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The Missing Muslim Voice in ‘Indian Matchmaking’

That Indian Matchmaking has upset people across the spectrum is slightly baffling given we are a culture obsessed with arranged marriages. Newspapers embellished with matrimonial adverts – ridiculous and regressive in equal measure – are perhaps the oldest testimonies to our fixation with this robust institution. With Indian Matchmaking, this well-preserved secret is out for Western edification and that is perhaps the reason for our collective outrage against the show.

But despite a deluge of angry tweets and incensed opinion editorials calling Indian Matchmaking ‘outdated’, ‘orientalist fantasy’, ‘harmful’, ‘cringe-worthy’, it is astonishing that few have managed to call the show out for its non-inclusiveness. The merits and demerits of this criticism levelled against the show can be emphatically argued when placed within the cultural context our society.

However, one cannot deny that it perniciously passes off upper-class, upper-caste Hindu matchmaking as ‘the’ Indian experience – something I too missed totally till an American friend, totally amused by the show, rang me up. “Is the process exactly similar for you and Zara (referring to a Muslim friend we have in common)?” To be honest, I was befuddled by the sharpness of her question and how a stranger to our culture was able to make that observation sooner than I could. Zara and I are far removed when it comes to our religion. I am a Hindu and she a Muslim. It is then a little unsettling that, knowingly or unknowingly, we are turning into a culture that is systematically working towards homogenising collective experiences often at the cost of a particular community.

While one may argue that it is almost impossible to envision inter-caste marriages in Sima Taparia’s world, let alone inter-religion or same-sex marriages, the onscreen representations of ‘Muslimness’ and Muslim experiences have otherwise also remained woefully inadequate on the grand canvas of Hindi cinema.

The Indian Muslim is either cast as an insider crusading against or paying the price of the transgressions of fellow brethren (Mulk, My Name is Khan, Kedarnath) or an out and out threat to the very idea of India (Padmaavat, Tanhaji, Mission Kashmir, Fiza) who needs to be eliminated at all costs. The everyday regular Muslim, unlike you and I who are not necessitated to wear our religious identity on our sleeves, continues to be conspicuously absent on screen. Muslim women, by extension, continue to suffer the ‘double handicap of gender and community’ as noted by Mukul Kesavan in his book The Ugliness of the Indian Male.

This perhaps explains why we don’t see a single Muslim participant in Indian Matchmaking. We are introduced to Taparia’s clients without any mention of their religion but the show’s iconography – names, astrologers, etc. – testifies that none of them is a Muslim. This glaring absence sits well with the virtual obliteration of Muslim voices from the collective imagination, being acted out with a renewed vigour in recent times. Plagued by stereotypes and cast in frustratingly similar moulds, on-screen representations of Muslims have seldom managed to break away from the off-screen propaganda against them.

Indian Matchmaking, therefore, not only portrays an incomplete picture of Indianness but also misses an opportunity to attempt something novel. Sitting through the eight episodes, I didn’t for once feel that it is exploring something new.

The colourism, sexism and blatant patriarchy that underline Indian marriages are well documented and vociferously written about in the past. In fact, Smriti Mundhra’s A Suitable Girl, also streaming on Netflix, is a much better documentation that effectively and efficiently lifts the lid on the modalities of arranged marriage in the context of South Asia. In contrast, Indian Matchmaking, helmed by Mundhra again, remains clouded in a shroud of heterogeneity – of ideas and representation, with a token Sikh woman holding the mantel for diversity in a predominantly Hindu environment.

The fact that the show caters to a global audience and streams on one of the most popular streaming platforms should have been an incentive enough to enter uncharted territory. It would have been refreshing to get a glimpse of a regular Muslim household and the machinations of arranged marriage in a culture that despite being an integral part of India remains an outlier.

A roka ceremony on ‘Indian Matchmaking’.

Though gender in itself has remained a contested site of representation in cinema, the cinematic gaze towards Muslim women has been both alienating and patronising. It is precisely for this reason that the feisty Safeena in Zoya Akhtar’s Gully Boy stands out but when placed in the context of cinema. Despite trying hard, I could not imagine a Muslim counterpart of Sima Taparia though images of Rifat bi (Kuch Kuch Hota Hai), daaijaan (Kabhi Khushi Kabhi Gham) and Umrao Jaan came flashing by. By no means do I intend to promote the Sima aunties of the world but if Indian Matchmaking is a docu-reality on Indian arranged marriages, I would definitely like to see an overarching picture and not the same narrative repackaged and refurbished.

