Sima Aunty, the central figure in Netflix’s Indian Matchmaking, facilitates the tradition of the arranged marriage by finding suitable matches. As she meets with clients and their families, the programme outlines the parameters of what constitutes a suitable and desirable match and how to find one. According to her:
If you want a good and happy family, you have to adjust, have to compromise
While men are told to lower their standards and women to be less “choosey”, the show’s biggest compromise is not made by those looking for their ideal match. Instead, it comes with how it glosses over the politics of contemporary India to fit the format of a reality dating show and appeal to a wide international audience.
The programme gives the appearance of prioritising how well people get on rather than how socially (and politically) acceptable matches are. Instead, social conservatism and casteism (a system of social stratification, based on a hierarchy of social status and ritual purity or pollution) are surreptitiously promoted to an unaware international audience. These ideas are shrouded within notions of family love, cultural affinity and desires for children to be happy.
While advertised as a dating show, it is questionable whether Indian Matchmaking should wade into this territory at all. However, with the unsightly social context and political reality in India omitted from the discussion, Indian Matchmaking covertly upholds the ideas of Hindu nationalism.
The family lines of authoritarianism
Indian Matchmaking was filmed and aired during a time of deep fascism in India.
The Sangh Parivar, or the “family” of Hindu nationalist organisations in India, includes the ruling far-right Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). The party, led by Narendra Modi, has been implementing its vision of a Hindu nation since its electoral landslide in 2014.
Exclusionary citizenship laws, anti-Muslim hate speech) and hate crimes and the illegal abolition of Kashmir’s special status are some of the key features of the BJP’s platform. It has welded social conservatism, caste ideology, territorial sovereignty and Hindu supremacy together to create India’s brand of fascism and authoritarianism called Hindutva.
By not featuring any conversations about the fraught politics of this time, the programme by default contributes to the denial of the violence being perpetrated against minorities. These groups are also excluded from the show to present a quaint and simplistic picture of love in India and the diaspora.
It could be understood that such omissions were made to fit within the genre of reality TV. The protocols and idiosyncrasies of this system of matchmaking provide a source of entertainment for viewers – such as first dates where parents and other relatives are embarrassingly present. However, while it might seem odd for what is essentially a dating show to wade into such political territory, these omissions propagate and normalise some of the dangerous thinking espoused by Hindutva.
Love and hate in a time of fascism
The programme’s honesty lies in how it exposes how social boundaries and preferences are brazenly stated at the onset. Clients name their traits and then identify those they desire in potential matches. Going against the wishes of parents or crossing social boundaries by considering a match outside of the categories of acceptability is beyond the realm of possibility.
Instead, biodatas, which function as dating profiles or personal CVs, are shared and examined in great detail. Religion, education, regional or ethnic background, height, age, profession and more are listed for participants and viewers to scrutinise.
In this process, viewers come to understand the codes and categories of suitability and desirability. Personal and parental foibles distract viewers from considering which groups are missing and what traits are placed on a pedestal.
The stigmatisation of inter-community cohesion and relationships under Hindutva has been a key feature of the BJP government’s social agenda. Many of these ideas lurk across the episodes of the programme.
One particular desire that repeatedly comes up is for a “fair skin” match. This is an idea of beauty that can be traced back to caste ideology and a desire to move upward or maintain status in a society where caste oppression is a daily reality.
Marriages across caste or religion are predominantly frowned upon in India. According to the India Human Development Survey, only around 5% of Indian marriages are across caste.
This deeply held and entrenched idea of maintaining caste “purity” is part of the BJP’s social agenda for a Hindu nation. The party loudly seeks to stigmatise and stoke violence against those who transgress caste and religious boundaries.
One popular conspiracy theory shared by the Hindu right is “Love Jihad”. This is the idea that Muslim men target women belonging to non-Muslim communities to convert them to Islam by feigning love. It is an invention to incite suspicion and hatred against Muslims in India.
Love Jihad is based on the idea that mixed relationships between Muslims and Hindus will threaten the “purity” of the Hindu nation. In Indian Matchmaking, Hindutva as a social and political project prevails as an international and subtle follow-up to Love jihad.
Social conservatism’s preference for and adherence to categories go hand in hand. Many viewers would have laughed at the behaviour of anxiety-ridden Preeti from Mumbai whose unabashed ambition is to settle her younger son Akshay with a “homely” match who will look after the family. Despite his reluctance, towards the end of the programme her son admits that he wants a wife who will not only please his mother but also be like her. He, like many other clients, are looking for someone just like him and his kin.
All in all, the programme is disingenuous for suggesting that a system of matchmaking in an era of fascism, without naming or referring to the broader political backdrop, can do anything but collude with the forces of Hindutva. Instead, the implicit social conservatism of the family, which actively fuels supremacist politics, goes completely unexplored and unchecked.
Navtej K Purewal does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article, and has disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond their academic appointment.