One of the most compelling promises of — or, depending on your point of view, its biggest turn-offs about — arranged marriage is its seeming efficiency. On Netflix’s Indian Matchmaking — a reality series that’s exactly what it sounds like — transnational marriage broker Sima Taparia tells a potential client, a middle-aged woman who’d like to see her 25-year-old son wed within the next six months, “I’ve seen proposals sent today, meeting the next day and married the day after.”
But the rest of the season belies such dreams of marital streamlining. Indian Matchmaking illustrates that arranged marriage — especially for young Indian Americans and wealthy Indians today — is a process as much as Western dating is, albeit with more serious intentions and a compressed timeline. Following seven of Sima’s clients — men and women in their twenties and thirties, roughly half in the U.S. and half in India — the series makes relatable a much-misunderstood practice that’s been forced to contend with shifting gender roles, modernizing criteria for matches and stiff competition from the romance of “love marriage.”
A stylish, composed woman in her fifties, Mumbai-based Sima is our grounded, seen-it-all guide to marriage, Indian-style. A second matchmaker who appears late in the eight-part debut season calls Sima a traditionalist, but she’s sympathetic, if plain-spoken, to her disadvantaged clients, like Rupam, a divorced mother; Ankita, an ambitious entrepreneur who’s been told by others to lose weight before looking for a husband; Vyasar, whose violent father has an extensive criminal past; and Nadia, whose family’s migration to Guyana 150 years ago makes her seen as “less Indian” compared to recent immigrants. Notably, Sima’s Indian-American clients are members of the middle and professional classes, while her Indian clientele appear to be exclusively one-percenters.
The series hits a winsome balance between genuine insight, gentle humor, cringe-inducing spectacle and heartwarming connection. (Closer to Netflix’s soft-lit and naturalistic Dating Around than Bravo’s chintzy and braying Millionaire Matchmaker, Indian Matchmaking is a reality show with docuseries aspirations.) All the featured clients fall into types, but that’s fine — the point of the show is the process of matchmaking.
Houston attorney Aparna, the first featured client, appears at first to be a particularly challenging case. She’s snobby — she once broke up with a man for not knowing that Bolivia has salt flats — and overly serious. (When asked if she wants her future partner to be funny, she’s confused: “People care about sense of humor?”) Sima tuts that clients like Aparna treat matchmaking like ordering off a menu, as if they can expect to have someone who meets every item on their checklist delivered within a specific time frame.
But it turns out every client is just difficult in their own way. Handsome princeling Pradhyuman, who’s installed a fingerprint lock for his clothes closet, won’t be talked out of caring most about a potential mate’s looks. (When he meets a woman he finally cottons to, they bond over — what else? — how hard modeling is.) Equally coddled Akshay seems to have eyes for one woman only: his mom.
Executive-produced by Smriti Mundhra (whose 2017 directorial debut, A Suitable Girl, covered similar ground), Indian Matchmaking doesn’t shy from all the ways Indian (and Indian diasporic) arranged marriage can seem strange to outsiders: the preoccupation with height and caste, first dates with family members tagging along, talking about parenting and moving across the country for the other person on a first or second date. (More than one person drops out of the process, deciding the fast-paced courtship style isn’t for them.) Meals begin with discussions of meat and alcohol consumption habits. Astrologers and face readers (like palm readers, but for faces) are consulted, as are life coaches for younger clients who don’t yet know what they want.
But the series is ultimately about why matchmaking is a sensible, even desirable, approach for Sima’s clients. American discussions about arranged marriage often revolve around parents knowing best, and it’s certainly true that mothers, especially, play a key role in encouraging or discouraging certain prospects. (The fate of one of Aparna’s suitors is sealed when her mother calls him a “loser.”)
But matchmaking, at least in Sima’s way of doing it, seems to be about helping clients find a way out of the paradox of choice — the paralyzing indecision many of us are engulfed in when there are too many options. (Pradhyuman’s mom boasts that her son has received more than 150 proposals, but he’s no closer to marriage for it.) Sima is also invaluable in coaching reluctant or inflexible clients into a marriage-ready mindset. Fascinatingly, a couple of the Indian Americans discuss arranged marriage as a way of connecting to their roots — they want a partner who’ll already know where they’re coming from.
Perhaps in keeping with its subject matter, there’s a no-expenses-spared air to the production, which looks more luxe than it has any reason to be. Natural light suffuses the production, and the colorful B-roll footage in India is refreshingly free of stereotypes. The 35- to 40-minute runtime is well suited to the storylines, with well-constructed cliffhangers underscoring the series’ narrative propulsion. The mother who wants to see her son married off within half a year seems to get her wish. Whether the rest end up married is a frustrating question mark, but that might also be the point: With a matchmaker, clients will certainly get dates. Happy endings prove more elusive.
Showrunner: J.C. Begley
Premieres Thursday, Jul. 16, on Netflix