A large swathe of the world population assumes that South Asians only spend time dancing in unison, passing exams to become doctors, getting married and then having babies. This is not helped by the fact that the current popular shows on our TV and streaming channels from this diaspora consist of Indian Matchmaking, Wedding Season, and The Big Day on Netflix, as well as Made in Heaven on Amazon Prime.
In Indian Matchmaking, a marriage broker essentially attempts to help her eligible, eccentric and eager clients find their future spouses. In the trailer, the slick matchmaker herself, who participants lovingly call “Sima aunty”, says she’s back for the second season and ready to recycle her latest gullible elite customers.
On the show, Sima Taparia plays a dated cupid, trying to find suitable prospects for eligible men and women in India and America. Taparia, along with her tribe of outlandish Avengers such as face-readers, astrologists, and life coaches, then set out on a journey to find ideal matches for them.
Except the rulebook is actually very different for her male and female clients. A decisive man is given a pat on the back for knowing his mind, whilst a resolute woman is called difficult and forced to settle for less. She generally tells her prospects to accept “60% to 70%” of the criteria.
We also see some familiar faces, including Aparna Shewakramani from season one, who said she is grieving for a life that she no longer desires and that she is far more flexible these days, because she gives her dates one and a half hours of her time instead of just 55 minutes. Taparia had been blunt with the contestant in season one, subtly implying that she was too unstable and fickle-minded or “hatti”, according to the astrologer. And guess what, she was one of several not to have found ‘true love’ through the puppetmaster.
At the same time, we have some newer hopefuls, such as the self-proclaimed “world’s most eligible bachelor” Akshay Dhumal, who blames his fortunes on living in the small agricultural town of Nashik, 165km away from the big city of Mumbai. However, there’s a bizarre heightened level of narcissism in these shows, not only from the contestants of this strange circus, but also from the matchmaker herself.
The truly worrying advice doled out in season two came in episode four when Taparia tells Nadia Jagessar, who also appeared in season one, that “if the guy is seven years older, it’s okay, but if a girl is seven years older…”, after Jagessar went against the advice of the older woman, and dumps her aloof date Shekar Jayaraman for a younger man. The Indo-Guyanese-American was slated on social media as a result, and the incident was chalked up to ‘karma’. She also stated that she believed that actor Priyanka Chopra and singer Nick Jonas are not a good pair due to their 10-year age gap.
And the first season was widely criticised for its failure to represent South Asians across the colour spectrum. When Taparia’s clients – or rather, her clients’ parents – are asked for their criteria in a spouse, the majority of them list ‘fair’ as a requirement. They’re flagrantly and unashamedly stating that they would prefer their partner/child’s partner to have light skin. These statements, understandably, struck a chord with many viewers, leading some to describe the series as a “cesspool of casteism, colourism, sexism and classism”.
The problem isn’t the general concept of marriage per se, as we have seen many equivalents such as “Don’t Tell The Bride” or even BBC1’s current drama “Marriage” with Lord of the Rings actor Sean Bean, it’s more the fact that there aren’t many other topics explored beyond this from the diaspora. As expected from reality TV shows, there appears to be a Marmite relationship for the characters involved. The issue is that the only representation we seem to have of South Asian people on television are whiny, egocentric and have a narrow-minded view of the world.
Of course, Never Have I Ever has returned for a third season on Netflix as well, but apparently this show also comes with its own set of issues. Many feel that US writer Mindy Kaling may have bitten off more than she can chew, brushing past protagonist Devi’s Indian American heritage and reverting to a level of self-absorption that is seen across a lot of these different TV shows.
Only Indian Matchmaking’s Jagessar appeared to touch on subjects beyond the usual piffle, mentioning that she had gone to therapy following her doomed relationship and breakup with younger man Vishal. And we finally witnessed her in all her glory as an angry brown girl, smashing a television with a crowbar and a hammer. It was marvellous to finally behold another portrayal of an Indian girl, than the usual “I am failure because I am not married” rhetoric.
Until we stop seeing South Asians as exotic “snake charmers”, “good Asian doctors”, and “colourful dancers”, there isn’t going to be a chocolate-coloured James Bond or Harry Potter any time soon.