REARRANGING ARRANGED MARRIAGE IN MODERN INDIA: HOW NETFLIX’S INDIAN MATCHMAKING ELUCIDATES THE POSITIONALITY OF THE MODERN NEOLIBERAL SUBJECT
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Indian Matchmaking is a reality television show which was first released on the global streaming platform Netflix in 2020. Although certainly not the first television program to depict the trials and tribulations associated with finding a romantic partner, Indian Matchmaking was novel in its depiction of arranged marriage in a modern globalized context. Indian Matchmaking’s presentation of the tradition of arranged marriage emerges as a site for rich ethnographic analysis, straddling the intersections of individual agency, cultural tradition, Orientalism, and the Western gaze. Overall, it would be a gross generalization to argue either that Indian Matchmaking serves to reinforce “traditional” illustrations of arranged marriage or that it illustrates an entirely novel “modern” phenomenon. Rather, Indian Matchmaking prompts critical investigation of the relationships between notions of individual autonomy and obligations to kin, social status and the pursuit of romantic exploits, and the presentation of “modernity” and neo-liberal neo-colonialism. Therefore, I posit that Indian Matchmaking presents the modern Indian subject as neither a bastion against the totalizing force of neoliberal globalization nor the supplanting of traditional cultural values in the wake of liberalization. Rather, I argue, Indian Matchmaking underscores the reconfiguration, but not replacement, of pre-existing cultural schema within a dynamic and emergent neoliberal reality. By doing so, Indian Matchmaking elucidates the negotiation of the neoliberal subject’s positionality within the overarching ethos of modern India through reconfiguring the schema of arranged marriage within emergent liberal economic and social frameworks, attempting to refute the Orientalized vision of the monolithic third world woman, and engaging with the construction of novel norms regarding the expectations of marriage within modern India.
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Netflix’s Indian Matchmaking opens its inaugural episode with a wide shot, panning across the skyline of an urban metropolis (Indian Matchmaking 2020). Though unspecified, the towering skyscrapers and the silhouettes of construction cranes evoke the sensibility of a large modern city, not unlike New York, London, or Beijing. Following this scene, the viewer is presented with a conversation between two middle-aged women, revealed to be professional matchmaker Seema Taparia and a woman named Preeti who is seeking a wife for her son Akshay (Indian Matchmaking 2020). Speaking to Seema, Preeti lists a litany of characteristics a suitable bride for her son must possess: intelligence, sociability, height above 5’3″, and the ability to fit within Preeti and Akshay’s pre-existing familial unit (Indian Matchmaking 2020). It is only after Preeti’s extensive list of demands are presented that Seema turns to ask “So, Akshay, how are you?” At this point the viewer, for the first time, sees the nervous Akshay who remains silent. The scene concludes with a final exchange between Seema and Preeti who note that “arranged marriages are such a headache these days” but that “there are problems in love marriages too” (Indian Matchmaking 2020).
The tension in this statement is one which characterizes the entirety of the eight-episode series. The subjects of Indian Matchmaking, as well as the manner in which the process of arranged marriage itself is depicted, manifest in a state of flux, straddling the line between the ostensibly traditional and the modern. The medium of presentation for Indian Matchmaking also serves as a site of ethnographic significance, namely in the form of the globally distributed streaming platform Netflix. According to Rochona Majumdar, “marital practices in foreign lands have long tantalized outside observers with their apparent promise to unlock the secret of an ‘oriental culture’” (Majumdar 2009, 6). In several ways, the presentation of Indian Matchmaking seems to fall within Majumdar’s paradigm. Paradoxically, Indian Matchmaking is also explicit in positioning the practice of arranged marriage, as well as the parties engaged within it, as undeniably modern, as exemplified by the title of this very first episode, “Slim, Trim, and Educated.” In this way, it would be a gross generalization to argue either that Indian Matchmaking serves to reinforce traditional illustrations of arranged marriage or that it illustrates an entirely modern phenomenon. Rather, Indian Matchmaking emerges as a
sociocultural site marked by a series of tensions: between competing ideas of the joint family and the individual autonomy, between questions of social status and considerations of romantic love, between civility and crass commodification, between liberal individualism and opposed notions of nonliberal attachments (Majumdar 2009, 239).
