What Indian Matchmaking gets wrong about arranged marriages

The series depicts the country’s customs as palatable for a Western audience, but Indians from different countries explain how the reality is much different.

Netflix’s Indian Matchmaking – and its surface-level attempt to provide insight into arranged marriages in India – has triggered a range of reactions on the internet. While most were wonderfully fascinated by this seemingly off-kilter alternative to dating apps, others simply ridiculed its often obnoxious characters.

I mostly rolled my eyes.

The show has successfully ticked a lot of boxes in its portrayal of modern arranged marriages. But its efforts to dodge the uncomfortable realities of a tradition rooted in a cultural web of misogyny, colourism and casteism hasn’t gone unnoticed.

Until I rigidly put my foot down a few years ago, a chunk of my young adult life growing up in India played out like a gendered training course of sorts to condition me into being a suitable bride. The mostly frequently parroted responses by my moderately conservative Indian relatives centered around cooking, staying out of the sun for a fair skin tone”, and preserving my chastity, if you will, to land a good match. My parents, luckily, were a little more supportive of my ambitions, which stretched further than being a good housewife.

These comments are hardly uncommon and mirror multiple matrimonial ads in local newspapers all shamelessly demanding a fair, flexible, homely and cultured bride” for their sons. There is also the question of dowry, which, although officially outlawed in 1961, has persisted in creative ways within arranged set ups. (New couples will often be gifted a car or apartment by the bride’s parents.)

Even today, 90 per cent of marriages in India are arranged. The country currently ranks the lowest in terms of divorce rates in the world. This should be enviable, especially to countries like America, where close to 50 per cent of marriages end in divorces. But this is in no way a marker of a successful formula of love. Arranged marriages in India often function like a business transaction: the couple typically belong to the same religion, caste, social strata, and are matched based on their astrological birth charts and their collective (mostly the woman’s) ability to adjust”.

This isn’t to say arranged marriages as a concept is evil. Along with the evolving cultural landscape are the views of families who have tried to undo the problematic aspects of the tradition, much like we see on the show. There is also some value in matching people with similar cultural backgrounds, interests and life goals. But given that (spoiler) none of the couples matched on the show lasted beyond its run time or ended up together, it goes to show what we already knew: love is a gamble.

But don’t take my word for it. We spoke to six different Indians living across different countries to understand their view on the Indian matchmaking process

Sima Auntie, the matchmaker who pairs couples on Indian Matchmaking

Chandni Dialani, India

Is it bad if I say I’ve lost faith in trying [to find love] on my own? I’ve had too many bad experiences and I trust my parent’s judgment too much. My sister is baffled when I tell her this. She’s dating a white boy and it’s a big deal for my parents to be so accepting about it because we grew up very differently. We thought we’d be married by 21 to Sindhi boys.

But with the number of inter-caste, inter-religion love marriages that came about in my generation of the family (with a fair share of arranged ones, might I add), my parents became very open minded. Basically, I have zero restrictions. I’m allowed to date, and think about marrying whoever I want. But I’m concerned about conservative families if I choose to have an arranged marriage.

As for the show, it just brings out in public what goes on in private. It’s put out in a fun, happy” manner but if I was in Aparna’s place, man I’d be pissed at [the matchmaker] Sima Auntie’s judgement. Then again, that is how it works. Whether it’s an arranged marriage, or a love marriage”, there is a lot of judgement. The show is more modern” with its matchmaking process because there’s people from the West involved. They need to make a show on real-life arranged marriages.

The only reason it’s not getting so much backlash is because there’s fairly progressive NRIs (non-resident Indians) involved in the show. In India, I’ve seen this first-hand, arranged marriages don’t allow the flexibility for casual dating like Nadia had. There’s a meeting, maybe two. There’s a Roka (engagement ceremony) and then there’s courtship for a year. Girls in India are not in a position to make decisions around their lives when it comes to marriage. And I don’t mean to stereotype, so I’ll specify: girls are subtly forced into arranged marriages. The decision is theirs” but they’re also repeatedly advised they won’t get better proposals” if they say no. I was hoping to see that in the show.

