Netflix’s new dating series doesn’t rely on gimmicks (like, say, a glowing blue wall in a pod) to help its hopeful singles find life partners. But “Indian Matchmaking” still manages a distinctive take on the overpopulated dating genre: a modern look at the process of arranged marriages.
Now available to stream, the series follows Mumbai-based matchmaker Sima Taparia as she painstakingly works with singles and their families in India and America to find desirable mates for marriage. (“In India, we don’t say ‘arranged marriage’ — there’s marriage and then love marriage,” Taparia says in the opening minutes of the first episode.)
Over the show’s eight episodes, viewers get a glimpse into the centuries-old South Asian tradition through a variety of modern young men and women who all have different views on the custom — some are keen to conform to its traditions and others struggle with it — and who present different challenges for Taparia. (One client, New Jersey-based event planner Nadia, wonders if her Indian-ness will come into question because of her Guyanese heritage.)
The series is created and executive produced by Oscar-nominated director Smriti Mundhra, whose 2017 documentary “A Suitable Girl” explored arranged marriages in India and the unequal sacrifices the women who enter them must often make.
The Times talked with Mundhra about bringing this portrait of the search for a life partner to a wide audience, the show’s secret weapon, and not chasing a happily-ever-after ending.
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“I don’t want the show to be for a Western gaze.”
“Indian Matchmaking” deepens Netflix’s relationship with the dating genre. The streaming service found success earlier this year with the addictive “Love Is Blind,” which was renewed for two more seasons, as well as “Too Hot to Handle.” And the company recently launched the second season of “Dating Around,” which also has a Brazilian offshoot. Later this month, Netflix will launch “Love on the Spectrum,” a five-part docuseries that follows young adults on the autism spectrum who are looking for romance.
With the global reach of Netflix, Mundhra saw an opportunity to present a look at dating and relationships through the very specific lens of the South Asian experience that would reach a wide audience.
“I’ve grown up with a lot of people who have a very limited, and sometimes outdated, perception of what arranged marriage is — is it forced marriage, is it child marriage?” she says. “For me this show is an opportunity to show what it really is ... the diversity in the diaspora. That we’re not a monolith. That we have all sorts of different backgrounds, different ideals and ideologies. But also, we don’t have to be defined by the stereotypes of our culture.”
“I don’t want the show to be for a Western gaze,” she continues. “The show is what it is. It’s as much for South Asians as it is for a global audience and I trust audiences that are not familiar with South Asian culture to get enough from the show without having to do the sort of statistics and graphics and all of that. I think you can sort of learn a lot just from the examples and the specific journey of the participants. And then hopefully that’ll encourage people to seek out even more.”
Meet the matchmaker
At one point in the series, she’s dubbed the “human Tinder.” Taparia began her career in marriage consulting primarily focused in the Mumbai region, but has expanded her enterprise with clients in the U.K., Hong Kong, Thailand, Singapore, Australia, South Africa and Nigeria.
Taparia and Mundhra’s relationship goes back 15 years. The filmmaker enlisted Taparia’s services in her own quest to find a husband. (Mundhra ultimately met her now-husband in graduate school.) And Taparia later appeared in “A Suitable Girl” alongside her daughter, Ritu, who was one of the main subjects of the documentary.
“As a filmmaker, I was like: ‘When you see it, you know it,’” Mundhra says of Taparia’s persona. “You just meet somebody who is so charismatic and honest and straightforward and blunt, to the point where sometimes it’s horrifying. There was this refreshing honesty about her, and absolute passion for what she does.”
Taparia entered her own arranged marriage when she was 19 — and has been married for 37 years.
“Marriage means compromise and adjustment,” Taparia says over video conference from her home in Mumbai. “I’ve compromised and adjusted a lot in my married life.”
Even as dating sites such as shaadi.com and social media have proliferated in recent years to help modern Indian singles find life partners, Taparia says her personalized and extensive process remains a valuable asset. Viewers get a glimpse of that process, which includes an emphasis on horoscopes and astrology. She often consults with a face reader on the series, getting detailed reports of her clients based off their facial features assessed via their photos. She also assembles biodata for each client, which is essentially a marital resume, and conducts in-person consultations with her clients and their families.
“We tried to stay as authentic to her process as we possibly could and authentic to the journeys of our participants,” Mundhra says. “We didn’t just try to cram in everything, ’cause it would’ve just been impossible. There’s a lot left on the table and a lot that we can explore even more in subsequent seasons of the show, should we be lucky enough to continue.”
Taparia is still actively working with singles amid the COVID-19 pandemic, though she has limited her consultations to phone and video. She’s helped bring together two “big” matches in India recently, she says. She hopes to resume in-person visits with long-distance clients once she feels it’s safe to travel by plane.
