Director Smriti Mundhra On New Dating Show and the Business of Indian Matchmaking

Director Smriti Mundhra On New Dating Show and the Business of Indian Matchmaking

In May, after binge-watching Netflix’s Love Is Blind with equal parts morbid fascination and disbelief, it felt inevitable that the streaming service would eventually serve a reality show about arranged marriages. I hoped it wouldn’t be—as I jokingly tweetedLove Is Arranged, a show about judgmental Indian aunties pushing a group of wayward American millennials to find life partners on a tropical island. Lo and behold, three months later, Netflix debuted Indian Matchmaking. The original series follows Mumbai-based matchmaker Sima Taparia as she meets Indian millennials and their families who are looking for life partners in both India and America.

Thankfully, it’s not the exoticizing, over-the-top production that I had fearfully anticipated. This is because the show was pitched and created by Oscar-nominated director Smriti Mundhra, the Indian American woman behind 2017 documentary A Suitable Girl, which offered a nuanced look at arranged marriages in India today and the disproportionate impact on the women who enter them. (I wrote about how the film prompted me to reflect on my own upbringing and understanding of the method by which most of my family members have married). Under Mundhra’s careful eye, Indian Matchmaking is as binge-able as any popular dating reality show on TV, while still retaining authenticity. Think Dating Around, except everyone is of Indian ethnicity, we follow their journeys before and after the first date, and we witness the intricate process—which includes interviews with their families, matchmakers, astrologers, and resume-like documents called Biodatas—to set them up.

Each of Taparia’s clients faces a set of challenges in finding the right partner. Ankita, a Mumbai-based entrepreneur, seeks a man who will see her as a full equal. Nadia faces discrimination within the Indian American community because she is Guyanese Indian. Vyasar, a guidance counselor in Austin, Texas, fears judgment because he is estranged from his abusive father. Some of the episodes are bookended with delightful conversations between older South Asian couples who reminisce over their long-lasting arranged partnerships, creating an engaging show that, as a first-generation Indian American woman, I could comfortably binge-watch with both my mother or my white friends without feeling the need to explain or translate.

The show attempts to reclaim a cultural tradition in South Asia that has long been misrepresented in the West, but in doing so, is also burdened by a misperception, or even a demand, that it speaks for an entire subcontinent of people. Instead, it offers a window into the psyche of families that enjoy a substantial amount of privilege: Taparia’s featured clients range from upper-middle-class to the ultra-rich, and all are middle and upper-caste Hindu and Sikh Indians seeking heterosexual relationships. While their reasons for seeking a matchmaker are diverse and varied—some insist that it’s time for their children to marry, whereas in other families, children who are unsatisfied by dating initiate the process—the process also reveals how, in their quest for a “good” match, cultural and caste-based biases are baked into vetting potential partners.

Mundhra anticipates that the show will prompt difficult conversations and criticisms within, and about, the Indian American community. “I’m thrilled with the praise, but I’m ready for the critique, too,” she says. “I want the show to start a conversation. I want, for me as a creator, to be held accountable by my community, and I want the opportunity to have a season two to push these conversations even further.” Ahead of its debut, I spoke to Mundhra about the series, her experience pitching the show, and what conversations she hopes it inspires.

JEZEBEL: In A Suitable Girl, you explored arranged marriages in India. Aside from the obvious shared theme, are these two works connected in any way?

SMRITI MUNDHRA: Sima was my matchmaker, and she was a very well-known person in our community in India. I was so captivated by her because she was such an incredible character. She’s almost like made-for-TV. We got to touch a little bit on that in A Suitable Girl because the film was about the perspective of the young women—and Sima’s daughter’s journey–but there was this whole other world that we didn’t get that much into in A Suitable Girl, which was the business of matchmaking.

Far more people are going to see this show than have seen my film. That’s an opportunity to talk about the great things about our culture and our traditions, but also some of the problematic things. As South Asians and as Indians, what is our relationship with marriage in this day and age? How does it evolve and what parts of it should we preserve? That’s what excited me about it, that we get to talk about this in this package of this super fun, appealing, widely available piece of pop culture. In the process of making this show, I really recognized the power of mainstream shows and films to smash stereotypes. I think a lot of people have a lot of stereotypes about arranged marriage, and hopefully, this show breaks through that and shows how varied and adaptable it can be, but also forces a conversation around some of the things that are long overdue for change.

We can have this lighthearted look at our traditions that can be as revealing as something serious, like A Suitable Girl.

