Finding Soulmates On-Screen

July 26, 2020

Netflix branches into the subcontinental rishta business with its new reality series featuring an Indian matchmaker and her clients. But is the show really that different from other love based reality productions?

Reality TV has always been considered the lowest form of entertainment but has a particular voyeuristic aspect that appeals to human nature and always attracts eyeballs, even if they are simply hate-watchers (a subset of audiences who watch a particular show or genre just to be able to critically hate on it). Last year Netflix released two different kinds of love/matchmaking shows that featured Western contenders.

There was Love is Blind which featured contestants who had to choose a life partner without ever meeting them before asking to marry and another, Too Hot To Handle, that paid contestants to not get physical, to borrow from Olivia Newton John. Both series were binge watched across the globe, thoroughly dissected and enjoyed for the glimpse they gave us into the strange workings of love and the minds of single people living (mostly) in the US.

Netflix is also no stranger to Indian content, hosting several exclusive series made for the streaming giant. From Sacred Games starring Saif Ali Khan that had a thrilling season one to smaller productions like Hasmukh featuring comedian/actor Vir Das, the platform was quick to recognize the demand and reach for Indian content exploring facets of sub-continental society. Netflix recently signed on 17 new series that boast Indian production.

However, Netflix’s latest reality series, Indian Matchmaking combines two different genres of TV to bring us something so deeply embedded in sub-continental culture that it’s impossible to ignore. Arrange marriages and rishta-culture are the manual matchmaking methods that can be credited with 90% of sub-continental nuptials and are widely popular to date. They too rely on a few selected photos of the individuals, personality traits they possess and traits they’re looking for in a partner, just like you’d find on modern dating apps like Tinder or Bumble. The process, however, is controlled by the families of the individuals with an inordinate amount of power consolidated by the groom’s family (thank you, patriarchy) and is facilitated through a matchmaker (often for a hefty fee).

For the traditional sub-continental men, the act of swipe yes or no to a potential match has existed since eons in the form of potential profiles of females who have been rejected or accepted based on superficial, hypocritical and mostly misogynistic ideals. The women, while they have finally gained some autonomy or say in the matter, are paraded one after the other, interchangeable with each other in the fact that they’re to be seen and not to be heard. There are also countless other toxic norms perpetuated by the system that make arranged marriages the masters of traumatic legacies.

The series features clients of a Mumbai based professional matchmaker, Sima Taparia who moves between India and the US, helping single souls find The One. The show itself, like several of its American/European produced counterparts, explores the dynamics of singlehood and the challenges one faces on the journey to find a companion. While the series explores a narrow subset limited to wealthy, upper caste Hindus, it manages to critique arrange marriages by letting the process and each contestant/family speak for themselves.

The sub-continental arrange marriage culture has been the source of pain and trauma for many generations of single people (women) but what Indian Matchmaking, when viewed in context to other love based reality series brings to the fore, is universal commonality of the search for a lifelong companion, an inherent human desire that has been the cause of conflict between the genders since time immemorial. It explores how we view the same behavior differently when exhibited by men and women and on a personal level, can expose the innate biases that viewers might be working with themselves.

No reality TV production is without its cringe moments and characters because humanity itself doesn’t exist without them and a terrible nature knows no gender. Men and women both can be exacting when it comes to finding a partner or can be completely clueless as to traits that appeal to them, often just looking to be validated by the existence of a partner. Indian Matchmaking is replete with cringe characters and moments from mummy’s boy Akshay, who wants a woman just like his mother to marry, to Anikta’s meeting with Delhi based matchmaker Geeta who disguises thinly veiled misogyny behind a veneer of elitism.

Another common theme that stands out when you explore different love based series is that people view long-term companionship as a goal, which can lead to desperation when faced with the dark abyss of singlehood. In Indian Matchmaking there’s the lovely Nadia who breaks down on screen because everyone around her is married and being single feels like a personal failure. Atlanta based Love is Blind featured Mark Cuevas who was an immediate audience favourite who struggled with insecurities and in the series trying to win over the affections of Jessica.

Both Nadia and Mark come across as warm, fun, loving characters who struggle with self-love and hence, are unable to see their own worth by settling for partners who might not be worth their time or effort. There’s a comparison to be made for Jessica and Aparna, two of the most critically viewed female characters onscreen and definitely a parallel that can be drawn between Barnett, Akshay and Pradhyuman for their borderline narcissist personalities and their inability to stand up for their partners in front of family particularly.

The release of the new Netflix series has been met with heavy criticism online, especially by women who have been victimized and dehumanized by the arrange marriage process and rightfully so. However, the fact of the matter remains that matchmakers will continue to have space in society, whether in formal or informal capacities, existing as individuals or algorithms designed to facilitate the matchmaking process, as long as people continue looking for love. What these series truly depict are the lengths single people across the globe are willing to go through in order to find a partner and the universal need to be loved and cared for.

Watch it just so you can cringe-laugh and understand all the incredible memes stemming from the show circulating online.

Finding Soulmates On-Screen