The ignorance or reluctance to engage with the Muslim “Other” also perhaps stems from a rather naive understanding of their cultural practices. There is no denying the social stigma associated to marriages between cousins in many Muslim families among the non-Muslims. Interestingly, the meteoric rise of the right-wing populism in India has coincided rather insidiously with this frenzied representation of Muslims on screen.

In responding subserviently to Hindutva’s clarion call for patriotism, a new brand of cinema has emerged. The nationalistic film – Toilet: Ek Prem Katha (Shree Narayan Singh, 2017), Padmaavat (Sanjay Leela Bhansali, 2017), Uri: The Surgical Strike (Aditya Dhar, 2019) – has made a resounding comeback which vehemently equates Indianness with Hinduism. Regrettably, cinema’s exploratory lens remains fixated on the upper-caste, upper-class, hyper=masculine Hindu hero who is expected to take the nation to new heights of glory while fighting the petulant infiltrator.

The transition from cinema to web series is a fascinating one, especially when examined amid the chatter of the latter being more inclusive, diverse and non-conformist. Barring few exceptions, the tone and tenor of the web remains eerily similar to what we have been accustomed to watching on cinema. For one, the content producers and disseminators remain predominantly similar particularly in the Indian ecosystem. Furthermore, few makers have displayed the intent to disrupt the heteronormative family structures because of the ‘family’ being the fundamental foundation of our society.

The most that we have managed to do is to ignite conversations around homosexuality with shows such as Made in Heaven, but even a show like that falls short of ameliorating contested Muslim representations on screen. The show refrains from taking a moralistic position on the extra-marital affair between Faiza and Adil (a Hindu), though at one point Adil’s mother-in-law advises her daughter Tara to forgive him for cheating on her, saying he won’t ever leave her for Faiza who is both a Muslim woman and a divorcee.

It would be naive to read a work of art divorced from its cultural and political context and the same applies to Indian Matchmaking. Besides, the fact that the show has been produced by a woman well-versed in this culture and socio-political milieu while also having the privileges of being an outsider is enough to expect that she would not fall for the same bait that many insiders do. But instead of wielding the privilege responsibly what we get is a reinforcement of everything that we ought to be challenging.

Responding to the criticism of the show, Mundhra in an interview said that they tried to represent “different points of view and different aspects of the Indian and diasporic experience.” It is unfortunate that the experiences of a vast swathe of Indian Muslims residing in India and abroad do not count in this diversity. Though she is hopeful of widening the aperture and incorporating diverse perspectives and experiences in the much anticipated second season of the show, this season, standalone, does a great disservice to cultural and religious minorities who are already reeling under the impact of marginalisation off-screen.

It would be interesting to see a docu-reality that delves into some of unexplored aspects of marriages across communities and not just lends itself to document the stories of the privileged few.

The second season of the show will have a lot of catching up to do. Though one may argue that the show reflects the society in most parts, but cinematic representations also wield the power of shaping sensibilities. It would be heartening to see the next season give space to those who lie on the fringes and yet emerge as challengers to this rigid system – narratives where young people tread their own path and break away from the confines of the ‘love laws’ set by the society. Indian Matchmaking, through its deft editing and choice of participants, has definitely sparked many a conversation opening up a debate towards the need of introspection in the society but it falls abysmally short of giving a full picture of India’s marriage story.

So while I would love to see an Aparna not being judged so harshly, I would also like to see how the process looks for a certain Arfa. While I would like to see the stigma around divorce being shattered, I would also like to see the trajectory of an inter-religion marriage. I would also like alternate perspectives on marriage included from people who have decided to shun the institution altogether. Though far and few, it is only by giving space to the myriad narratives and a million mutinies that define marriages can the show claim to give a conclusive picture to a foreign audience.

Harshita Murarka is a freelance writer with particular interest in Hindi cinema, art and culture.

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