Edited by: Khushi Karnawat & Simren Sekhon
Produced in collaboration with The Millennial Margarita
Women Unbounded has teamed up with The Millennial Margarita to tackle Netflix’ controversial ‘Indian Matchmaking’ series! A four-part series, each review will explore a host of themes, concepts and norms perpetuated in the show, and here, the Singaporean-Indian collaboration shall unpack it all. Read on to see what Ramya, Rishita, Khushi and Simren had to say when they sat down together. We can’t wait to hear what thoughts you will add to our discussion!
Simren: So today we will discuss the controversial docu-series "Indian-Matchmaking" that follows a Mumbai-based matchmaker, Sima Taparia, and her clients in the US and India through the arranged marriage process in today’s world. The show reveals behind the door conversations about physical qualities people might look for in a potential partner that they are unlikely to say out loud or come to terms with its implications. There’s definitely a lot to unpack here!
Ramya: Yeah, the first episode itself is titled as "slim, trim, and educated," which ventures into the openly discriminatory: people want "not too dark" or "not too short" matches. In the same episode, Akshay's mom, Preeti, is generally talking about the height requirement for the girl to be 5'3 to qualify the set criteria.
Khushi: I agree. The emphasis on skin colour also arrived so quickly in all the matrimony talk, as did the other aspects of packaged appearance. Sima Taparia mentioned the word "fair" every time she described a girl's features, which suggested a notion of a stratified society: this shade of skin with this, this height with this, and so on.
Simren: Also, gender roles and differentiation are so prevalent here. For example, Vyasar is larger than other people on the show. But, Sima never comments on his weight at all – not that she should. But then why was it then Ankita was continuously told to lose weight, just because she didn’t fit the standard expectations of beauty and size in women? And Ankita was so bravely candid about the impact of her body image issues – why was this not tackled at all? The expectations imposed are so different for both genders and the way in which the show handled them was really not fair.
Rishita: Ugh, so true! & another theme that struck me was this obsession with fair skin. It is highlighted throughout the show irrespective of whether it's a guy or a girl while their other personality traits are entirely disregarded. The casualness with which the preference for light skin appears in the show- delivered perhaps most strikingly in Richa's articulation of it. She says, "not too dark, you know, like fair-skinned," with a casual sense of certainty like "Do I need even to say it? Isn't it implied?" This makes me think about the skin product fair and lovely, which has always promoted the idea that beauty is always associated with fairness.
Simren: Yeah, I think it's an excellent extrapolation to make because of what we see in the show and the realities reflected within our society. Even with the recent uproar, they renamed it to "glow and lovely", but never changed the actual product, which means they're still trying to perpetuate this idea. It's also shocking how many Bollywood stars endorse fair and lovely: it's just so ingrained and remains sustained across society.
Ramya: Absolutely! The stringent expectations of beauty standards invalidate any other achievements, especially for women. For example, we see Akshay's parents demand that the prospective bride be "tall" and "pretty" and use it as a selling point to convince him to say yes. But they completely ignore the girl's other pursuits such as her experience with chartered accountancy or the fact that she is overqualified for Akshay.
Khushi: Yes, this ruthless standard for female beauty is so racialised in India. Even when Sima Taparia mentions that "Richa has beauty, she has a smile", "She's tall, slim, trim, educated, from a good family. I can give her 95 marks out of a hundred. So she has the upper hand, to choose the boys." It is baffling that just because Ankita doesn't match the idealised standards of beauty, doesn't mean she isn't gorgeous and smart. The fact that she started her own business alone makes her an absolute queen.
Rishita: Yeah, it is mind-boggling that women have to break many glass ceilings, for a guy to show interest. Well, reality check: "girls are not just some pretty little faces." And when Pradyuman is visiting the life coach, he questions "what are the girls looking for?" and then goes on to assume that "girls are more fond of personality than attractive looks." Even though he literally was only excited to see one match because of her physical appearance. He continually mentions that my priority is finding an attractive girl. The idea of judging a person from their photograph is disheartening.
Simren: It seems that there's this value attached to women on how they look. It's not about her accolades, education, career; they are treated as a product of beauty and are expected to meet these standards. Also, the nuanced complexities and variety of women's experiences in regard to her sexuality is not discussed at all. Are we just meant to be pure little pockets of sunshine?
