JULY 31, 2020
Netflix’s Indian Matchmaking is a buzzy new reality TV series about single, wealthy North Indians and Indian-Americans navigating the arranged marriage system. Mixing documentary modes with dating show ridicule, it maintains and masks the most insidious injury arranged by marriage: caste.
In the arranged marriage institution, proposals are familial, not individual. Parents organize heterosexist matches for their adult children from a shortlist of vetted candidates. The aim is an alliance between families. The currency of exchange is women. The metric of suitability plays fast and loose with consent and dignity. Indian Matchmaking dives into this perverse and infantilizing world of marriage broker aunties, eugenicist astrologer uncles, aggressively anxious parents, and supportive but complicit peers — all pressed into the dating show blueprint of reality television.
But the show is far more fragmented, less adherent to the genre, than might first appear. Six of the eight episodes begin with testimonials from an older cohort of arranged spouses. This framing device pretends that the ritual of “viewing” a prospective bride is a courtship story. In contrast, the episodes present the updated rules of heterosexual wooing, including conversation with women. But the pressure on single clients to “compromise” — accept suitable matches without “chemistry” and refuse “chemistry” with unsuitable matches — fuses the historic frames with contemporary existence. The roster of participants expands patchily. New protagonists are introduced until the final minutes of the season. Fragments and failures are favored, judging by the number of broken connections, but a single cinematic resolution — an engagement ceremony — collides with these splinters. Soon, segments abandon the pretense to televisual flow and run solely on haphazard hooks.
Binding the cluttered storylines are character stereotypes: these absorb the viewer in spite of an institution that makes no bones about its bigotries. Feminist and queer of color critique can only hate-watch the program and resume calls to abolish the system, even as countless viewers want to debate the “divisiveness” of a reality show masquerading as a “documentary series.” Don’t blame the program — it’s a mirror of society, say apologists. Behind this debate lies a defense of the institution: arranged marriage is nothing worse than a carefully curated social network. In this garb, it innocuously connects the right nodes across a vast web managed by a capitalist cupid.
The curation merits a closer look. Lists of nitpicky criteria — what contestants/mothers want in a spouse — set into motion the makeover and counseling arcs. In the case of a “too educated” lawyer, the measure of “adjustment” is doing yoga with goats as the planets realign in her astrological chart. Her humiliation includes mantras and chants that keep away the anti-marriage bogeyman. Such orientalist lessons in “adjustment” are not simply ludicrous and vile. The lists and lessons are smokescreens for the fact that an arranged marriage is the pickiest of kinship constructs. It comes with an invisible pre-selection of eligibility. Unlike the dating show genre that repurposes heterosexist courtship into competitions that play well for cameras, this program uses the existing rules of arranged marriage to create a spectacle alibied by the reality tropes of exaggeration.
Indian Matchmaking focuses on who is arranged to distract from what is arranged. This is endogamy: marrying within the limits of group dominance. Religion, the site of dominance, operates at the intersections of caste, region, and skin color. As jurist B.R. Ambedkar explained in early activism against casteism, endogamy is a weapon. It acts against the generational dissolution of caste boundaries of power. The custom of family proposals, then, is a custom of inclusion/exclusion: caste Hindus socialize with, and marry, other caste Hindus to beget the same. This is done unabashedly — even as a spectrum of minor chauvinisms, deriving from the originary power to exclude, makes the process of rejection look arbitrary at times.
On the show, India and Indian-America are reduced to an upper-caste Hindu stereotype (from the North) that wants to pass as representative. In the vast social spheres of nation and diaspora charted in almost four hours of running time, it is hard to register any meaningful voices of participants who are Muslim, relatives who are queer, friends with disabilities, or counselors espousing feminist practices that carve out child-free and spouse-free lives happily. In pretending to observe a non-Western custom of matchmaking while also adopting the dating game format, the show practices a televisual apartheid resulting from the pre-selections of sexual casteism that perpetuate group dominance.
