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Indian Matchmaking is well on its way to becoming a cultural phenomenon. Going by social media, pretty much all of India was watching it this past weekend (and live-tweeting it). A WhatsApp group I am on, composed of 30 and 40-something Indians and NRIs, discussed nothing else through all of Saturday and even did a Zoom call to talk about the show. Intellectuals on Twitter wrote whiny tweets about Netflix putting out trash and how by consuming and talking about this trash we were generating a culture of trash as opposed to, say, Real Cinema.

But here’s the thing—although most people started off with the intention of hate-watching the show, by Sunday they were watching in earnest. And it wasn’t even the cringe-cringe, ‘so bad it’s good’ kind of consumption—we cared about these complex, confused, real people who had allowed us a peek into their vulnerabilities. With the world crumbling around us, a shot of voyeurism is the perfect antidote to sadness.

Mubi watchers can judge as much as they like, but Indian Matchmaking is a well-made show. It’s not Art, but it’s clever, thoughtful reality TV that has way more depth and feeling than the Big Bosses of the world.

To begin with, unlike most dating reality shows, it doesn’t force its characters into an artificial environment but meets them in their own setting, letting us into their homes and lives. It does not have a competitive element, or villains and victims, or built-in artificiality: tropes that reached their peak with Netflix’s last big reality hit Love is Blind (in which participants don’t get to meet each other but can only talk through specially built ‘dating pods’). Indian Matchmaking is a far gentler, meandering show that follows the lives of several young Indians living in India and the US and allows us to get to know them, as well as their families and friends, in some depth over eight 40-minute episodes. With a solid grounding in mumblecore, it has more in common with fictional anthology series with interconnected characters (like Netflix’s own critically acclaimed Easy) than terrible reality shows like The Bachelor. Frankly, the hate is baffling.

Created by Oscar-nominated director Smriti Mundhra, an Indian-American filmmaker who also helmed the 2017 documentary A Suitable Girl, which took a sharp look at arranged marriages and how they are weighted against women, Indian Matchmaking is also mercifully devoid of the kind of overblown exoticisation that Indians watching themselves on screen have come to expect from foreign projects (looking at you, A Suitable Boy trailer). That’s not to say there is no exoticising of the characters here—at one point, one of the protagonists, Pradhyuman, a jewellery business owner who lives in a mansion in Mumbai, opens the home shrine to reveal Radha-Krishna idols dripping with diamonds, a closet nearby revealing rows and rows of gaudy, baby-sized clothes for the twin idols. But the exotic touches feel organic to the characters, not forced to conform to stereotypes for the Western gaze. At least the Indian-Indians here dress like normal people and not like your NRI best friend who pulls out decade-old blingy salwar kameezes for an airing each time she visits India in some sort of misguided attempt at blending in.

The show starts with Mumbai-based matchmaker Sima Taparia, a mild-mannered woman in her 50s who has an enviable collection of scarves-cum-dupattas (is this a new trend? Can the garment be called a ‘scarfatta’?). She can be uncomfortably blunt and has no issues saying things like ‘she is tall and fair, it will be easy to find a match for her’ with zero irony. She exudes a pragmatic auntie-ness—the embodiment of a certain generation of Indians who believe marriage is all about seeking “compromise" and “adjustment"—and it’s hard to stay angry with her. She approaches marriage with a clinical, box-ticking approach and though one could say that this is the basic problem with the arranged marriage system where people are reduced to commodities, how different is she from the Tinder algorithm?

However, she’s definitely out of her depth with some of the characters on the show, such as Aparna Shewakramani, a 34-year-old lawyer from Houston, Texas, who is well-travelled, strongly opinionated (“Dubai is like Disney World") and self-assured. Naturally, Sima Auntie is constantly frustrated by her unwillingness to compromise and “be flexible" about what she wants, but Aparna is a heroine for all women who have decided not to change their personalities to be what the world seems to expect. On the whole, the female characters in this show are more interesting than the male ones, especially the two Mumbai men who have no doubts about their innate desirability, a common misconception among Indian men. Akshay and Pradhyuman are the kind of guys who talk incessantly about “meeting the right person" without reflecting for a second on whether they are the right person.

Aparna Shewakramani speaks her mind
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Aparna Shewakramani speaks her mind

Critics of Indian Matchmaking seem to think that the show is justifying and forwarding such beliefs, and that it should instead call out such behaviour. It can be argued that sometimes it’s best to let reality speak for itself. In fact, in an interview with Decider.com, showrunner Smriti Mundhra says that they were “not trying to shy away from any uncomfortable conversations… what’s real is real". In an answer to a question about some of the characters expressing unsavoury opinions about gender roles, she says: “If they bring things up, if they talk about certain things…we’re not going to go out of our way to hide anything... it can reveal a lot."

As a documentary looking at the lives of real people as they navigate romance and compatibility in the real world, Indian Matchmaking works. It is honest about its aims, it treats its subjects respectfully, and it makes them stand out uniquely. It doesn’t even matter if the protagonists of the show get their happily ever-afters. As one of the most sympathetic characters on the show, Nadia, says after meeting a potential partner, each time she meets someone, she learns a little more about herself.

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