The manner in which Indian Matchmaking presents the modern Indian subject represents neither a bastion against the totalizing force of neoliberal globalization nor the supplanting of traditional cultural values in the wake of liberalization but rather the reconfiguration, but not replacement, of pre-existing cultural schema within a dynamic and emergent neoliberal reality. Therefore, I will argue that Indian Matchmaking elucidates the negotiation of the neoliberal subject’s positionality within the overarching ethos of modern India through reconfiguring the schema of arranged marriage within emergent liberal economic and social frameworks, attempting to refute the Orientalized vision of the monolithic third world woman, and engaging with the construction of novel norms regarding the expectations of marriage within modern India.
First, to contextualize subsequent analysis, it is useful to consult the phenomenon of arranged marriage as a historical site for ethnographic analysis. Writing on the history of Western perceptions of arranged marriage, Majumdar notes that “nineteenth-century European writing on Indian civilization…[focuses] on marriage related customs as one of their primary areas of interest” (Majumdar 2009, 6). In citing an 1843 travelogue by George Johnson where it is stated that “the Hindoos like the ancient Romans have a custom among them to depute certain persons, before the matrimonial alliance is formed, to see the bridegroom and bride alternately in their respective houses” (Majumdar 2009, 6), Majumdar notes the Orientalizing and exoticizing nature of the Western gaze upon this custom. The conflation between contemporary Hindu practices of arranged marriage and that of ancient Roman customs within Johnson’s account prefigures the subsequent historical Western perception of arranged marriage as a symptom of cultural backwardness. Markova argues:
Europeans are prone to view the system of arranged marriages as an indicator of the lack of freedom of young people and as one of the key factors leading to women’s oppression. [Europeans] see moving away from family arranged marriages towards love marriages as an essential step towards building a better life for women. [Europeans] have an inclination to accept that most arranged marriages work due to the dependence and helplessness of Indian women who are capable simply of adapting and obeying and who never think of protest (Markova 1999, 78-79).
Therefore, in reconciling this perception with a modern and liberalizing Indian context, Allendorf and Pandian highlight, in their 2016 study of arranged marriage customs in India, that “modernization theory predicted [that marriage customs would] converge toward the Western nuclear model under the influence of industrialization and urbanization…[and that] arranged marriage…was expected to be replaced by Western-style marriage” (Allendorf and Pandian 2016, 435) as a component of an intuitive evolution from the “traditional” (i.e., “oriental”) to the “modern” (i.e., Western). Yet, Allendorf and Pandian found that “non-Western families have not uniformly converged toward the Western model and the Western nuclear family itself has undergone substantial changes” (Allendorf and Pandian 2016, 435). They further conclude that “modernization theory itself is a driver of family change” (Allendorf and Pandian 2016, 436) and “that the practice of arranged marriage is shifting rather than declining… [young people in India are] increasingly active in choosing their own [partners]…[while] the size of many of these changes is modest…arranged marriage is clearly not headed toward obsolescence” (Allendorf and Pandian 2016, 457). This suggests that, while the historical construction of arranged marriage within India has served as a site for the delineation of Western superiority and supposed Indian “oriental backwardness,” that rather than being replaced writ large, the practice of arranged marriage has reconfigured itself within the auspices of modernity.
Subsequently, with the historical interpretation of arranged marriage in mind, it is useful to consult the manner in which arranged marriage has come to be reconfigured as a component of modernity and how such manifestations are illustrated in Indian Matchmaking. In explicating the manifestation of overarching neoliberal ideology in modern India, Bhandari notes that “…middle-class population that grew up in the 1990s and thereafter in the wake of new liberalisation policies adopted by India…a new identity and orientation towards the state that promote the state’s ethos of liberalisation” (Bhandari 2020, 7). Consequently:
for [the] middle class the primary ideology [became] consumption, which replaced previously held ideology of development…this is not to say that all middle class are increasing their consumption practices per se…it is the appearance or association of consumerism with being middle class that is now widely accepted…a “hegemonic socio-cultural embodiment” of India’s turn to liberalisation (Bhandari 2020, 8).
