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LINDA HOLMES, HOST:
There’s marriage, and then there’s love marriage. That’s the philosophy of Sima, the matchmaker at the center of the Netflix reality series “Indian Matchmaking.” And her focus is not helping you find love. It’s arranging marriages for young people and their families based on everything from economic and social status to height. The show has gotten a lot of attention but also some critiques. It recently returned for a new season, so we thought we’d revisit our conversation about the first season featuring our pals Bilal Qureshi and Priya Krishna. I’m Linda Holmes, and on this episode of POP CULTURE HAPPY HOUR from NPR, we’re talking about the Netflix series “Indian Matchmaking.”
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HOLMES: So if you’re not familiar with “Indian Matchmaking,” as we said, it follows this woman, Sima. It’s created by a documentarian named Smriti Mundhra and showrun by J.C. Begley, who’s done other reality show stuff, like “Ace Of Cakes” and things like that. It follows a group of Sima’s arranged marriage clients and their families as she tries to kind of find suitable partners for them. Some of them live in India; some of them live in other places.
Bilal, how did you get into this show? What did you expect it to be when you first saw it?
BILAL QURESHI, BYLINE: Well, I ended up seeing it for the first time because everybody that is in my South Asian family WhatsApp groups or friend circles was immediately saying, have you seen, have you seen, have you seen? It’s the only thing that, it seemed, everyone was talking about. You know, I think, honestly, a lot of us are probably getting a little tired of the heavy. So I heard from a lot of people that it was just a fun sort of watch and the kind of light thing that you could enjoy. And so I heard about it a lot from friends from India because I had lived there for several years, and they were all immediately obsessed.
Yeah. And then, you know, I think if you grow up in a South Asian family, whether it’s in South Asia or it’s in America, like, weddings are at the center of our lives. Like, that is what defines our societies, our communities, our culture, our, like, movies. Every Bollywood movie seems to be centered around a big wedding spectacle. A lot of my, like, non-South Asian friends want to go to Indian weddings. It seems like there is this, like, automatic hook.
And I thought in the beginning it seemed like just, like, a crazy Netflix show that’s just fun to watch and forget about. But then you started seeing this wave of, like, this show’s really problematic. This show’s making me really upset. This show’s triggering me. This show is casteist, racist, sexist, all of these things. And so suddenly, kind of the fun, frothy Netflix show turned into a think piece master generator. And so I found it to be something to continue watching and engaging with. And that’s sort of how I got pulled into “Indian Matchmaking.” Not like – not actual matchmaking, but the show.
HOLMES: (Laughter) Right. Yeah. I think, you know, one of the things that’s interesting is the filmmakers talked about the fact that because the focus is on Sima, the focus is on Sima’s clients, who are mostly well-off, North Indian, Hindu – mostly Hindu people, which is not a cross-section of people who are Indian or South Asian. It’s her particular client list.
Priya, how did you go about watching this show?
PRIYA KRISHNA, BYLINE: Similar to Bilal, all of my WhatsApp groups were blowing up about the show, but I was surprised. Equal to my WhatsApp group, my non-Indian friends were also asking me, have you seen the show? Have you seen the show? And I thought that was really interesting ’cause I saw the show on, like, my Netflix queue and assumed it was a show meant for Indian Americans. But I very quickly realized the show had clearly found an audience far beyond the diaspora.
So my first instinct when I watched it was like, is this show a great idea? Yes. Is this show highly entertaining? Yes. Is it really, really hard to watch? Yes. Like, it’s hard to see a show normalize casteism, sexism, colorism and provide zero context for any of that. Like, when I was talking to other people about it, I felt the need to, like, contextualize a lot of the conversations in the show. It’s very upfront about, everyone here is going to be able-bodied, they’re going to be, you know, cis, heterosexual, and they’re going to be fair-skinned, seeking other fair-skinned people out. And it’s going to be just accepted that divorcees have a harder time. If you are Guyanese, you’re going to have a harder time.