The “bio-data” — the application form for arranged marriage — is a birth certificate expanded to record phenotype, profession, and preference. It is difficult being a Hindu bachelor or bachelorette, but matchmaker auntie has a bio-database of “suitable” candidates profiled by religion. She takes care of pesky “background” checks into ancestry and class, going so far as to surveil the households of clients to ensure “goodwill” or trust in her vetting process. Indian Matchmaking is a look at the “difficulty” of making kin for personal happiness that also maintains socio-economic power across cohorts and continents. The ban on intermarriage — allying outside generational supremacy — operates prior to the relatable problems that receive narrative time and space, such as the disappointment of not finding common ground on a first date, the anxieties about broken trust, and the traumatic legacies left by abusive/absent fathers.
A glimpse into the pre-selection of eligibility comes fleetingly in the case of Nadia Jagessar, a Guyanese-American descendent of indentured workers. Hers is the only match in which caste is underlined quickly in that it is “not a problem.” Jagessar attests to her painful exclusion from the category “Indian” — ostensibly because her Indianness is routed through Guyana in the 1850s, rather than being the first- or second-generation variety fetishized on the program. That Jagessar is the only participant offered a non-Hindu or non-Hindu-adjacent match — a Catholic “biodata” — is telling. Assimilation also excludes. In a singular moment of active endogamy that unfolds in narrative time, her father rejects the Catholic “biodata” from Southern India, disqualifying a first date. The rejection stresses the unspoken price of assimilation in India. Just before the end credits roll, the newest single contestant is heard saying, “I think that any caste is fine as long as they are…,” at which point the camera switches to the knowing smile of the matchmaker and the rest of the conditional drowns out. The sonic cutoff matched on the reverse shot is not incidental: since caste is ranked power, the caste-less or Dalits have no purposeful place in this tele-verse.
For the rest of the matches, the dog-whistles of “fairness,” “destiny,” and “good family” — standing in for a potent mix of anti-Blackness and anti-Dalitness — reveal how arranged marriage is the color line of caste/religion/wealth. This matrix of discrimination governs who is represented on the series. Given Netflix’s algorithmic targeting, the program knows that upper-caste ideology has captured the label “Indian” and so it sells as stereotypically Indian.
A demand repeated in the Mumbai segments of Indian Matchmaking — “Show me more girls!” — centers the bride viewing ritual in sexual casteism and may well be taken as “Show me submissive white faces.” Participating in this arrangement means profiling physical features as character traits or personality defects, whether or not a “face reader” professionalizes the bigotry. Later in the series, a pushy mother guides the camera through a hoard of jewels and clothes she intends to bestow on her daughter-in-law while she lays down the laws of servile obedience. Generational affluence, symbolized by silent liveried domestic servants, coincides with “tradition,” symbolized by silent daughters-in-law doing housework. In the family proposal tele-verse, caste supremacy revels in the cringey spectacle of its unquestioned right to exploit those it places lowest in assumed hierarchies.
Indian Matchmaking uses the format of the reality TV dating show in order to edit the indefensible custom of arranged marriage into a strategic “option” to combat loneliness. At the same time, it presents this game show vision of culture as a documentary series about a non-Western kinship custom. The subtext is that a non-Indian American viewer ought not dismiss the arranged marriage institution as an inherently eugenic one because it has the immunity of being a different custom and social network from the Global South. Much worse, a series that normalizes inclusion/exclusion in the nation and diaspora, taps into the millennial appetite for diverse casting in previously white genre programming, typified by the popularity of the multicultural romcom genre on Netflix (seen in recent shows such as Never Have I Ever).
Through its medley of reality formats and modes of transnational address, Indian Matchmaking uses the relatively benign ideologies of multiculturalism in the US to excuse the indefensibility of purity politics. Even as the social ban on intermarriage organizes all frames and interactions, its style is a hybrid of The Bachelor meets Crazy Rich Asians. As a result, the reproductive basis of privilege inside and outside India hides in plain sight while Netflix brokers precisely that social normativity. The relevance of this admittedly ridiculous program is that a nation and diaspora will perpetuate white-adjacent caste supremacy, unless collectively resisted, while seizing the media apparatus to sell apartheid as diverse representation.