Kapur similarly notes this economic shift from the development paradigm to the contemporary ethos of consumption, arguing that this phenomenon has led to a “hyper-visible neoliberal economy…commodifying what was previously part of an informal economy or a familial ethic…professionalized and specialized [occupations]” (Kapur 2009, 225). One example through which we may view this schema is in the professionalization of matchmaking in the context of arranged marriage. Bhandari underscores that “[modern matchmakers’] modus operandi has now assumed a new language, particularly of professionalism and formality, which is different from previous approaches to matchmaking that were more informal and familial” (Bhandari 2020, 68). This mechanization of professionalism is central to the manner in which the practice of matchmaking is illustrated in Indian Matchmaking. Significant portions of Seema’s practice as the eponymous “Indian matchmaker” are devoted to pseudo-scientific presentation. In finding matches for clients such as Akshay, Seema consults a litany of charts containing the preferences of her clients (i.e., age, height, occupation, religion, etc.) which she terms “biodata” (Indian Matchmaking 2020). Importantly, the viewers as well as Seema’s clients are not privy to the manner in which Seema utilizes her biodata and are expected to defer to her “expertise.” For some clients this “scientific process” is supplemented by consulting additional “experts.” In the case of the young lawyer Aparna, this expert is an astrologer who embarks on a lengthy analysis of Aparna’s astrological romantic predestination. Importantly, the key implication of this practice is not whether Seema’s process is objectively scientific, but rather that Seema explicitly reframes her process within the language of modernity, citing scientific analysis such as in the name biodata. This reconfigures the product Seema offers the neoliberal consumer (i.e., her clients) from traditional arranged marriage to a function of modernity, regardless of whether such reconfigurations are reflective of genuine scientific processes. Therefore, in recognizing “the regime of consumption which asks young men and women to prove themselves through the choices they make in a climate marked by privatization and marketization,” Seema’s matchmaking is reconfigured as “conspicuous consumption dictated by the need to individuate oneself, to package and present oneself as a [modern] globalized Indian who flamboyantly embraces ‘tradition’ as a matter of choice” (Kapur 2009, 207-222).
In addition to how the practice of arranged marriage has become reconfigured within India’s emergent neoliberal modernity, this phenomenon points to broader “buoyant models of resistance and inauspicious patterns of domination” in India’s post-colonial context (Kapur 2009, 229). One may draw parallels with Reddy’s work on the emergence of dichotomous models of homosexual presentation in Hyderabad, India, namely the “modern gay” model and the “traditional kothi” model. The conclusion of Reddy’s investigation is that “the simultaneous presence of these ‘different’ models and the potential interaction between time [calls into question] a ‘unidirectional narrative of supersession’” (Reddy 2001, 92). This underscores “the complexity of the cultural production of…identity in the interactions of ‘west’ and ‘non-west,’ local cultural systems and global politico-economic forces” (Reddy 2001, 92). Furthermore, Reddy points to how her interlocutors both “draw on globally circulating narratives of gayness while simultaneously constructing themselves within local networks of meaning and ‘traditional’ subject positions” (Reddy 2001, 99) and, in so doing, disrupt the binarism of “traditional vs. modern” and “gay vs. kothi” in the same manner that the subjects within Indian Matchmaking disrupt the dichotomy of love marriage/modern marriage vs. arranged marriage/traditional marriage. Therefore, the reconfiguration of matchmaking as a cultural practice within Indian Matchmaking points to the complex negotiations which undergird Indian “modernity,” challenging us to “relinquish the narrative of rupture…but instead [recognize] the unrationalized coexistence of different models during the times that they do coexist” (Reddy 2001, 101).
