Aparna Shewakramani is the best part of Netflix’s Indian Matchmaking. When the attorney turns up in the pilot episode and says she once realized a man wasn’t the one for her because he didn’t know Bolivia has salt flats, it’s reality TV gold. She goes on to say that she hates comedy and doesn’t like it when a man she’s dating talks to the waiter. Over the course of the show, meant to explore the arranged marriage process, she comes across as someone who isn’t afraid to speak her mind, but it’s this trait that leads matchmaker Sima Taparia to label her ‘picky’ and ‘demanding’.
In the month since the show’s release, Shewakramani’s become its most popular figure, inspiring everything from memes to long thinkpieces. “I joke that three weeks ago, no one knew my name and now I think it’s all I hear. I’m like: What’s happening? Why is everyone so obsessed with talking about me? I’m not that interesting,” she says, over a Zoom call from Houston. She drowns out the noise by switching off her phone and busying herself with work. In the morning, she attends court via Zoom, files petitions and does depositions. At night, she does interviews to promote the show. On Sundays, she works on a travel business she started in December 2018 and which she calls her ‘side hustle’.
She spoke about what life has been like since Indian Matchmaking aired and how its careful editing made her out to be the bad guy:
I’m curious about what attracted you to the idea of the show. It’s not easy to put yourself out there, especially when you’re being filmed.
I was at the airport, flying home for the weekend. A friend posted on Facebook: Are you single? South Asian? Really looking to get married? I said yes to all. She replied with a link to the application. I filled it right there, still standing in line, attached some pictures, and forgot all about it. One week later, they called. I later learnt that (creator) Smriti Mundhra had done A Suitable Girl, a documentary which was just so classy. I thought that I’d love to be part of a docuseries like that. I’m proud of my culture and how we matchmake. That’s what I was sold on. Obviously, the show is not what I was told it was going to be. But I’m still happy I put myself out there.
Is it hard to meet people now that you’re this public figure and they have preconceived notions about you?
I haven’t left my house since the show aired. Houston has a pretty bad Covid situation. When all this dies down and when it becomes safer to go out and meet new people, we’ll see. I’m planning to move to New York and I think that might be more fun for dating and meeting new people only because it’s a densely populated city.
I’m still open to finding love. Some people ask if I’d get another matchmaker and I’d say sure. I also refuse to believe that everyone’s watched the show or even knows who I am. In six months, they probably won’t remember me.
Has your checklist of what you’re looking for in a partner changed after the show? Should he still know about Bolivian salt flats?
They never had to! My criteria, which the viewer didn’t see, but which was clear to Sima, was that I wanted someone relaxed, introverted and intelligent. All the other stuff was just masala. It just made for better TV. A lot of viewers were confused by me telling Sima: I don’t want the funniest guy in the room. It’s because I was telling her that I want someone more shy. She was like, ‘No, you need someone jolly.’ I kept trying to tell her that I want an introvert and she just wouldn’t listen. She was like, ‘Nope.’ Half the men we know are guys who sit quietly at the dinner table, laughing under their breath. They’re not the ones telling the joke, they’re listening and I really like that guy. Sima was like, ‘Nope, you don’t get that man.’
Were there other moments that made you go, ‘I wish I hadn’t come off that way, it’s not what I meant’ or did the show otherwise capture you accurately?
It wasn’t accurate for any of us. This is reality television, in which they carefully craft these archetypes of people. They filmed for hundreds of hours. My dates were sometimes 10 hours long and you see 30 seconds of them. Everyone’s like, ‘Oh, your dates didn’t go so well.’ And I’m like: Yes they did! I’m still best friends with Shekhar, I talk to him, Dilip and Jay almost every day. They’re grounded, humble and amazing. A lot of people say they didn’t see that on the show. That’s something we all have to consider when we’re watching reality TV: what’s the truth and what is for television? What’s there to build a story? I think 99.9% of it was to build a story.
Do you still look back on it as a positive experience or has seeing yourself misrepresented soured it for you?
It’s a 100% positive. It was a once-in-a-lifetime chance. I’m a lawyer who got to learn all about television and production. Sure, it was different from what we thought it was going to be, but that doesn’t mean it wasn’t great.
A lot of women have said good things about the show and that’s been the best part of this experience. I get thousands of messages a day. People have said that watching me be so unapologetic has made them better at voicing their opinions at the workplace, at school, on family WhatsApp groups, during matchmaking. We’re having these important conversations about colorism, casteism, heightism, about women and their voice in matchmaking and their voice in the world. These conversations are so much bigger than matchmaking and to play any part in that, it’s amazing.
