I do not typically spend time watching reality TV, which might surprise some considering I was once on a reality show. My goal in appearing on Netflix’s Dating Around in 2019 was to provide brown girls with a picture of a happily divorced Punjabi woman in her thirties — I didn’t realize what I still symbolized for many viewers until multiple texts and DMs from friends and strangers alike poured in, asking me what I thought of one of Netflix’s newest reality series: Indian Matchmaking. The premise is exactly what it sounds like: A renowned matchmaker from Mumbai, Sima Taparia (or Sima “Aunty” as her clients call her out of respect), taps into her client base to help Indian singles, in both India and the United States, find life partners.
Given my own experience and ethnic background, I wanted to love the show and be supportive, but to me the series fell flat and overly simplified and stereotyped what it means to be Indian. Although the couples Sima fixes up are not forced to marry, the end goal of matchmaking is that, after a few dates, the people involved will commit to an eventual engagement or Roka. After having a Roka, the couple can plan their nuptials on their own timeline and get to know each other more. A Roka took place in the last episode of the show by the only couple that chose to move forward together with the marriage process. Now that the show is out, however, it has emerged that the couple is no longer engaged. The Roka may have been staged specifically for the show.
Although Indian Matchmaking emphasizes the difference between so-called love marriages and arranged marriages, they’re not actually that disparate as they are practiced today. Love marriages are those in which a couple meets organically, arranged marriages include concerted efforts from both families and friends (or a matchmaker) to find appropriate marital partners. Arranged marriages are not much different then swiping on Tinder or asking to be set up by your friends. The biggest difference is probably that, while you wouldn’t pay your friends to set you up with someone, you do pay a matchmaker. According to someone familiar with Indian matchmaking, matchmakers like Sima are typically compensated between two to five percent of the wedding costs, which can be as much as $20,000 to $50,000 per match. Although it benefits a matchmaker’s future business to ensure there is a successful match, they still have a strong monetary incentive to ensure a match occurs, whether the couple is compatible or not.
I had a love marriage, but experienced a lot of pressure from my family to marry while still dating because my partner was a great match on paper: same religion, tall, from the same area in India, etc. Although we seemed perfect together, the marriage didn’t last. But also, how would they have known things weren’t ideal? After all, I hadn’t communicated my doubts about the relationship to my family while still dating my now ex-husband, so they assumed I was happy. Not that this makes my divorce my fault. I believe that every relationship has its own merits, and you can learn from failure as much as from success — a belief that resulted in being belittled by one of my dates on the first season of Dating Around. A clip of that bad blind date went viral with 6.1 million views, and I was lucky to almost only receive messages of support, except from a few Indian men who felt the need to tell me I was disrespecting traditional Indian values by being happy post-divorce and going on dates with American men. These men want me to be ashamed of my happiness, and I am absolutely not.
I also know it’s possible to be happy in an arranged marriage. While my love marriage ended in divorce after five years, I have cousins from both India and the U.S. that have wonderful, thriving arranged marriages. They met through their parents when they felt ready to marry, and a lot of consideration was given to how well their families would blend together. Many of them are professionals who were too busy to date, so they tapped into their family’s network to successfully find life partners. And it worked.
All the women in my family who had arranged marriages are independent women who are equal partners in their joint families and have their own successful careers. In a lot of Indian families there is often a pressure to lose your identity and serve the groom’s family after you are married, but that is not the case for my family and many others. The women in my family are understood to have their own desires and tastes and that’s accounted for in the way they enter into arranged marriages.
But, this is not how it’s depicted on Indian Matchmaking. On the show, women who don’t like the men Sima presents to them are considered overly picky, while men who act similarly are merely labeled “unsure.” There’s an inherent undercurrent of misogyny in the matchmaking process: women are expected to be the flexible ones, sometimes being urged to settle for an ill-fitting match.This type of retrograde thinking is not reflective of all Indians, but it does reflect the attitude of many who have yet to evolve from their more traditional views.
That doesn’t mean there aren’t independently minded women on the show. I was excited to root for Aparna Shewakramani and Nadia Jagessar from the moment they were introduced. Yes! More strong women that can represent what it is to be Indian American. Nadia had messaged me for advice prior to the show’s debut, and she immediately struck me as sweet, good-natured, and hopeful. I was hopeful for her, too. But the more episodes I watched, the more disappointed I became.
Although both women seemed strong in the beginning, they fell into the same traps that many young women searching for love fall into: blaming yourself, looking to their parents and friends for approval, and overly focusing on their age as if they have an expiration date stamped on their forehead.