Adjacent to the illustration of arranged marriage as a modern practice, I argue that Indian Matchmaking also seeks to refute the trope of the monolithic third world woman. In doing so, Indian Matchmaking seeks to position the contemporary Indian context as undeniably “modern” and consequently, the practice of arranged marriage as an integral component of a “modern society.” Firstly, it is useful to consult the analytical framework of Mohanty in defining the trope of the monolithic third world woman. According to Mohanty, this fallacy posits that “[the] average third-world woman leads and essentially truncated life based on her feminine gender and being ‘third world’…[this] is in contrast to the self-representation of western women as educated, modern, as having control over their own bodies and sexualities, and the ‘freedom’ to make their own decisions” (Mohanty 1988, 65). The frame of the monolithic third world woman further prescribes that the central mechanism through which such oppression is facilitated is in the regulation of female sexuality wherein “third-world women [are] a homogenous ‘powerless’ group often located as implicit victims of particular cultural and socio-economic systems…defined systematically as victims of male control — the ‘sexually oppressed’” (Mohanty 1988, 66-67). This trope manifests in concert with the historical interpretation of arranged marriage by the Western gaze upon Indian society. Majumdar notes that “native marriages began to be treated by foreign observers as a shibboleth of Indian tradition. Marriages negotiated and performed according to custom came to be seen as belonging to ancient Hindu practices that had persisted into the modern period and that caused the ‘backwardness’ of Indians in social matters…arranged marriages were seen as necessarily marked by a certain lack of agency and individual choice on the part of the betrothed” (Majumdar 2009, 6). Majumdar’s argument closely parallels Mohanty’s analysis regarding how the regulation of the bodies of “inevitably oppressed” and agentless “third-world women’” serves as a catalyst through which the Western gaze constructs visions of realities in the global south. Majumdar further posits that this construction has historically been dichotomized with the notion that “in the developed countries today only two parties are closely concerned in the marriage process: the bride and the groom…Europeans discovered romantic love and companionate marriage at the same time they transitioned from feudalism to capitalism” (Majumdar 2009, 9).
Indian Matchmaking seeks to refute this frame through the presentation of Seema’s clients and, consequently, the central cast of the eight-episode series. Of particular note are the young women Aparna and Nadia. Aparna is portrayed as an American-raised lawyer of North Indian descent with a headstrong attitude and a strong sense of ambition. In her introduction, Aparna embarks on a lengthy description of her career as a general counsel as well as her hobby for international travel. Aparna states, for instance, that a past relationship failed due to her prospective partner’s lack of knowledge regarding Bolivia’s salt flats which Aparna had wanted to visit in the “wet season to see the Flamingos and the Red Lake” (Indian Matchmaking 2020). Nadia, similarly, is an American event-planner of Indo-Guyanese descent. Upbeat and outgoing, Nadia is introduced through a scene wherein she manages a large wedding for one of her clients. Nadia explicitly speaks with Seema regarding the “unorthodox” nature of her heritage (being Indo-Caribbean) (Indian Matchmaking 2020), with Seema conceding that Nadia does not fit the standard image of her clients but, nevertheless, agreeing to take Nadia on as a client. The portrayals of both of these young women emerge in direct opposition to the notion of the monolithic third world woman stripped of agency illustrated by Mohanty and Majumdar.
Rather than powerless or sexually oppressed, Indian Matchmaking goes to great lengths illustrating the headstrong nature of Aparna and the extroversion of Nadia as well as explicitly noting that both women are American and successful career professionals. In doing so, Indian Matchmaking implicitly refutes presuppositions viewers may hold regarding the conflation of arranged marriage with the monolithic third world women and, subsequently, the “backwardness” of Indian society. By attempting to do so, Indian Matchmaking contributes to the project of “modernizing” Indian society within the auspices of overarching neoliberal ideology, per Kapur, illustrating how the “reinvention of ‘tradition’ can easily be appropriated into the religious nationalist project of retaining privilege and wealth in class-and caste-based patriarchal households…the Indian middle class…must assert its membership in a transnational bourgeoisie while retaining patriarchal and caste-based hierarchies at home. Reinventing tradition as a way to assert cultural superiority” (Kapur 2009, 230). By illustrating Seema’s clients as independent, financially successful, and globally connected women Indian Matchmaking seeks to assert that such “modern” characteristics do not manifest at odds with the practice of arranged marriage and that, subsequently, that arranged marriage and Indian “modernity” may be illustrated through the positionality of Nadia and Aparna.
In line with Indian Matchmaking‘s depiction of the practice of arranged marriage as a component of modern India, Indian Matchmaking also elucidates the reconfiguration of the social convention of marriage within overarching neoliberal modernity. In characterizing the contemporary state of marriage in India, Seema states:
In India we don’t say arranged marriage. There is marriage, then ‘love marriage.’ The marriages are between two families. The two families have their reputation and many millions of dollars at stake (Indian Matchmaking 2020).