Sima sort of just accepts that as fact without taking a step back to be like, oh, is it problematic? And it blazes through that so fast. There are many times in the show where I wish the show had just taken, like, an extra beat to provide explanation around that. And that explanation didn’t need to be, like, a chart of, like, the caste system in India.
KRISHNA: But I think even just having the interviewees and the cast members discussing, giving a little bit more of that context, I really could have used because I think hearing that language is really troubling for a lot of people…
KRISHNA: …Who’ve been discriminated against within their own community. But at the same time, you know, you watch the show, and I felt like I know some of these aunties and uncles. I have seen colorism in action. I have seen this sexism in action. So, like, while it is problematic, is there truth to a lot of the sort of problematic aspects to it? Yes. It is shining a light on, like, some of the worst parts of desi society. And I think, like, it’s interesting for me ’cause it left me wondering, like, is it on the filmmaker to make a judgement call or is it on the filmmaker – just present this matchmaker as she is, as problematic as she is, as problematic as many of her clients are, and allow the audience to sort of make that judgment for themselves?
HOLMES: Yeah. What do you think, Bilal?
QURESHI: I mean, so I lived in India when Netflix first came out in 2016 and was launched in India, and I was living there at the time. What I remember hearing a lot was that they were planning to make a lot of shows that were not going to be necessarily catered to just the diasporas or to international audiences, but they have to cater to Indian audiences as well. And that means that they don’t actually have the same burden of representation on them that we typically seem to put on shows about people of color in a majority white society like America, which means that we want to put our best foot forward, show our best side, show ourselves as, like, the most amazing, cool people that you – I’m talking about, like, any sort of aggrieved or potentially marginalized minority community culturally.
I love this show because I think it puts all the hot mess out there in public, and I think that is exactly the kind of culture we also need to be able to have, which is stuff that – as you said, Priya, like, that auntie who’s the center of the show, she’s making no apologies for who she is. She is doing exactly what she does and she has a huge client list for it. I’m not saying that that means that the filmmaker couldn’t have done more to provide more context, but I also think it is a little bit too real for some people, it seems to me, which I think is actually – I find really refreshing because I actually get tired sometimes of, like, only representation that’s supposed to make us feel better about ourselves.
I think this is making a lot of people – brown people, South Asians – understand, like, that’s what we’re dealing with often in our communities and in our societies. And I find that it speaks to the fact that Netflix is also making this show for India as well. And people in India are like, yeah, this is our problem. I heard a lot of friends from Delhi saying like, Auntie Sima just keeps it real. That’s how aunties are here. And I found that really kind of interesting new wave of representation that’s, like, uncomfortable and, in a way, more honest sometimes, I feel.
KRISHNA: But to your point, in the absence of robust representation of South Asians in America, I can understand why a lot of Indians were like, this is how people are going to understand arranged marriage. You know, as someone whose parents had an arranged marriage, I was like, oh, God, am I going to get questions about my parents’ arranged marriage? It sort of reminded me a lot of my white friends’ mothers asking me when I was little if I was promised to anyone.
KRISHNA: In the same way that, like, things like Apu and “Slumdog Millionaire” sort of created all of these – people thought that they were connected to the Indian community in some way, and they would meet another Indian and be like, Apu, or like, ah, “Slumdog Millionaire.” My first instinct watching this show was like, oh, God, is this going to be the new Apu? Is this going to be the new “Slumdog Millionaire?” Are people going to be asking me if this is how it’s going to work? Like, I was like, I wonder if that’s, like, the audience for this. I don’t know. It may be uncomfortable in a way, but of course there’s truth to it.
And I think to your point, Bilal, like, the evolution of representation is really important. I was upset that there were no same-sex couples. I was upset that there were no Muslim couples. But, you know, in an interview with the executive producer, that executive producer just plainly said, those are not Sima’s clients. Those are not people who hire her.
QURESHI: Can I just say, as a same-sex Muslim couple, like, in my personal marriage, like, this show was definitely not for me and about my community or – Muslims are certainly not anywhere in the show because she’s dealing with upper-caste Hindu families that are her client list.
