“Compromise and adjustment is what I tell all my clients – you need to lower your expectations,” says Sima Taparia. Speaking over video call from Mumbai, one of India’s most well-known matchmakers is telling me what I, apparently, need to hear if I am to find a wife.
Taparia has been matchmaking wealthy Indian singletons for the past 15 years across the globe, counting some 800 families in her database and resulting in more than 125 marriages. Hers is an arranged marriage service, harnessing the practice of parents pairing their adult offspring with those of other, vetted families usually of a similar class and caste. Her process is thorough: she visits her clients at home, interviewing them on their requirements and lifestyle, as well as speaking to their parents before consulting an astrologer on their horoscopes and then feeding this information into her database to find a potential match. Taparia has essentially commercialised the practices of south Asian aunties and grandparents around the world, forever touting their eligible young relatives.
She is now the subject of an eight-part Netflix series, Indian Matchmaking , filming her process pairing prospective couples throughout India and the US. Where Netflix hits such as Love Is Blind took the concept of an arranged marriage to its extreme conclusion, here director Smriti Mundhra hopes her reality show will clear up stereotypes surrounding the practice. “This isn’t like The Bachelor, we’re not trying to make a spectacle out of people’s lives,” Mundhra says from Los Angeles. “I want to show the nuances and quirks of our culture and the value of the process, especially in an era of online dating.”
Mundhra initially approached the topic from personal experience. “The closer I got to 30, the more pressure there was to get married,” she says. “My family used a number of resources to try to find me prospective partners, from matrimonial adverts in the Times of India to [popular arranged marriage website] Shaadi.com. And then in 2008 I wound up with Sima.” Over the course of 18 months, Mundhra went on a number of dates, yet met her husband-to-be in 2010 without the help of a matchmaker.
Watching Indian Matchmaker, the process seems to have all the anxieties and often unattainable requirements of online dating, with the added pressure of a parent’s input. Taparia’s clients, such as the US lawyer Aparna, want a partner who is as successful as her yet perhaps not more successful, someone with a sense of humour but who also isn’t the loudest person in the room, someone who enjoys sports but who doesn’t drag her along to matches. Meanwhile, her mother wants her to find someone who can support her.
“Young people are more picky and more independent now,” Taparia says. “This is why adjusting your expectations is important, since all these things they think they want won’t mean anything if there is no chemistry. Arranged marriages are very popular in India but its success is all up to destiny anyway.”
A 2013 Ipsos survey found that 74% of 18-to-35-year-old Indians prefer arranged marriages to the so-called “love marriage”, so the arranged-marriage culture is clearly still deeply ingrained. “There seem to be more guarantees in an arranged marriage,” Taparia says. “I reassure parents as to their children being matched with another appropriate family that will meet their criteria, rather than just the boy or girl themselves. I treat them all as if they were my own children.”
Why is such importance placed on family? “In India, marriage is still very much a contract between two families,” Mundhra says. “Traditionally, the young woman will go and live with her spouse’s family. So the vetting is really important, you need to know what sort of family you’re going to be marrying into, as well as what their child is like.”
It may sound old-fashioned but Mundhra thinks attitudes in the US Indian diaspora are increasingly in favour of this approach. “People are resorting to traditional methods when they realise how difficult it can be to find a meaningful connection with someone else when the entirety of the internet is at your fingertips,” she says.
Yet, Taparia’s work largely applies to upper-middle-class families and with gay marriage still illegal in India, she only deals with heterosexual clients. Mundhra agrees there is a way to go before arranged marriages are equitable and modernised. “We’re showing this process without any airbrushing, so I hope it starts conversations around the changes that need to be made and questions the pressure that parents still put on the institution of marriage,” she says. “It was very difficult to get people to agree to be on the show and I hope we can have more diversity on it moving forward.”
Until then, the value of Taparia’s work for her select clients lies in her instincts. “Sima is like a supercomputer,” Mundhra says, “she remembers everyone she has met and she never stops working, trying to bring people together.” And, as Taparia adds: “It’s all about socialising. “People believe in me and every day I have them asking for me to help them find a partner, so I can never stop – there are just too many people who need a match.”