How did you pitch this to Netflix, and what choices did you make to ensure it was authentic yet entertaining?

The pitch to Netflix was really simple. All I had to do was introduce them to Sima. She’s a powerhouse, she’s a force. She’s got this sparkly personality, and she’s a professional matchmaker, and her work is not only super entertaining to watch, but it reveals so much about what we value—about other people, in ourselves, in our traditions, in our culture—it’s the perfect lens through which to examine what our value system is. And to show the nuances of the South Asian diaspora. It’s not homogenous. We don’t have to be defined by our stereotypes through the Western gaze and our trauma. We can have this lighthearted look at our traditions that can be as revealing as something serious, like A Suitable Girl. That was what my pitch was to Netflix, and they were super excited about it.

In terms of making sure we were able to balance that agenda with a mandate of creating a fun dating show, that was sort of a result of a collaboration between myself and our showrunner J.C. Begley and my producing partners at IPC, who are absolute professionals about making high quality, highly entertaining shows with deeper underlying messages. As the only South Asian person on the creative team, I was able to make sure we were steering away from stereotypes, adding nuance and perspective to the storylines. Making sure we were casting to represent as broad a swath of the diaspora as you possibly could. It was far from perfect, and a lot of it was also a function of who wanted to be on the show, but within that, we really tried to make sure we were representing a diverse background, of voices, of classes, as much as we possibly could. It’s important to have someone like Nadia on the show because a lot of Indian Americans don’t consider Guyanese Indians as Indian, and there’s a dynamic there that’s interesting to expose. It’s important that we have people who come from divorced family backgrounds. Let’s talk about that stigma and try to remove that stigma that we have as South Asians. There’s a lot of those things that I was able to amplify and point out over the course of our casting and filming that maybe my partners wouldn’t have known to look for.

This is a show that, due to its subject, perspective, and approach, I cannot imagine being greenlit even five years ago. What has changed to allow this to exist?

We have all of these new streaming platforms like Netflix that are broadcasting all over the world and recognize the value of nuanced storytelling that has to feel authentic to the place from which it originates. The reason that this show got moving was that at the time when I first pitched it, Netflix hadn’t yet launched in India. They were very aggressively ramping up their offerings and content for India in anticipation of that launch, and this was a good example of a show that is very rooted in experiences of people in India and the diaspora but is interesting to a wider demographic, too.

I actually pitched this idea way back in 2009 or 2010. I met a TV producer at a reality TV production company around the time that I met Sima, and at that time, I was told: Well, it could maybe work if you have a white person who she match-makes and you follow that journey through the lens of a white person. I was like: That’s crazy, I don’t know how that makes any sense. That’s how much has changed in the last 10 years. A show like this only 10 years ago could have only gotten greenlit if it was through the white gaze, and now it can be unabashedly, authentically Indian, from the perspective of Indians, nuanced about the diaspora and showing the breadth of the diaspora, and really showing that no two of us are necessarily alike in our thinking, in our ideology, in our background, in our expectations, and it can still be a widely appealing show.

I also wonder if—now that we’re in an era where online dating is no longer new, nor has it turned out to be a cure-all for our dating woes—there is a renewed interest in matchmaking shows and culture. This method certainly has an appeal over apps like Tinder or OKCupid.

Our perspective on dating is sort of a microcosm of where we are culturally and as a society, where there was a period of time where the goal was choice. We didn’t want to do work—we wanted the algorithms to do the work for us, and we wanted to have infinite choice and we wanted to have our match curated and tailor-made to our desires. And that’s the implicit promise of the tech boom and data science: that even if you’re watching Netflix, this algorithm is going to learn about you and feed you things that it predicts you’re going to be interested in. We came to sort of expect that out of dating.

But I think we’re recognizing that we’re missing something with that. We’ve become paralyzed by choice and this sort of abundance desensitizes us. It takes away our ability to be surprised and let life surprise us. I think that’s what a matchmaker in a show like Indian Matchmaking— you’re not being offered 50 choices at once. Someone is giving you one or two choices, three at the most, and then you have to take a chance and get to know the person and invest in the relationship and see if it’s going to work. I think that’s really appealing to people who feel paralyzed by choice and who feel dissatisfied with anything that perfectly fits within our parameters.

As much as the show highlights the differing needs and approaches that people have in the diaspora versus in India, they’ll also see that we’re more similar than we think.

