"Matches are made in heaven and God has given me the job of making them successful on earth", says Sima Taparia, 'Mumbai's top matchmaker' and the central figure of Netflix's latest non-fiction series, Indian Matchmaking.
The 8-episode show follows a handful of Sima's clients and their ongoing search for a life partner. Moments into the first episode, her approach to marriage and relationships is made clear. "In India, we have to see the caste, the height and the age", she says. Words like 'good family', 'good education' and 'good upbringing' frequently get tossed around. We rarely hear her speak of love or companionship, instead all her clients are repeatedly informed that ''marriage is compromise and adjustment''.
Sima (or Sima aunty as she's known) caters to high-end clientele in India and abroad. The majority of the show's subjects live in the US. She is unapologetic in prioritising the requirements of the parents and families first, and the individual second. The opening scene of the first episode sees her meeting a new client and her first question is to his mother, asking her what kind of daughter-in-law she wants. Aside from setting them up on dates, to keep things lively, she frequently refers people to life coaches, face readers and astrologers.
On face value, Indian Matchmaking is a great idea for a series, one that gives us a chance to invest in, root for, and deliciously dissect the love lives of real people, while also shedding light on the matchmaking industry itself. And yet, the show feels confused about what it wants to be and you never feel as invested in its subjects as you'd hope to be. Indian Matchmaking calls itself a reality show instead of a docu-series and it isn't entirely clear why. It feels caught somewhere in between the two, failing to offer the insight of a documentary or the guilty pleasures of reality TV.
Among the stars of the show is New Jersey-based Nadia who is worried her Guyanese heritage is a drawback to finding love. There's also the intriguing Houston-based Aparna, one of the series' standout figures who hasn't had the best luck with dating. Aparna has an efficient, elaborate system of testing the guys she meets by taking them to a specific restaurant at a specific time and allowing them a fixed 55-minute window to impress her.
There's also the dull-as-cardboard Pradhyuman from Mumbai, the wonderfully endearing college counsellor Vyasar, and Mama's boy Akshay, who's forced to find a match for marriage because his dominating mother demands it. "The girl has to adjust rather than the boy, those are the values we have grown up with. It's my house and these are the rules of my family you have to follow," she says while she berates Akshay for not finding a girl quicker, because only then can his married older brother have a child. Who needs science when you have sanskar.
What's frustrating is that we don't get to stick with any of the candidates throughout the eight episodes and don't get closure with the people we're the most invested in like Nadia, Aparna and Vyasar who, unless I missed something, seem to just drop off the show's radar after a point. The only constant here is the extremely quotable, unapologetically direct and lovably judgemental Sima Aunty. She is undoubtedly a fascinating figure to follow.
Going by the dates she sets up, she does seem to have an eye for compatibility. But it's with the show's approach to her that I had the most issues with her in Indian Matchmaking. The show is told from her perspective, so Sima isn't placed under the microscope like her clients. The series clearly isn't objective about her and at times it even feels like she's directing the proceedings. We don't, for example, know how much she's paid for her services (it's fair to assume it's a lot), or what happens when two people get married on her watch and it results in disaster, or if she'd be open to matchmaking for same-sex relationships. I'm also not entirely sure why American-Indians who've lived there their entire lives reach out to a Mumbai-based matchmaker to meet other American Indians living in America.
The show's stance on matchmaking is also vague and mixed. On the one hand, it appears to suggest it's not for everyone, but it also ends with a montage of elderly Indian couples hyping up just how great arranged marriage is. Though it does shed some light on the strangeness of the process. The inherent issue with the idea of matchmaking is it gives you the opportunity to invent a person by listing down endless specifics and features you'd probably never think twice about in real life, but given the chance to customise and construct – why not? It also makes you realise just how much of a Chinese whispers-fuelled process this is – people try and verbalise what they think they're searching for, assuming they even know, which Sima Aunty then interprets and processes in her own way and uses to find what she believes to be the best matches.
Still, the show feels like a missed opportunity. It had me constantly revisit what I believe to be the gold standard on the topic of arranged marriage in India, the sensitive and powerful 2017 documentary A Suitable Girl (also on Netflix). What's disheartening is that the co-director of that film Smriti Mundhra also happens to be the co-creator of this show (Sima Aunty briefly featured in the documentary which is presumably what led her to be the focus here).
But even as something that's not to be taken too seriously, Indian Matchmaking isn't the most engaging show. I'm not sure what it adds to the arranged marriage narrative we've seen on-screen time and again. It isn't frivolous fun or particularly meaningful, aside from some great one-liners. Among my favourites was one of the candidate's friends' explanations of the process: "It's like Tinder premium, but where families also get to swipe right".