Two weeks ago Netflix debuted Indian Matchmaking, an eight-episode documentary series that follows Sima Taparia (a matchmaker from Mumbai) on her quest to find the perfect partner for a mix of South Asian people, both in India and in the U.S. While the show shared an accurate representation of what an “arranged marriage” actually is—a simple introduction—what unfolds contains some uncomfortable truths about South Asian culture: a clear preference for girls that are “tall, slim, trim, fair, and flexible”; a glaring disparity between how women and men are expected to approach finding a partner; and uncomfortable judgement of others, based on their social standing, origin, caste, religion, and color.
While entertaining in parts, the show proved to be pretty triggering in a lot of ways. As a first-generation Indian girl who grew up in the U.K., my internal battle with wanting to fit into my immediate environment without feeling like I’m abandoning my heritage is something I think I’ll always be managing. While I feel proud to be part of a culture that I truly love, it’s also the same culture that has enforced a lot of harsh impressions on me, in terms of how I see myself and the world around me. I still need to consistently remind myself that they aren’t true. And I know I’m not the only one.
This week, after we’d all binged Indian Matchmaking, I got on a video chat with three South Asian women to not only unpack the show but dig into our individual experiences and how we’re choosing to redefine how we interact with our culture in a way that is celebratory and uplifting, not burdensome.
Along with myself, the participants in this conversation were Amrit Sidhu, an Indian-Australian D.J. living in New York; Anaa Saber, a Pakistani-American creative consultant and writer from New York; and Simran Randhawa, a Punjabi Malaysian journalist and model based in London.
We had a lot to say, so let’s get into it!
Simran: I’m curious—have any of you girls been pressured or have your families tried to pressure you into arranged marriages or marriage?
Anaa: Oh my God. All the time, are you kidding me? Like “When are you getting married? It’s time to get married. You’re getting older now. It’s time to get serious. Do you know anyone? Have you met someone?”
Simran: “It’s time to get serious” stuff, that’s so triggering!
Anaa: I feel Indian Matchmaking has showcased how transactionally marriage is viewed. Seeing how South Asians think that as a woman you’re going to truly get to live your life once you get married—that’s absolutely not the case. And it sucks that that’s still the conversations people are having. For me, marriage is just something that… When it happens, it happens.
Jasmin: Have you had that conversation with your family? That this is your viewpoint on it?
Anaa: A lot, my family is very understanding of that. But I’m sure that there are so many people and so many women whose families don’t understand. And they’re forced into getting married, and they’re forced into this compromise that was talked about so often on Indian Matchmaking. And even, we can take a look at what-was-his-name? With the crazy mom?
Anaa: Akshay! It didn’t seem like he wanted to get married. He was pretty content doing his own thing. But his family pressure was so much [that] he got engaged.
Jasmin: Not that this is a good thing, but we’re seeing more examples of South Asians openly getting divorced earlier on, as a result of feeling like they had to get married in the first place. People spend all this time worrying about who they’re going to get married to. They force themselves into a situation to please everyone else. The family spends so much money on the wedding and all of that. And then if it all goes to nothing in a couple of years, was it really worth it?
Simran: And it’s so telling the way that Sima herself described it. She didn’t say it was a wedding industry. She said it was a marriage industry. It freaked me out so much. I think for a second, I kind of forgot that I was—I am still part of that culture, but I’m also not. I’m kind of removed from it because I don’t really go to family events that much, I don’t really go to the temple. Don’t really have the community around me in the sense that I’m sure all of those people in the program did. And obviously half of my family are majorly into stuff like that. But I don’t know—for some reason watching it, I was watching like, “Fuck this, fuck marriage.” It’s too much. It’s so intense.
Jasmin: Does it ever feel like a shame that you’re not able to connect with your culture in that way? [Not] going to the parties or to the temple because people in our communities behave in a way that you don’t enjoy being around?