Khushi: As a child, my relatives would label me as "saavli" and not pretty enough, which brought out so many insecurities. People would keep suggesting different home remedies for skin lightening, and as a child, that would affect my mental health so much. It wasn't until I went to college that I felt comfortable in my own skin. Like why can't dusky be pretty? Considering Nadia's character from the show, she was described as a tall and lovely girl, but her dusky colour wasn't specified. However, if it was a fair girl, then that would be mentioned as a compliment. Why can't people use the word dusky positively?
Ramya: Honestly, I can resonate with you, Khushi. People would tell me that I'm chubby so I should shed some weight with exercise. And this show actually brought out my insecurities: do I need to lose weight to get married to a decent person? When you're young, and people tell you to do certain things with your body such as lose weight, it's puzzling: am I exercising to lead a healthier lifestyle or do I need to fit into these societal norms to be accepted? In the show, Ankita also described her anxiety episodes concerning her physical appearance and the constant nagging by people for weight loss. But there was no discussion or sensitivity towards her mental health. People pigeonhole others but that shouldn’t undermine or neglect their body: it is still functioning and beautiful, regardless of size.
Simren: This idea of pigeonholing is definitely true in Singapore too, especially in regard to ethnicity. So, for example, a significant proportion of Indian Singaporeans are of South Indian descent. Many other Singaporeans then tend to have a specific assumption as to what an ‘Indian’ looks like, based on limited engagements with the community – without realising that the entire Indian diaspora is extremely diverse and that there wouldn’t be any one way any Indian looks. But, whenever I say I’m half Indian Singaporean, they’re like really? You look Eurasian, you’re too fair, you don’t have that “Indian look” and I’m just like what is an “Indian look” though? It just becomes really frustrating to have South Asia be so diverse and people just refusing to see how much diversity there is and undermining it.
This idea of pigeonholing is definitely true in Singapore too, especially in regard to ethnicity.
Rishita: These examples show why appropriate media representation is imperative. Indian Matchmaking doesn't offer any context or even interrogate the kind of discriminatory criteria and attitudes presented. In fact, the show has endorsed these practices without analysing their complications. Similarly, even Indian celebrities like Aishwarya Rai or Shahrukh Khan who have endorsed Fair & Lovely/Handsome basically promote the idea of colourism to their massive fan following.
Simren: I think this obsession with fair skin is especially prevalent across previously colonised territories. I remember seeing this video on Insta, where 2/3-year-old black girls were saying to their moms: “I'm ugly” – this broke my heart. & then to contrast that, we tend to see an exoticisation of darker skin in the West. I find this duality really troubling and it worries me how shows like this can continue to perpetuate norms that harm so many of us in the Asian community.
Rishita: True Simren, something I've observed is that while our generation is recognising and highlighting the underlying themes such as discrimination due to physical appearance, the older generation considers it quite normal and funny. They hold such an "it is what it is" mentality that driving change in the society becomes difficult. Ironically, many celebrities tweeted for BLM but have blindly supported brands like ‘Fair & Lovely’. There seems to be total ignorance of the social responsibility they have.
Ramya: We have to be careful though: when the media portrays anything controversial, everyone cancels one particular person, but that's not a resolution. The fact that everything we’ve discussed has been normalised is the problem. Even in the show, the things that are not politically correct are left at the level of gratuitous consumption, rather than interrogating those practices at a deeper level. We need to recognise that this needs to be rectified and work to do so.
Khushi: I think we need to start by having difficult conversations at home and adopt different approaches for different generations. With our parents, their approach to slowly unlearn the system would be distinct. However, with our generation - they have greater access to similar resources, social media, journal articles; thus, distinguishing one’s awareness becomes necessary. For example, I would take different approaches of unlearning & learning with Preeti and Akshay.
I think we need to start by having difficult conversations at home and adopt different approaches for different generations.
Simren: As we have these conversations, we must note that these beliefs are historically rooted. Colourism, for example, is deeply linked to the troubled histories of caste & colonialism. While we engage with each of our histories, there is also a question: how do we move forward? I think the power of enunciation intertwined with our critical awareness is key. We need to speak to empower ourselves & one another to normalise beauty and capability of all bodies, regardless of gender, colour or size.
Ramya: Beautiful thought, Simren. This conversation was so insightful as we reflected on broader themes in the world and our own experiences. I think we all agree that the importance of mental health and media representation is deeply linked to societal beliefs on physical appearance and it is something we must continue to engage with.