QURESHI: And this is this filmmaker’s show for Netflix and it originated – actually, Auntie Sima has an origin story. She first appeared in a documentary called “A Suitable Girl,” which is the first film that this filmmaker made, which won lots of, like, critical acclaim and awards. And it’s actually, to your point, Priya, like a really nuanced, interesting film about gender and marriage in India. Unfortunately, I think when sometimes Netflix brings in these kinds of people – she has said in interviews, they were like, amp up the froth, make it fun, make it basically addictive, sugary, binge-worthy show.
A lot of people unfortunately didn’t watch “A Suitable Girl,” but a lot of people have watched the show. And I – and that also, I think, speaks partly to this model of distribution, which is creating something that’s going to also be really fun. No matter what community it comes from, isn’t that kind of the reality summer binge? It is going to be a little frothy, for lack of a better term.
HOLMES: Yeah, I think, you know, one of the things we’ve talked about on the show before is that one of the primary manifestations of privilege is not having to represent anyone except yourself and not having to have the work that you do represent anything except the work that it is. And the filmmaker said – and I get this totally – she’s like, I did not want to sit around and get too explain-y (ph) about colorism and casteism and stuff like that ’cause I wasn’t primarily thinking about a non-South Asian audience. I was primarily thinking about a South Asian audience.
And one of the things that occurred to me as I was thinking about this show is this is sort of a phenomenon of the global television show – right? – where, you know, if you watch a show that has this aspiration to be kind of for the whole world and it is talking about a very specific person working in a very specific community, then it’s very logical to both want, as the filmmaker, to just be true to that, like, one specific thing and to be concerned about how it’s going to be viewed around the world by a lot of other people.
I do think there’s some truth to what Bilal says, that if you’re a documentary filmmaker who has really serious ideas about what you want to say, it is possible for those things to get very lost in the translation of that into a format of a Netflix dating show because really, in format, it feels to me exactly like a Netflix dating show, like “Dating Around” or something like that, where you kind of get like, for example, Aparna, who is this kind of very – she’s sort of set up like this somewhat bossy, demanding lawyer who doesn’t like anybody, and she’s too picky and all that stuff. Or you have, like, this very nice guy who’s a teacher who seems like the only guy who’s really into it.
KRISHNA: Yeah, Vyasar. Yeah.
HOLMES: Yeah, yeah, yeah, Vyasar. And some of the men really seemed like what they’ve internalized is, like, it’s my job to get married, whereas the women have more internalized, I need to get married in order to be a whole person, you know?
KRISHNA: Yeah, it truly was like – a lot of the women, it was like, I’ve tried everything else, and I just need to feel whole and complete. And the men were like, my mom is nagging me to get married, so I guess I need to get married.
HOLMES: (Laughter) It’s true.
KRISHNA: But none of them seemed, like, particularly jazzed about getting married. Like, oh, my gosh, Akshay – his mom was like, if you don’t get married by this month, I’m literally just going to choose someone for you, and you will marry that person. What was her name? Preeti Auntie – Preeti.
KRISHNA: Oh, my gosh.
HOLMES: And she’s like, you’re making my blood pressure go up and, you know…
KRISHNA: Her BP.
HOLMES: …You can’t – you’re – she is placing a lot of pressure on him.
QURESHI: To, Priya, your point, it’s generated so many memes, like, around the show…
QURESHI: …And, like, within South Asian, like, Twitter, Instagram stuff. Like, every person – there’s an Aparna, like, meme for everything, when you want to throw an Aparna diss to someone or – I think what that speaks to, too, from a format perspective is it reminds me of one of those, like, perfectly cast hot mess of, like, a “Real World” show. I kept wondering, how did she choose these particular people? ‘Cause they appear over various episodes, which was also kind of interesting because you see some of them actually matched with other people in the cast who some people have not accepted or whatever.