This perception of marriage as an elaborate and expensive ritual is largely consistent with the emergence of Kapur’s consumerist paradigm wherein, “coinciding with India’s economic deregulation, the Hindu wedding became a core attraction in popular Indian cinema. Weddings in real life, in turn, became more elaborate organized by a wedding industry, which professionalized and commodified work that was previously done by an informal economy or outside of it…” (Kapur 2009, 221). Kapur argues that this elaboration of marriage under neoliberal consumerism emerges as “a product of the emerging Bollywood culture industry and its ideological redefinition of nationalism/citizenship as both acts of consumption and the re-enactment of patriarchal and caste-based identities” (Kapur 2009, 221). Essentially, what Kapur highlights is how the pre-existing practice of marriage came to be elaborated under the consumerist neoliberal scheme of modern India to coincide with a desire for conspicuous consumption. This desire is motivated by a need to “appear” modern, an appearance which is affirmed by the participation in the modern manifestation of marriage as elaborate, expensive, and conspicuous.
Another important implication regarding marriage in modern Indian which Indian Matchmaking elucidates is the role of kinship ties in the formulation of marriage couplings. Although Seema states, “The marriages, they are between two families…” (Indian Matchmaking 2020), Bhandari notes that families seeking partners for their children within modern Indian often feel the need to “present themselves as being ‘modern’ by claiming to not influence their children’s decision on spouse-selection, when in reality they were shaping these decisions” (Bhandari 2020, 51). Importantly, this implies that although the perception of modernity as “individualistic choice and consumption” is maintained as an aesthetic ideal, the reconfigurations wrought by the forces of neoliberal globalization have failed to wholly displace the pre-existing scheme of marriage as a concern of kinship ties. This phenomenon is illustrated in a scene in the fifth episode of Indian Matchmaking which depicts a conflict between Akshay and his mother Preeti. In this argument, Preeti berates her son for taking too long to select a partner, stating “You need to focus…see, you get married this year and [your brother has] a baby next year…they are getting late because of you…You haven’t finalized your marriage!…You’re holding us all up!” (Indian Matchmaking 2020). In this exchange, Preeti encapsulates the tensions which emerge between the aesthetic ideal of allowing her son to “choose” a partner and her pre-existing cultural expectations regarding the way her son’s potential marriage affects her broader kinship network.
While ostensibly conceding to Akshay that his potential marriage is a function of his individual agency, Preeti invokes the notion of “marriage as concerning the entire kinship network” by arguing that the delays wrought by Akshay’s indecision have disrupted the “order” in which Preeti expects familial practices to be carried out (i.e., her other son having a baby). Bhandari identifies this phenomenon as a component of the way marriage has become reconfigured within modern India, noting that “[the parent’s] involvement in spouse-selection therefore was much more nuanced than simply dominating the process-it was subtle yet powerful, active yet hidden” (Bhandari 2020, 55). Therefore, as illustrated in Indian Matchmaking, the reconfiguration of marriage within modern India manifests in a state of tension wherein the aesthetic ideals of modernity and individuality are negotiated with pre-existing norms regarding kinship and parental control.
In sum, Indian Matchmaking serves to elucidate the positionality of the neoliberal subject in multiple ways. Firstly, through the aesthetic professionalization of matchmaking depicted by Seema, the practice of arranged marriage is ostensibly reframed within emergent neoliberal norms. In this way, arranged marriage resists wholesale replacement within the Indian cultural milieu, instead reconfiguring its auspices to adapt to a liberalizing Indian context. Secondly, Indian Matchmaking seeks to challenge the notion of the “monolithic third world woman” through illustrating the subjects of arranged marriage as young, successful, American women. This serves to refute notions of orientalism which reinforce the perception of India as a nexus for “backwards” or “oriental” practices. Finally, Indian Matchmaking elucidates the complicated negotiations and renegotiations which have emerged in the adaptation of the social convention of marriage within India’s emergent neoliberal ethos. While the aesthetic adoption of modern individuality is maintained, the maintenance of pre-existing cultural schema emerges in tension. Therefore, one may view Indian Matchmaking as a rich ethnographic text which challenges its viewers to reevaluate the way globalizing forces of globalization and Westernization manifest in postcolonial contexts.
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* Jeffrey Ma is a recent graduate of the University of Toronto, having completed his undergraduate Bachelor of Arts degree with a major in History and Anthropology in 2021. He is looking forward to pursuing a J.D. at the University of Michigan Law School starting this fall. His academic interests involve topics related to the history of the Asian diaspora in North America, the history and development of cultural foodways, as well as the realities of neoliberalism and globalization in Asia. In his free time, he enjoys baking, listening to podcasts, and a variety of arts & crafts.