There’s also the question of dowry, which, of course it happens! I mean, there are arranged marriages without dowry too. In those cases, the boy’s family are portrayed as saints, which is ridiculous because they’re not doing the girl a favour by not demanding dowry. I remember I once heard a girl’s father offer five crore rupees (£518,000) as dowry and the boy’s family was still not satisfied. It’s absolute BS, but the sad reality. My parents and I – we’ve worked so damn hard to build our lives. Hypothetically, If they have to give it all away, just to get me married, damn, I’d never get married.

I love Aparna in the show and Ankita too. But see how they’re dropped as clients (or left on their own) because they’re too picky and Sima Auntie needs them to adjust”. Why aren’t the boys asked to do the same thing? Why should anyone have to adjust, actually? If the person is right, they’re right. If they’re not, good on you for identifying that before committing forever.

Akanksha Singh, India

[Arranged marriages] is just something we see in our society either happening with a friend, cousins, siblings or to our own selves. The show somewhat captured how arranged marriages work in India – especially all the judgment around the person’s weight, colour, money and age. The show also does well on showcasing the parent’s influence to decide on a match. In terms of rejecting a proposal, boys always have the power over the girls. Girls can’t realistically reject 50 to 100 guys, while guys keep rejecting girls and the number doesn’t matter. Another undeniable pressure is how the families want the couple to just decide if they want to get married within two or three meetings, which is crazy. The couple doesn’t even get the chance to really speak to each other.

How can you make a life-long decision within a month of knowing someone? Dowry is another thing that isn’t addressed on the show – but it continues to happen, both directly and indirectly. All the girls arranged married within my extended family have been asked to pay dowry by the boy’s family. The ask is usually for a car, an AC, fridge or even cash. Sometimes the groom’s family will ask you to cover the cost of renovations at their home and say it’s because the girl will eventually live there. Another thing the show missed was the whole taboo around sex before marriage because most parents in India don’t want their kids to have any sexual contact before their wedding night.

Aparna goes on a date with a potential suitor where they consume alcoholic beverages – an uncommon occurrence in India

Aarzoo Khetarpal, United Kingdom

I feel the show played up to a lot of stereotypes but I don’t think it is necessarily inaccurate as a lot of people in India do have similar views – especially the older generations. My parents had an arranged marriage where my mum put an ad in the matrimony section of the Times of India highlighting her height, weight, job and complexion. Then my Dad’s family reached out and came to see her. She said she first met my Dad’s parents at her house and once they liked her she met my Dad with the parents. Then once more alone before agreeing to get engaged; and then they met a few times alone for lunch or at the cinema.

Before actually getting married, her family paid for the wedding and gave a significant amount of dowry in terms of gifts, jewellery, clothes, a new scooter, and furniture. One of the other main differences is the show tried to gloss over a little on issues like [skin] fairness and caste, which would have been more controversial. Also although they showed some people with very overbearing parents, they didn’t emphasise that too much. In reality, parents have much more of a say into who is and isn’t an acceptable match.

I am personally very against things like dowry or treating women like property, but I think many people would be very outraged if the show addressed such issues. A lot of Indians would be upset over how it makes the culture look. It would be interesting to see a follow-up, which discusses stuff like how parents react if the couples choose to break the arrangement and also the uncomfortable issues and expectations.

Rachna Tripathi, United Kingdom

The show was an entertaining watch for sure, but it’s a limited look into the actual reality. I was in an arranged marriage very early on but met a few prospects before settling on my now husband. At least within my family, hiring an official matchmaker is unheard of. It’s usually word of mouth, where families look for matches within their community and the same caste. Now there are matrimonial sites, that’s changed things up a bit, but the idea is the same. The first meetings with the boy were also with the families; the groom and I would then have some time to chat alone. If both agreed, we’d talk on the phone a little and maybe have the chance to meet again before making the decision. The guy definitely had the power here, and the girl could, in theory, say no, but it was strongly frowned upon.