And then there was that god-awful list Sima made them do of superlatives for the qualities they wanted in a potential match. Being self-aware enough to make such a list is important, but the way it was created doomed them from the beginning. That list was created without guidance or appropriate understanding of how to identify the qualities you need in a partner. I have made a similar list before, but with the help of a real relationship expert who could guide me when I was thinking too small. Without guidance on such a list, there is no room to ensure you are focusing on the right values.
Seeing and experiencing the double standards of Indian matchmaking usually results in two scenarios for women. After years of being judged and blamed for things outside your control, you can either break down and compromise your own needs OR go even deeper into yourself and start displaying a sort of “I am great and if you don’t agree you suck” attitude.
In the case of the polarizing Aparna, as soon as she felt disappointed, her defense mechanism kicked in and she began judging others for their interests being different then hers. She switched from being inquisitive to making statements like “that’s weird” when dates expressed hobbies she didn’t connect to. I don’t blame Aparna for her attitude, I myself was the same once — being defensive is almost a rite of passage as a strong Indian woman. I also completely understand how editing can impact how personalities are viewed. But it was still hard to witness that kind of self-defeating, hyper-critical behavior.
The more I watched, the more it became obvious that I was not only watching a show that only featured a very narrow segment of the Indian population, but one that was disenfranchising women. These are all issues that women (Indian or not) are dealing with, but continuing to highlight how people are living within these confines isn’t helping. Where are the solutions? How are these women empowering themselves? Why do we even have to have these confines? Where are the women breaking the paradigms of our outdated world and creating their own norms? How are people going to learn that they have other options if they don’t see examples of women that are thriving outside of these confines?
To me, the only good part of the show was the montage of already married couples speaking about one another and their experience with arranged marriages. Like many of my fellow desi friends, my parents had an arranged marriage and met on their wedding day. Amongst other things, the explosion between Justin and me on Dating Around was related to his judgment of my parents’ relationship.
However, after years of dating and recently going through another relationship where we realized that, despite a deep connection, the relationship was not going to work long-term, I believe there is a lot of value in understanding how arranged couples have been able to “make it work.” Seeing the beauty in successful relationships from Indian matchmaking would have been immensely more valuable than seeing the misogyny associated with characterizing the women as “too picky” when they could not find a personality match even though their dates had the right height, skin tone, and caste.
What if we were able to see a modern matchmaker who broke the social norms that continuously oppress women? Can you imagine the impact that could have been made by seeing someone NOT continuously calling out “fair” (i.e. light skinned) as a desirable trait for women? There is an entire beauty industry in India that sells skin-lightening products with marketing that unjustly belittles women for their darker skin tone. Because Indians look up to the American culture, the series could have helped to break these shackles. Instead the notion that you are less desirable if your skin is darker was reinforced.
What if Sima empowered single mothers by applauding the energy and efforts it takes to raise a child alone? What impact could that have made to a country with a history of throwing widows on the flames of their husband’s burning funeral pyres? Instead, she tells a single mom that having a child makes her less suitable to potential husbands.
Wouldn’t it have been wonderful to see Aparna date someone with different interests from her’s and watch how they are able to make it work because both individuals are wonderful? I am not saying to settle for less than you deserve, but I do think that without the right guidance and examples we will continue to have a generation full of men and women who miss out on amazing partnerships because they write off people who don’t fit their narrow list of desired qualities.
I wish Indian Matchmaking had shown more of the cast members on their actual dates as opposed to focusing on why they were still single. That would have given the audience more insights as to the real reasons there were no matches found on the show. That, along with the couple interviews, is the show’s real secret sauce. Or better yet, bring in a certified relationship therapist instead to bring to light how you can make a relationship work if there is a connection despite having different interests or being from different castes.
Well-made or not, I anticipate that, due to it capturing the viewership from one of the largest populations in the world, the show will be renewed for a second season (Refinery29 has reached out for comment). I, however, will not be watching season 2 unless they provide their viewership with real answers on how to break out of a misogynistic, oppressive dating system. Continuing to give visibility to these outdated systems without providing real solutions is not helping impressionable young women or their families. I look forward to Netflix elevating my community and releasing a second season that can make an impact by focusing on women’s empowerment instead of the old-world concept of Indian matchmaking
Gurki Basra is an Indian-American fashion industry executive whose experience on Netflix’ Dating Around went viral when one of her dates aggressively judged her for her divorce and parent’s arranged marriage. She has an MBA and has successfully managed the businesses of over 50+ brands. She is most well known for her time at Barneys New York as Senior Buyer of Jewelry and Watches, where she successfully created and launched their engagement ring and bridal business. Additional information and Gurki’s portfolio of work can be found on her website or Instagram.