LONG BEFORE dating apps and algorithms, professionals did the work of matchmaking. In ancient Greece promnestria—female matchmakers—sought out eligible youngsters and facilitated marriage negotiations between families. In some Jewish communities a shadchan, either a male or a female matchmaker, introduces singles to each other. The role is particularly important in South Asian societies, where the practice of arranged marriage dates back to at least the 4th century. Though the process has been modernised by the advent of the internet, and partners often have “right of refusal” and a longer courtship, as many as 95% of unions in India are still arranged.
Smriti Mundhra, a film-maker, has long been fascinated by the custom. She had employed a “marriage consultant” when she was looking to marry—though she eventually met a partner on her own—and decided to explore the subject in her work. “I spent most of my 20s feeling mounting pressure to get married,” Ms Mundhra says. “I have very liberal, open-minded parents, but still, we’re a product of the societies we grew up in.” She reckoned the tradition offered insight into India’s social hierarchy and economy. For as the world’s largest democracy becomes more educated and urban, and as more of its people emigrate, the custom is changing.
“A Suitable Girl”, a prize-winning documentary released in 2017, took a serious look at the joys and the restrictions of arranged marriage. Co-directed by Ms Mundhra and Sarita Khurana, the film follows three young Indian women as they find husbands and enter into matrimony. “We didn’t just want to explore it from the position of defectors,” Ms Mundhra explains. “We wanted to really understand what it is that we value, what is the actual journey of the people who opt into this.”
Dipti, a 29-year-old schoolteacher, avails herself of ancient practices such as swayamvar (ie, choosing a husband from a group of candidates) as well as singles’ websites. (Unlike on apps such as Tinder, relatives usually participate in creating profiles and filtering potential suitors.) Meanwhile, the other two subjects view marriage as a familial obligation. As a career-driven woman in her 20s, Ritu prefers to talk about economics, her area of expertise, and shrugs off questions about her impending union. Amrita, a city-dweller who enjoys working and playing hard, is only referred to as her husband’s wife by his family. In a powerful expression of her agency, the film ends with Amrita declaring: “I do have a name, so you can call me Amrita.”
“Indian Matchmaking” (pictured) is Ms Mundhra’s latest project. As a reality-dating series, it is more light-hearted than “A Suitable Girl”, following millennials of Indian descent as they pursue romance. Guiding them is Sima Taparia, a matchmaker from Mumbai (Ms Taparia was Ms Mundhra’s “marriage consultant” and also appeared in the documentary). Her clients include Aparna, a no-nonsense Indian-American lawyer searching for a partner who can fit into her busy life; and Pradhyuman, a Mumbai-based jeweller who goes through the matchmaking process to please his family but cannot find anyone to his liking.
“Indian Matchmaking” has attracted ire for focusing on the upper echelons of India’s caste system as well as heterosexuality, and for seeming to make light of colourism (discrimination against individuals with a dark skin tone). Some critics saw the first episode, entitled “Slim, Trim and Educated”, as a defence of the unreasonable standards that Indian women are expected to meet. (On the other hand, women’s families mostly hope their future sons-in-law are wealthy.) Neither the documentary nor the series addresses domestic violence or “honour killings”, which can take place if a woman refuses to enter into an arranged marriage.
Ms Mundhra has conceded that the show does not present a complete picture of these matters, but says that only by “grappling with this institution” of arranged marriage will the problems associated with it be addressed. She adds that in its many modern forms, the tradition of matchmaking is not all that different from dating apps and websites. Biodatas, the résumé-like documents matchmakers use, are not dissimilar to dating profiles. And as Ms Mundhra points out, the filters on dating apps allow users to mimic the caste system. “So let’s not pretend that we’re totally open-minded,” she warns. “I just think in some cultures, including South Asian culture, we are a little more explicit about it.”
“Indian Matchmaking” is streaming on Netflix now
Read more: Marriage in India is becoming less traditional
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