My family paid some dowry, which was customary, nothing substantial though. I’m lucky because my husband and I get along, but a lot of sisters have been married into families where they don’t. Divorce is not an option usually; there’s way too much stigma around it and women would rather adjust” and be flexible”. It’s better than a life full of nosy relatives blaming you for ruining your life and your husband’s.

Jyoti Phatak, United States

Personally, I felt like the show had some honesty to the process of arranged marriage in India but it does not accurately represent the entirety of the single population. There are families and kids that have those conservative expectations set from their potential SOs but a whole lot of them have happily glided forward into the process of falling in love. As a dark-skinned Indian girl from a pretty liberal family, I can say me and a lot of girls like me can relate to Ankita, the business owner from Delhi. I came across several men that found me intimidating and expected me to be flexible. I have also come across my fair share of Akshays in real life – a gag experience that was.

The key difference for me is that the show only focuses on the role of families and their opinions in these arrangements. In reality though, this is not the majority. Most single Indians these days seek out these arrangements on their own, based on their own wide spectrum of expectations. Family still has a say but not as much as the show portrays. I have seen the stigma that they show against divorcees like Rupam. It is challenging for divorced or widowed individuals to find a partner. Also, the whole perspective on dating a white person. I am now married to one but when my extended family first found out, they were upset and immediately started seeking out Indian prospects for me, knowing I was in a relationship with my now husband.

In reality a lot of the problematic issues not addressed on the show still exist but they’re camouflaged by several acceptable exteriors. A Marwari (an ethnic group that originates from the Rajasthan region of India) guy I once dated in college told me everyone in his family belonged to the medical profession.

I remember when his family sought a girl for arranged marriage for his brother, the girl was also a doctor. So the parents had to get feedback from the other members of the family to ensure that her business wouldn’t affect or interfere with anyone else’s success. Without asking for it, when the girl did join the family, it wasn’t without a parade of valuable assets. So what if they don’t call it dowry anymore? A union that financially benefits the groom’s family and comes along with brand new cars and a tray full of jewelry to me is still a trade, not a marriage.

Because parents were the focus of this show, sex was easier to dodge. My understanding is parents in India live inside this bubble where their kids don’t have a sex drive or it works on demand, presumably activated after marriage. I am also pretty sure a lot of the material is edited to maintain the so-called cultural integrity of the country where men and women don’t consummate out of wedlock.

Vivek Menon, United States

My parents were arranged married and some of my older cousins did as well, so I’m relatively familiar with the process. The parents typically send out a biodata, or almost a resume to start with. At least that’s the way it has been in my family. It was a network of other families they knew. They all lived around the area, had the same backgrounds, roots, and in my particular case, the same caste. I don’t think it’s very modern for today.

My mum’s definitely brought up setting me up for an arranged marriage but I told her to not even joke about it. It isn’t so much that it’s outdated, but it doesn’t give you the chance to really know the person as well as I’d want to. I mean, presumably you’re committing to till death do us part”, so you should at least be sure about the person. Basing [the decision] off someone’s resume and some brief meetings doesn’t seem good enough to me. That being said, it has evolved a little bit, the couples at least talk to each other more. And maybe even go on dates. But I think the parents are still finding people and making decisions.

Even now, my parents would prefer and love it if I married within the same caste. I mean, their views have evolved, but at this point they’ve given up hope in a way. So now they’d probably be grateful as long as it was someone Indian. My extended family, however, wouldn’t even consider someone outside of the caste. That’s the general rule. It’s a major factor in making the decision.

I don’t know how the extended courtship period works exactly but it’s stupid to look down upon saying no six months into an arrangement because the whole point of it is to help people make an informed decision. I do see the stigma around it, I just think it’s weird.

There’s definitely also stigma around divorces. For that reason, I know very few people in my family who have gotten a divorce. I think it has more to do with the stigma of getting divorced rather than the fact that arranged marriages just work. If I had to guess, I would say a lot of them are like personality clashes or people are unhappy in their relationships. I think that sometimes divorce can be the best thing to happen to a marriage. If one or both parties are particularly unhappy then why stay in it? I don’t think that’s very common in India.

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