorn (2008) notes, studies of reality television often focus on one issue and overlook a first-person account of the implications and representations of race, to which I would add gender and caste as well. There are entanglements between interpersonal experiences of gender, race, and ethnicity and how these relate to larger systems of power, oppression, and social privilege. Complexly, many individuals learn that if they understand the social construction of intersecting identities that can be differently performed from one setting to the next, they gain more space for individual empowerment.

Coming back to my own experience of watching the show, I found it triggering as it reinforced the conditioning that women in the society that I grew up in undergo since childhood. It also brought to mind a point in life where several of my friends and peers were undergoing the same personal struggle that I faced—of resisting traditional matchmaking and its harmful effects, of your personal and physical attributes constantly subject to harsh judgement, and of society deeming women and their families as failures if not successful in finding a good match. Furthermore, I watched the show while residing abroad. With grim irony for me, my friends and colleagues loved the show and wanted to know more about the practice, sometimes even valorising it. Some went so far as to offer to accompany me as a chaperone to meet “prospective matches.”

I tell this autoethnographic reflection as a viewer because the reality depicted on the show stands in dialogue with my own lived experience. Thus, my discussion here is useful for me personally as a mode of critique. I understand that Indian Matchmaking presents a glossy, glamorized version of arranged marriages primarily meant for consumption by western audiences and wish to illustrate how this representation minimizes the real-world gender and caste politics of both the show and the practice itself. Here I examine the show’s representational politics, provide a textual analysis, and trace the reception of the show and the Internet meme culture it generated.

Bopanna’s Instagram post.