“I’m very busy,” Taparia says. “Nothing has slowed down during this lockdown. I’m talking to you, but in my mind, matches are going on. I’m thinking about my clients. It goes on in my mind 24 hours.”
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Traits for a “good match”
As the eight episodes unfold, the series highlights some of the problematic value systems or attitudes that persist around what makes someone a “good match.”
Near the end of the season, Taparia reluctantly takes on a divorced single woman as a client, noting that people with children can prove difficult to match. There’s often a preoccupation with height and skin tone, as well as caste and class — particularly among the clientele in India.
“I see the show as an opportunity to raise questions and start conversations,” Mundhra says. “That there can be some reflection about what we place value on.”
Casting the series was its “biggest hurdle”
Mundhra says casting was the show’s biggest hurdle. The search began, she says, by going through Taparia’s client list of 500 families — calling every single person and seeing who would be amenable to even having a conversation about participating in the series. Privacy was a concern for many.
“Our show is not reality TV and it’s not strict documentary,” Mundhra says. “And I think it was hard to really define for people what the show was going to be. But I think that the people that we ended up getting for the show are people who are ready for the adventure, were extroverted and ready to share this experience with the world and were eager to have a wide platform to do that, but also had a perspective that they wanted to share — whether it’s addressing some of the more unsavory cultural stuff that comes along with it, like the colorism and the pressure, and things like that. There’s a lot of things that I think people were craving to talk about.”
Mundhra noted that the series initially started with about a dozen singles and a few fell off in the course of the production.
“There’s those people who met somebody and then the other half wasn’t interested in participating in the show, but also didn’t want their potential partner to participate in the show,” she says. “Other people recognize that maybe they didn’t want to open up in a way that we were asking about the process. So yeah, there were definitely people who kind of either got cold feet or got into relationships where it was either the relationship or the show.
“I think if we’re lucky enough to get a second season for the show,” Mundhra added, “I think we’ll have a lot more eager participants.”
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Let’s talk about Aparna...
If Jessica from “Love Is Blind” made your eyes do backflips, she faces stiff competition from globe-trotting Houston attorney Aparna Shewakramani. While it’s easy to categorize most of the singles featured on “Indian Matchmaking” into types — the nerdy guy (Vyasar), the sweet girl next door (Nadia) — an early standout for Person Most Likely To Make You Scream OMG at the TV is Shewakramani. She proves to be a challenge for Taparia with the laundry list of traits she’s looking for in a mate. (She’s not interested in a guy with a sense of humor. And she matter-of-factly recalls how she once quickly lost interest in a guy because he didn’t know Bolivia had salt flats. During one meeting on the show, she scoffs when her date asks what she’d consider a relaxing 10 days: “Why would you relax for 10 days?” Shewakramani says. “That’s weird. ... I’m concerned if you have to relax for 10 days.”)
In summary: She is reality TV gold. And she is already making an impression with viewers.
“Aparna found her way to us through a mutual friend,” Mundhra says. “When we were sort of casting for the show, a friend of mine posted it onto social media and Aparna saw it and responded. And when we first saw her casting tape, we were like, ‘This is it.’ There’s something so intriguing about her. She’s super honest and straightforward and blunt and definitely self-aware, but also sometimes you wonder like, ‘Does she know what she just said?’ She definitely has that quality about her.”
Shewakramani may not be winning over viewers, but Mundhra saw in her an opportunity to dismantle gender expectations.
“I think she kind of breaks a lot of the stereotypes of what — to use the term from our culture — what a good match should look like,” she says. “There’s so much pressure that South Asian women face to conform to a certain type: be very charming and soft and agreeable and all of that. And I love that she just was like, ‘I’m not having any of that. I don’t care. That’s not me and I’m not going to pretend to be that just to find a spouse.’”
And that mostly open ending
After becoming invested in each participant’s journey, the series ends with little resolution. Viewers only see one marriage materialize — for 25-year-old Akshay, whose mother is eager to find him a wife — while the outcome for the others is left frustratingly unanswered. In fact, a new client, Richa, is introduced in the final moments of the episode, leaving a giant question mark hanging about her path. There aren’t even post-script updates before the credits start rolling! And that was intentional — though the hope is Netflix will renew the series.
“I think that’s reflective of life, right?” Mundhra says. “I think that’s a way in which arranged marriage and matchmaking has evolved, particularly from its most traditional form: Matchmakers recognize that their role and the family’s role is to try to bring people together based on a common set of values in a bespoke way. And then, ultimately, two people have to decide how far we’re going to take it from there. And the reason we didn’t really have a lot of tidy endings in the show is because there are no tidy endings to this.”