QURESHI: So in a way, it has this kind of ensemble. And I find the ensemble itself is, like, amazing ’cause it’s – these people are perfect for reality TV, I suppose, in some ways.
KRISHNA: And I think, like, if you look at the cast of “Indian Matchmaking” vis-a-vis, you know, who they choose for “Bachelor” or “Bachelorette,” any other reality TV show, it’s cast in the exact same way. You’ve got your villains, you’ve got the people who…
KRISHNA: …You’re supposed to root for. You’ve got your, like, absurd people, your mama’s boys. Like, you know, you’ve got the whole spectrum of folks that you would expect in a reality TV show.
HOLMES: Yeah. I think it’s very well cast from the standpoint of making you interested in it. Like, I’ve talked to so many people who have found it just, you know, the TV equivalent of an unputdownable book…
HOLMES: …And some of the pleasures of it for me were the same as they are on other silly dating shows. Like, you see this woman Nadia go on this date with this dude. And they’re like, oh, you don’t like ketchup? I don’t like ketchup. That becomes this big thing they’re going to bond over, like neither one of them has ever met anyone who doesn’t like ketchup before. And it’s just one of those strange, like, quirky things that happens with people. And I did enjoy that part of it very much.
KRISHNA: And I think the other part that’s really funny is that, like, Sima is very upfront that, like, you know, true love, romance is not a part of her equation. Like, in India, there’s literally another word. It’s arranged marriage and love marriage. And love marriage – I find this so annoying, but it’s, like, also kind of hilarious – that, like, love marriage means, like, you selected this partner. They were not arranged. As if an arranged marriage can never be…
KRISHNA: …You can never be in love. Akshay goes on this date with this woman who ends up becoming his fiancee. They exchanged maybe, like, five words in the entire date. And then it, like, cuts to him being like, yes, she’s the one.
QURESHI: I think one of the things that’s very funny to me is that a lot of people seem to be – the aunties kind of points to this new kind of millennial digital generation that’s the cast is like, a lot of them are just exasperated. They’re like, I’ve tried the apps, I’ve done the thing. Like, could the aunties be making, like, a return in a major way, other places too? Because there are a lot of people that I feel in communities and cultures outside of ours too, where there’s conversations happening around, like, it’s really hard with the apps and dating and whatever.
And ultimately, you know, the question I think at the center of the show, too, is like, do you have to get married? Like, do you have to find a partner? – which I think is running through a variety of things in culture. In this case, there’s a pressure to do so, but a lot of people are also tired ’cause they’ve tried every technique and this was kind of the last resort. And the auntie is there to be like, y’all need to get your priorities right. There is no love. There’s just Auntie Sima, and she’s going to tell you who you marry.
KRISHNA: Yeah. I think my favorite part to that point was the vignettes at the beginning of each episode where they interview couples who have done arranged marriages. And they speak in very plain terms about their marriage and this idea that, like, marriage isn’t necessarily this big romance, but rather a partnership between families. And I found those to be just, like, so refreshing and so endearing.
HOLMES: Yeah, well, and I think a lot of them – it’s clear that they do love each other. It’s clear that there is a love between them. And I think some of the people who were going to Sima were fundamentally, ultimately looking for what those couples had, which is that they were looking for an arranged marriage that would also be a loving marriage. And some of them were very close to using Sima more like a supercharged dating app, where she would find the person and then you would go and you would meet them and you would see if you sort of like hit it off or had a spark, as opposed to what I think Sima ideally thinks you should do, which is just go and basically like see if the person is OK, sort of like what Akshay did. Like, you go, you meet the person and basically do what he did, which is essentially like, this is fine.
HOLMES: You know?
Well, we want to know what you think about “Indian Matchmaking.” Find us at facebook.com/pchh and on Twitter @PCHH. That brings us to the end of our show. And, of course, thank you for listening to POP CULTURE HAPPY HOUR from NPR. This episode was produced by Mike Katzif and edited by Jessica Reedy. Hello Come In provides our theme music. I’m Linda Holmes, and we’ll see you all tomorrow.
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