By Raiyah Butt
The word “fair” is used just four minutes into the first episode of Netflix’s ‘Indian Matchmaking’. The cringe-worthy but hugely popular dating show has sparked debate on whether it’s regressive and problematic, or an accurate depiction of reality. Sima Taparia, Mumbai’s top matchmaker, scans her database to match up clients, saying “they want tall, they want fair, they want from a good family”. She acknowledges that in India, caste is very important in choosing matches. Although not explicit, it becomes clear that caste is not just a physical descriptor, but a standard that has become socially ingrained into the institution of marriage.
Although not explicit, it becomes clear that caste is not just a physical descriptor, but a standard that has become socially ingrained into the institution of marriage.
Over three thousand years old, the Indian caste system is divided into four classes based on “varna”, meaning colour. At the top are Brahmins (priests and scholars) followed by Kshatriyas (nobles and warriors), Vaishyas (merchants and tradesmen) and Shudras (manual laborers or servants). At the bottom are the Dalits, who are ostracized from society and confined to jobs such as street cleaners. Despite legislation that outlaws discrimination based on caste, the socio-economic position of lower castes has little improved.
Indian Matchmaking quietly normalizes caste for a global audience
When Sima says her clients want someone “fair and from a good family”, often the two are conflated. Krithika Varagur, critiquing the show, says that “caste is coded by language such as similar backgrounds, shared communities and respectable families”. This is evident for one client, Nadia, who faces difficulties connecting with other Indian families because she is of Indo-Guayanese heritage. Varagur argues that Indian Matchmaking “quietly normalizes caste for a global audience”. Caste discrimination is rampant in Indian society, restricting the social mobility of lower castes, and infiltrating marriage customs so that caste and “subcastes” marry amongst themselves. This way, arranged marriages uphold hierarchies, keeping upper and lower caste societies segregated. This practice persists in the Indian diaspora, working its way onto the marriage criteria of Indian-Americans on the show, despite the appearance of progressive and modernised lifestyles.
Matchmaking and Colourism
Hand in hand with this is colourism. Being of a lower caste and having darker skin are commonly associated, and those with lighter skin are deemed the standard of beauty. The prime example is India’s billion dollar skin whitening industry, often promoted by the most famous Bollywood stars, which monetizes the ideal that white skin is desirable and can be attained through harmful chemical skin products. Campaigns such as ‘Dark Is Beautiful’ have worked to counter skin whitening, and Unilever announced that its popular cosmetic range Fair and Lovely will undergo a name change after facing backlash. However, a name change fails to address the problem of the industry itself, and the structural consequences faced by those who are shunned for having darker skin.
Social activism needs to continue challenging caste discrimination and colourism across societies, and we can all play a part in dismantling classist and colourist views in our own familial and marriage circumstances.
So what can we realistically expect from an Indian dating show? Sima operates according to the standards that have been long ingrained into our culture, reflected in the attitudes and unconscious bias of dating preferences. But this doesn’t mean that this shouldn’t be called out, and that we can’t expect better from new shows as times progress. Social activism needs to continue challenging caste discrimination and colourism across societies, and we can all play a part in dismantling classist and colourist views in our own familial and marriage circumstances.