Simran: No, not necessarily. I’ve always said that the way my mom interacts with her Punjabi culture is going to be different to the way that I interact with it. I don’t think it’s some textbook, clear-cut case. And at the end of the day I still have Punjabi friends. I still have South Asian friends. I can still make jokes and eat the food and watch the movies, I don’t necessarily have to go to the Gurdwara [ed. note: Sikh temple] to do that. And while my mom might choose religion and language as her priority, I might choose movies, music, and fashion, for example. I don’t think it’s a sad thing that I don’t go to the Gurdwara and stuff.
Jasmin: There’s no right or wrong way to connect with your culture.
Anaa: And also if someone doesn’t believe in the same things as you, you can have conversations about it. It’s not like you just completely shut that part out of your life. You know?
Amrit: For me, the frustrating thing about the show was that as much as it was really entertaining, and I really enjoyed having these conversations with people who never normally reach out to me, it was also really frustrating because I felt like it was reinforcing all these stereotypes that I never really grew up with. I grew up with my mom and my sister in Australia. My mom’s family is a huge melting pot of everything, because we were born in Singapore. My dad’s the Punjabi one—he wasn’t that present in my life. I went to Hindi school, and I went to temple and stuff in the early days, but then I didn’t really have that growing up later on. Seeing these stereotypes be reinforced in the show and having people ask, “Is your life really like that?” I’m like, “No, it couldn’t be further from that at all.” My mom never pressures me. The idea of her having a conversation with me about arranged marriages is so foreign. That’s not a conversation she would ever even think to have with me, ever.
Anaa: And that’s the thing, I feel like it’s so flawed. The representation on screen is so flawed from reality. It was just one type of representation on screen.
Amrit: It’s also a very elitist perspective because that’s such a small sect of wealthy Indians, and the majority of India is not like that at all. That’s definitely not the India my dad came from. They didn’t come from money like that. It was a very interesting perspective that people who are now only seeing that are like, “Oh, that’s what it’s like.” It’s like, “No, it’s not.” But similarly, I felt the same when Bend It Like Beckham came out, and everyone was like, “Are you allowed to play sports?” I’m like, “Yeah, I’m allowed to play.” Why is everybody asking me these weird questions? I’m just like all of you.
Simran: Nadia, Vyasar, and Rupam from the show, I feel like they were their attempt at trying to sprinkle in some Indian diversity into the show. With Nadia especially, I think that really hit home because I’m Malaysian Indian, so that raised so many questions about who gets to be Indian. Also their individual stories, like Vyasar’s dad being in jail. The way that that was portrayed was that all these things were working against him. I especially felt this with Nadia being Guyanese—I hated the way that that was portrayed as such a deal breaker. It was almost like a secret that she needed to disclose. I think even just by the way that they edited and portrayed those people, who were meant to be the attempts at throwing in some diversity, did them such a disservice.
Anaa: Yeah, they painted them in such a negative light. It’s so prevalent, especially in media—they continue to show us such a one-sided representation onscreen, which is very Hindu-centric. So, anything outside of that is considered foreign and wrong.
Simran: Sorry to interrupt, but even with the show, the way that they viewed people like Ankita, Nadia, and Vyasar in comparison to the rich, like Pradhyuman and Akshay. Sima said, “Oh, I’d give him 95 out of a hundred” or whatever. They viewed them as easy, desirable matches. Whereas the other ones, Sima was like, “Oh, I’ve got my work cut out for me.”
Anaa: Yeah, because at the end of the day, classism, casteism, all of that is so deeply rooted in South Asian culture.
Amrit: It never fell on the men though. It was only on the women. They were difficult or they were hard work to show options to, but I didn’t feel like she was like that when showing options to the guys. The onus was only ever on the women to be accountable to anything. They kept being like, “She has to be flexible. She’s just inflexible.” I’m like, “What is she? A gymnast?”
Simran: They never actually explicitly said, what does being flexible mean? And especially in the context of Akshay’s mother, flexible definitely meant a daughter-in-law who would do whatever she wants and run the house in the way that she wants. It was like a woman who had no agency. I think this is my whole point. In the whole show, the women were so stripped of their agency.
Jasmin: It all starts with expectations that are put on the women—they’re positioned to start from a place of weakness. They’re not told, “You’re great as you are. You’ve got so much that you should be proud of.” They’re told, “It’s going to be more difficult for you.” That being said, I’m often inspired by how many brilliant South Asian women I meet who really defy these stereotypes, and I feel like they’re much easier to come by than boys.