You come across as someone who knows what she wants on the show, but it’s also a personality trait that was misunderstood by many, including Sima who criticized it as being picky and demanding.
And stubborn! I think it’s interesting though, most women from India and Pakistan, even Dolly Singh who interviewed me, all said: We’ve made ‘stubborn’ a compliment now. If our elders say that to us, we say thank you. It means that you are asking for what you want and you believe that you deserve it. That’s what women should take away from the show. If you don’t believe that you deserve something, then it doesn’t matter what you ask for. Someone will trample you, pressure you, ask you to be ‘flexible’. They’ll call you negative and stubborn. But if you believe that you deserve something, then you won’t listen to them. We’ll grow this collective feminine voice and that will move us forward as women who have a choice in what we want in our partners.
Sima talks a lot about how girls have to adjust, guys don’t; fair and slim people have options, others don’t. How did those binaries affect you?
She never really said those things to my face. She never told me I was too fat or too dark or too short. She’d tell me, ‘You need this, you need that.’ So it wasn’t an issue. In my own little bubble, I’d never come across things like that. I live in a very diverse community, I have very intelligent, progressive friends. My little world applauds me for my opinions and pats me on the back for my accomplishments. It wants me to have a significant other who’s good for me and doesn’t want me to settle. I’ve been championed and that’s a privilege, especially now hearing from all these women who don’t have that in their life. I wish every woman had the support system I have.
I have to ask about the fact that you dislike your dates talking to anyone else, even if it’s the waiter. Where does that rule come from?
All editing. I dislike if my date talks to the server for a good 10 to 15 minutes. I always talk to the servers, I ask how long they’ve worked at the restaurant, what their favourite foods and wines on the menu are. But if we’re on a first date and the guy starts talking to the server about his favourite football team, asking him how many children he has, if he likes the weather, then I get uncomfortable because I’d like to get to know him but he’s only interested in football.
It’s a full story but they cut just that bit for the show and now people are really mad at me. I’m really nice to servers, it’s one of the hardest jobs in America. But that doesn’t make for good TV, right? That’s reality TV, where they’ll take your whole story, cut it and then people will get mad at you. I don’t take it personally, the viewers only know what they’ve been shown.
Shekhar was like, ‘I was watching our date and I make this weird face at you, but it’s not really the face I made, it’s another face that they took from somewhere else and put in that moment.’ They created an interaction that wasn’t true.
Something you got a lot of flak for was your mom calling Srini, one of your dates, a loser. Did editing isolate it from the context?
A lot of hurtful, demeaning things happened off camera and made me very upset. My mom was very hurt that Srini treated me badly. I told the producers about it, Sima knew. The viewers think I was mad about what he does for a living. No, we cared about the way he treats people. You have to treat people, especially women on a first date, with respect. Unfortunately, that wasn’t the case.
We were told this was a docuseries. If someone had told me then that that was how the Srini situation was going to be presented, I would’ve never believed it. I wasn’t treated well but I guess that makes for a bad story. If Nadia’s not being treated well and I’m not being treated well, that looks bad. It didn’t make sense for them to show two women on the same journey and so they picked that Nadia got treated badly and that I wouldn’t care because I’m a stronger woman. I did care, I got hurt. It’s a pity that people can’t see the three-dimensional side of me. They wanted people to hate me, and now they do.
People are like, ‘Oh Aparna, we know all about you.’ And I’m like: From that one TV show? You know nothing.
A common criticism of the show is that it normalizes caste, body-shaming, colourism and sexism instead of questioning these things. Others feel like it’s just an accurate depiction of society. Where do you stand?
Somewhere in between. This is one of the first shows about matchmaking that’s been done on a global scale. So it’s just a snapshot of one matchmaker with seven people. It’s not meant to encompass a whole matchmaking process or culture. As we create more as a South Asian community, we will have more representation and the conversations will become more fleshed out.
I love that they didn’t sanitize it. It was interesting to see how normalized height or caste or colour was among Sima’s Indian clientele. What triggered a lot of people was that American girl, who shows up at the end and says that she doesn’t want someone too dark. A lot of people said to me, ‘You’re American, you’ve heard her say that in her American accent, what did that make you feel?’ You have to understand that most immigrants to the US came over in the 70s, bringing with them their traditions of 1970s India. India progressed and became more open-minded but those people stuck to those traditions and taught them to their children. So now you’re seeing a 30-year-old woman from California say something that sounds very archaic. There’s a bigger picture and a bigger context about why we say the things we say and it’s not always as simple as: You’re racist.
I’m going to keep moving on, growing my business, and start dating. I hope that the conversations about casteism and colorism five months on will be different from what we’re talking about now. I hope Indian Matchmaking will always play a positive part of my life.