In the wake of the multiracial baby boom in the United States, viewers are primed not to see the purity politics of Indian Matchmaking. In 1967, the US Supreme Court struck down the ban on intermarriage. It declared the anti-miscegenation laws of “racial integrity” unconstitutional across the nation. This ruling in Loving v. Virginia did enable legal interracialism but by infamously whitewashing Native American ancestry. While the “one drop rule” quantified part-Black individuals as Black, American Indian ancestry was excluded from being a threat to the white racial purity of mixed individuals. Tracking the laws of hereditary descent and ascent in post-civil rights US, Kevin Maillard writes, “For the children of Loving, legal obstacles to interracial kinship have become a thing of the past.” The immigrant-settler identity of Indian-America benefits from the “browning” of America permitted and even encouraged after Loving because it erases indigenous sovereignty and shores up anti-Blackness.
Caste derives from the Latin castus meaning chaste. Portuguese colonizers in early modern India coined the term casta to describe the Hindu schema of stratification by birth. European structures of racial purity made them see four aggregates of graded privilege (priests, warriors, traders, and workers). But this, too, was a misrecognition. Castes are, in fact, innumerable and subdivided to a quantum of exclusions. In the words of imprisoned activist Anand Teltumbde, each caste “has its own special norms dictating permissible food, occupation, marriage, social interaction and so forth, and from each jati/caste come numbers of subcastes, making the whole system highly complicated.” Indian Matchmaking does not need to mention caste segregation directly because it is the system enshrined in the petty exclusions of the marriage arrangement.
The statistical figure on exogamous India shows how the institution of marriage itself — whether “arranged” or “love” — is complicit in the social reproduction of power. As per the latest India Human Development Survey, “Only about 5% of Indian marriages are inter-caste.” Compare this to the US, where 17% of new marriages are interracial and more than 87% claim to approve of Black-White Marriage (vs. 4% in 1958). Adding to the neoliberal cocktail of inclusion/exclusion, the Loving precedent of intermarriage rights not only further erased Indigenous sovereignty claims but was also used to extend marriage equality to US queers. Jodi Byrd argues that the US democratic project is a “zero-sum contest that pits gay rights against Indigenous sovereignty against civil rights for all arrivants within the institutions built through settler occupation.” At the same time, gay marriage remains illegal in India, despite a recent decriminalization of homosexuality. Given the contradictions and fault-lines of the settler colonial US state in how it positions immigrants of color while allying itself with Hindu nationalism, it is no wonder that compulsory upper-caste endogamy is the category of difference that travels to the US but remains occluded in US viewership of Indian Matchmaking.
When Indian Matchmaking premiered on Netflix, viral videos of a Dalit sharecropper family from Central India were simultaneously circulating in the national media. The parents had consumed pesticide in attempted suicides after being forced to watch state actors destroy their standing crop and requisition the land for a private college. In the stills, weeping children cling to the unconscious parents, both of whom were later assaulted by the police for having the audacity to take their own lives. Unlike death by starvation, death by suicide is a protest that entitles the family to monetary compensation from the state. The temporal coincidence of the spectacle of affluence that moves globally and of gratuitous violence on caste-less sharecroppers evicted locally offers two sides of the same coin at once. To consume the laughable cringe of Indian Matchmaking is to consume the enduring structure of anti-Dalit injury.
Perhaps California’s recent workplace discrimination lawsuit against two upper-caste immigrant managers who harassed a Dalit immigrant employee at US tech conglomerate Cisco will force a reckoning with the widespread caste supremacy in U.S.’s model minority. As Indian Matchmaking makes apparent, the purity politics of reproduction sustains a world of exploitation.
[The author would like to thank Maggie Hennefeld for making this piece possible and Ani Maitra for his formative critique.]