Amrit: Well, we have so much to prove. Because when you’re a woman you’re a second-class citizen. So for us, just to even be considered in anything, we have to be the best.
Jasmin: All of us have really chosen really non-traditional paths with where we’ve taken our careers. What are some barriers you came up against being a South Asian girl in your industry?
Anaa: My entire life was to battle to break into the fashion industry. I was a black sheep of the family. I liked art. I like drawing. I like painting. I was a very creative person. And throughout my life I was told, “You have to be a doctor. You have to be an engineer. You need to focus on business,” all these things. And I never wanted to do any of that. They didn’t necessarily know what my career path was going to be, but they were like, “You need to make it. Whatever it is, you need to make it.” What I do right now is super non-conventional, so when I meet someone that’s South Asian and doing the same thing, I’m like, “Oh, we can connect on so many things,” because it wasn’t easy for us. We weren’t very privileged. I didn’t have access to the same things that my white counterparts did. So for me personally, it was a really long battle.
Simran: One thing I always say is I never intentionally intended to go embark on the career that I’m on. I kind of stumbled onto it. I had pressure, but I also had freedom. I was lucky in the sense that my parents had never told me what to study or who to be friends with. When I got into modeling, they were always very supportive. I think a lot of my “struggle” has mostly more so come from extended family as opposed to my immediate family. Initially there was a lot of passive-aggressive comments. Now that they’ve seen how successful I’ve become, they’ve become a lot more supportive.
Jasmin: It’s a shame when it’s like, you really have to struggle through things alone and only get support from your community when you’ve proven to be successful. It’s like we like to be associated when you’re winning, but when you’re struggling, we won’t be the ones to openly support.
Simran: A hundred percent, 100 percent. And they’ll be the first to criticize.
Jasmin: It’s very common in South Asian culture to bring each other down instead of lifting each other up—there isn’t a sense of camaraderie between us as a community. Almost like we’re competing to be the only Brown face in the room. Or feeling like you really have to prove something to differentiate yourself from the other Brown people.
Amrit: Say I’m on hold for a job, and I find out my other Brown friend got confirmed. In my mind, straightaway I’m like, “Okay, I didn’t get the job,” because there’s never space for more than one of us, because to them there’s only one type of us. I, similarly to Simran, grew up in a very matriarchal society. My mom was strict, strict like any other South Asian parent. She was doing the best she could, and we were just running around thinking, “But we live in Australia, we’re not really that Indian, so why can’t we do this?” It wasn’t until I achieved relative success that my family paid attention to what I did. Before, they were like, “Oh, she’s just run off to the other side of the world without a visa. We don’t know what she’s doing.” And it wasn’t until things panned out in a way where I proved that I could stand on my own two feet—and I’ve been doing this for over a decade and I’ve navigated everything on my own—that they came around and were like, “Do you need help now?” I’m like, “No, I needed help 10 years ago,” when I was broke and had no health insurance. That’s when I needed help, and now I don’t need help. It always comes a little too late because they want to be associated with success. But that’s what they know, and that’s so intrinsic to our culture. In the same way that [news about a] divorce or any type of family that doesn’t follow the blueprint for success is never shared.
Simran: Yeah. Like when my dad went back to jail, my mom didn’t tell extended family for over a year. And I was like, “You literally need a support group.” But then I think it was also definitely that element of shame that informed it. And also, to go back to what were you saying about having to struggle before getting recognition: Part of me gets it because I guess that in that generation, things—things which are vocational courses, such as being a lawyer, such as being a doctor—has a clear end goal, and it also has immediate results and immediate benefits. Because of the lack of awareness of creative careers, they can’t see the end goal. They can’t see what that immediate or eventual success is going to look like. So then they don’t know if they should support you or not because they literally don’t even know what they’re supporting. But I think then that comes down to having faith in your child.
Amrit: Even as a creative entrepreneur, it’s hard for even me to explain what I do to people because it changes every day. To them it’s such a foreign concept. All they have to measure is the success. And for them the success is you not being financially dependent on them. Because I know if I asked any of our parents what we did, they would struggle to describe it, even now.
