Sima Taparia, a self-professed "top matchmaker" from Mumbai, is remarkably blunt within the first few seconds of Indian Matchmaking, Netflix's new reality show.
"In India, marriage is the union of two families, millions of dollars are at stake, caste considerations rule, and everyone must adjust and compromise,” she says straight to the camera.
As someone who belongs to the exact demographic that makes up the bulk of Taparia’s clientele (upper caste, wealthy and Hindu) and who has been on dozens of the type of arranged-marriage dates she sets up, I can say Taparia’s words are irksome because they are so true.
The eight-part first season of Indian Matchmaking zigzags between Mumbai, Houston, New Jersey, Austin, Delhi and Jaipur, with several pit-stops as Taparia attempts to set up half a dozen of her clients. They come from different backgrounds but have had similar upbringings – they're all Indian or of Indian origin, well-educated and reasonably successful.
Yes, there are practical benefits to the process. For most Indians, family approval is a non-negotiable part of marriage, not a good-to-have. The arranging of matches then serves the purpose of pre-approval and vetting. It’s a lot more convenient to couple up with someone who already checks all the boxes than fall in love and later suffer the heartache of your family's refusal.
Taparia has a crystal-clear view of a prospect’s worth within the Indian arranged-marriage hierarchy. “Slim, trim, tall and fair” girls are in high demand. Men must earn well and be able to support their wives. Both must belong to “good families” (those that don’t have any publicly aired dirty laundry).
Divorced parents present hiccups but can be worked around. However, it’s slim pickings if the prospective bride or groom is divorced or brings a child into the mix — especially for women.
Taparia’s calculated assessment of her clients is possibly the most honest part of the show. I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve been reduced to the size of my waist or the colour of my skin – and been rejected for both.
I distinctly remember the time a prospective match’s portfolio explicitly read: “Girl’s colour should be white.” In the show, one of the participant’s overbearing mothers nonchalantly announces: “I’m not even going to look at girls less than 5’3.”
It’s undeniable that in the Indian arranged-marriage process, men and their families hold most of the power. So there’s a lot that the show gets right, but there’s an equal amount it seems to have deliberately missed or completely glossed over.
Two of Taparia’s top clients are exceedingly wealthy young men from Mumbai and both, we’re told, have rejected close to 100 women each. But we never get to hear from those women; we also never see Taparia’s golden geese being rejected. Not once.
The only female client in the show who has the temerity to repeatedly refuse matches that don’t meet her standards is berated for being “too negative and arrogant” and “having bad vibes”.
The first time I was rejected, it was because I was too opinionated – the “match” was afraid I wouldn’t be able to adjust to his mother. The second time was because I am a journalist and the family was deeply suspicious of the “loose morals of media women”.
There was some suggestion – by aunts, uncles and my parents’ army of “well-wishers” – of quitting my job because of that, but that conversation ended abruptly when I threatened to quit my family instead.
On occasion, I've been deemed unfit because I was too tall (for short men) and too short (for tall men). Other times, I was not thin enough or fair enough.
While the right to rejection was always clearly open to the men I met, when I said no after one man had kindly agreed to marry me, I had to provide lengthy explanations which were met with disapproval.
How do you explain a lack of chemistry or intellectual compatibility to people who don't acknowledge the importance of either?
While my refusals and rules were grudgingly accepted in the end, they always came with a warning that I’d miss the boat and then have to make do with the “leftovers”.
Within five years, this arranged-marriage market had transformed me from a confident, witty, ambitious woman into a nervous, insecure wreck. I’ve had to go into therapy to deal with the scars and intense resentment that the process left in its wake.
I have friends who’ve been left so broken by the process, having had all the fight drained out of them, that they’ve agreed to marriages they knew they were going to be unhappy in. They've wed men they knew were not their intellectual equals and who they weren’t attracted to, simply so they could finally get off the rollercoaster.
It's not always the case, but there is occasionally some ugliness lurking beneath the veneer of glitz and glamour that is a hallmark of the quintessential Indian wedding. And there are veiled, lifelong compromises within the marriages some of these weddings celebrate.
Indian Matchmaking doesn't do justice to either of these realities.