One interesting aspect of the show is the decision to follow Sima match families in India and in America, in parallel. What differences did you observe between the two cultures, and why did you want to show families in both countries going through this process?

There is more space for people from America, or from less conservative backgrounds, to be single. There’s slightly less pressure to conform to a specific path and timeline. In India, things are definitely changing, but particularly in some of the more conservative communities, it still often feels like there’s only one path. So in America, a matchmaker feels supplementary to other things: You could still stay on the dating apps, you can still meet people at bars, and you can have a matchmaker who gives you a more bespoke service. In India, the matchmaker becomes the vetting process between two families, because that is so important in India—you’re not just marrying the person, you’re marrying their family. And a matchmaker can essentially vouch for the family before putting two people together. I don’t think we necessarily need that as much in America. We’re more individualistic here.

One thing that I hope the show demonstrates is that that’s also changing. In some regards, because of the paradox of choice and how much confusion choice has caused for us in America, we’re sort of resorting back to wanting more vetting and more curating in our choices, and then in India, we’re sort of loosening that grip a little bit. So you see people who are saying, “I’m going to wait until I find someone who really fits the bill,” like Pradhyuman or Ankita, who are less willing to conform to a certain path. As much as the show highlights the differing needs and approaches that people have in the diaspora versus in India, they’ll also see that we’re more similar than we think.

Pretty much everyone on the show says they are looking for “a good match,” or “a good family,” or “a good person.” There’s this emphasis on that idea of “good,” but I think the show forces you to confront: What does good mean? What sort of traditions and attitudes are baked into the conception of a good person or a good family? That’s where we start to see peoples’ biases, like the idea that somebody’s divorced or what caste they are from makes them not good.

I’m so happy you picked up on that because one of the conversations and debates that I hope the show sparks amongst our community is, “What does ‘good’ even mean?” In a traditional matchmaking scenario, if you only looked at Vyasar on paper, he’s the type of person who a person might reject because his parents are divorced and he has this very difficult background. But in the show, you get to contextualize that experience and you get to see him and meet him and understand him for who he is and how his experiences have shaped him for who he is in a way that makes him such a wonderful partner for somebody. There’s a direct link between the difficulty of his experiences to the type of partner he would be. I hope people see that and see that we shouldn’t allow these very categorical things to define the way we look at other people and rearrange what our priorities are.

You and I know this—we may have had more time to deprogram ourselves from a lot of the things that we’ve internalized, but growing up South Asian, whether it’s in India or in the US, there’s a process of being programmed and internalizing things from not just our own lives, but from generations. It’s work to deprogram ourselves and change our value systems. Our show is not to admonish people for not being there yet, but hopefully will be a reflection, and hold a mirror up, and say: Let’s talk about what we value and how we need to change and think differently.

There’s been a recent series of profiles on Black women, specifically—Michaela Coel, Thandie Newton, Viola Davis—who have been very candid about the racism they experienced, their refusal to step down, and their reason for speaking up now. As a brown woman director whose work comes from this political place, are observations or experiences about power and storytelling in this industry that you’d like to share?

As far as I’m concerned, this is the work right now. And it’s really, really hard. I read that Michaela Coel profile three times. I was in such awe. As someone who works in the industry, I can recognize how brave and how risky it is—at the point in her career where she fired her agents and took control of her career—how much confidence and how much courage that takes. I’ll be frank with you: I’m not that brave. I’m still trying to unravel this mindset—this speaks to your article that you wrote so beautifully, this feeling of having to be grateful to be where you are, and once you’re there, just be quiet and try to get along, and maybe one day you’ll get enough leverage to push things forward. And I’ve definitely been of that mindset for many years in my career. It’s so hard just to get in the door. It’s so hard just to get a seat at the table that when you’re there you’re like, Let me just hold on to it.

I think the next phase for me is to start to move away from that and recognize the power that I have, the leverage that I already have, the space that I need to take up and claim for myself—because no one’s going to give it to me—and understand that that’s going to cost me some opportunities, it’s going to cost me some relationships, it’s going to cause some people to look at me like a troublemaker—but it’s going to create the type of environment for me to really thrive in a new way. I’m not fully there yet. It’s a process. I think the more of us add our voices to the chorus, the more we recognize we’re not alone and the more things will start to change.

Prachi Gupta is an award-winning journalist and former senior reporter at Jezebel. Her first book, about Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, is out now via Workman Publishing.

Indian Matchmaking debuts worldwide on Netflix Thursday, July 16.

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