Jasmin: My dad called Man Repeller “Man Repellent” for the first year I worked here. I’m like, “Sure. Close enough.” It’s a situation that first-generation kids are all too familiar with. My mum and dad were both born in Punjab, and even though they’re now very familiar with Western culture, I have to remember that the way my dad grew up on a farm in Punjab before having an arranged marriage is wildly different to how I grew up and am now living alone in New York. Instead of being frustrated by it, it’s also about empathizing with where the disconnect is coming from.
Amrit: Because they’re only projecting what they know. And you always have to check yourself and remind yourself of that. My mom was my age when she was raising us alone. I’d get frustrated with her when she’d be like, “Stay out of the sun. You’ve been in the sun way too long. Don’t get so dark.” But only because in the way that she grew up, having lighter skin afforded her different privileges. My sister’s really fair skinned. I said this on my Stories and so many people responded to me, was that we go to family gatherings and people would look at my sister and be like, “So beautiful,” and then look at me and then go to my mom, “What happened?” in front of me. And I was so young that I never understood what that meant.
Jasmin: Did that experience make you feel bad about it? Like not being able to see your dark skin as attractive?
Amrit: Especially in representation in Indian media, we never saw ourselves. In Bollywood, I never saw an actress who looked like me. And then in Hollywood, I never saw an actress who looked like me. And then growing up all my life, I was being told, “Stay out of the sun. Stay out of sun.” It becomes indoctrinated. It’s just something that you don’t even question. Watching the show, as frustrating as it was, validated so many feelings I didn’t even know I had.
Anaa: Things are so based on looks that it’s so frustrating. Fair skin, slim, trim. You hear these words and they’re actually so triggering. As much as people think they’re funny on the show, they open up so much trauma.
Simran: It’s crazy how normalized things like Fair & Lovely were in my childhood. To me, for a very long time, it was literally just another cream on my shelf or it was just another cream that I had. Or turmeric masks. I remember my sister doing turmeric masks religiously before her wedding because they helped her get fairer. And it’s like, all of these things were just normalized. Part of me is like you can only really look back on it with the luxury of retrospect and realize that a lot of stuff you did was fucked up.
Anaa: And a lot of it goes back to our colonizers and these Western standards of beauty. So the fact of the matter is that that’s still prevalent, especially in India, especially in Pakistan. You name it. It’s because of that, that it’s so ingrained into our society.
Anaa: I don’t know if you guys are so frustrated by it, but I am so frustrated by the representation of South Asians in media. Never Have I Ever, the show that Mindy Kaling just released, I was so excited for that show, and it was so disappointing. Every single Brown person is painted under the same stereotypes. All arranged marriage, curry, food, all these things. And it’s like, when do I get to see someone on screen who’s like us? I was literally joking with Amrit and Simran before this, I was like, “Netflix needs to give us a show because we would kill it.” We need some real actual representation in the room.
Amrit: But I think most minorities feel that way. I feel the same way when I watch Black movies, I’m like, I want to see a Black love story that’s not ridden in trauma. Or not ridden in something so painful. It doesn’t have to be Moonlight and it doesn’t have to be If Beale Street Could Talk. I want to see a happy love story and a normal life that’s not so washed in stereotypes.
Simran: You have to think about the average Netflix users, probably like a white North American. And so when they’re watching these shows of us, like Never Have I Ever, like Indian Matchmaking, in their mind all it’s doing is perpetuating stereotypes. They’re not going to look at these shows with the same nuance that we’re going to look at it and be like, “Oh look, this joke is rooted in casteism, colorism and colonialism.” They’re not going to think that. They’re just going to think, “Oh, this confirms all of my stereotypes before about what I was thinking, that Asians have arranged marriages.” When I was at university, I can’t tell you the amount of times white boys asked me on nights out, “There’s no point in me getting with you because you’re going to end up having an arranged marriage anyway.”
Jasmin: It comes down to not just seeing South Asian people doing stereotypical things. We have progressed. We’re living proof of that progression.
Feature Image via Netflix.