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Pradhyuman is seen in an undated handout image from the Netflix series "Indian Matchmaking." 

Netflix's ‘Indian Matchmaking’ stirs conversation about tradition, colorism and caste

The show is meant to be lighthearted and fun, but for some, it’s controversial. 

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Pradhyuman is seen in an undated handout image from the Netflix series "Indian Matchmaking." 

Credit:

Yash Ruparelia/Netflix/Handout via Reuters 

The Netflix reality show “Indian Matchmaking” follows Mumbai matchmaker Sima Taparia as she flies around the world to meet with Indian clients and their families. They tell her what they’re looking for in a mate, and she sets up the clients on awkward dates.

It’s a modern-day version of an old Indian tradition where parents lead the process of choosing a mate for their child. That practice is remembered fondly by older couples in the show who recall how their families set them up.

“It was arranged marriage, we met through India Abroad, the Indian newspaper,” one woman says.

“We just met once,” another woman recounts. “We walked, and I just liked his sense of humor, he made me feel comfortable. And that was it.”

“It works,” a third woman says of arranged marriage. “We’ve seen where it works.”

But it didn’t work for the director of “Indian Matchmaking,” Smriti Mundhra. A decade ago, her anxious mom tried to find her a husband.

“That was kind of a strange time in my life because I was sort of in this experiment with my mother where she just sort of took over my dating life.”

Smriti Mundhram, director, "Indian Matchmaking"

“That was kind of a strange time in my life because I was sort of in this experiment with my mother where she just sort of took over my dating life,” Mundhra said.

That’s when she met Taparia.

“The first thing she ever said to me was the line she says in the show, ‘Marriages are breaking like biscuits,’” Mundhra recalled. “It was distressing for her because she was trying at that time to figure out how to keep up with new ideas about marriage and partnership and all of that.”

Smriti was intrigued. She pitched a film about Taparia's work to a production company.

“And I was told at that time that, ‘Oh, the show only works if she matchmakes,’ what they called “Americans,” which means white people,” Mundhra said. “That was the implication.”

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So, she put it aside until pitching it again a year ago to Netflix. The company’s trying to expand globally and is especially interested in the South Asian market.

“And they were immediately like, ‘Yes. That could be a show,’” Mundhra said, adding that the intent was to make the show for an Indian audience.

“It was a conscious choice to not explain everything because we weren't making your show for the white gaze, so to speak.”

Smriti Mundhram, director, "Indian Matchmaking"

“It was a conscious choice to not explain everything because we weren't making your show for the white gaze, so to speak.”

There’s been intense discussion online and among Indian families and friends since the show debuted this month. One big issue people point out is the overt preference for a fair skin tone. Indian Canadian Ishani Nath wrote a review of the show for the South Asian site Juggernaut.

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“In the show, Sima Taparia frequently will refer to people being ‘good matches’ because they're fair, they're tall, and they come from a good family,” she said. “But at the same time, there wasn't a critique of that. There wasn't a participant in the show who was, you know, maybe impacted by that or spoke in criticism of that. And I think that was a missed opportunity," Nath told The World. 

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Nath said there’s also no discussion of the role of caste — the hereditary class system based on Hinduism. Some Indian parents still want their children to marry within their caste. The matchmaking portrayed in the show leaves out non-Hindus and LGBTQ people. Nath said that’s part of why she’s always resisted her family’s attempts to make matches for her. 

“I don’t think arranged marriage is bad, necessarily,” she said. “It’s just some things that it normalizes and the people that it disadvantages are not OK, and they are things that we need to, especially now — especially in this moment of combating anti-Blackness and thinking about who in our society is systematically disadvantaged — it is extremely important to be critical about these institutions within our own communities.”

“Indian Matchmaking” director Mudhra said she recognizes that. As an independent producer, she struggled for years to get financing for projects focused on social justice issues, until this Netflix show happened.

“As the only South Asian person on the key creative team, I had to represent everything, you know, and think about everything,” she said. “And, of course, that's tough. And you're going to miss things and you're going to get a few things wrong.”

Related: Women are becoming 'electable' in India — even when they don't win

Mundhra said they didn’t want to sanitize the show; they wanted to reveal everything about matchmaking, good and bad.

“I knew more people were going to watch this than anything I’d ever made. And I wanted it to start conversations. I wanted to kick the hornet's nest.”

Smriti Mundhram, director, "Indian Matchmaking"

“I knew more people were going to watch this than anything I’d ever made,” she said. “And I wanted it to start conversations. I wanted to kick the hornet's nest.”

Mundhra never took to the matchmaking tradition herself; she married a Brazilian Irish man she met in graduate school. She said she looks forward to the day when Indian culture is more mainstream globally, and a lighthearted Indian matchmaking show won’t be expected to address every issue like colorism and caste. Still, she’s trying to listen to all the show’s critics and engage with them on social media to improve “Indian Matchmaking” for a second season.

“I embrace the responsibility,” she said. “I want people to push me to do better, and to represent us better.”

As imperfect as “Indian Matchmaking” is, Mundhra said it shows there’s a huge global audience for Indian-focused programming and paves the way for whatever comes next. 

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