Why Aparna – And Not Sima Taparia – is the Unlikely Heroine of Netflix’s Indian Matchmaking

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Why Aparna – And Not Sima Taparia – is the Unlikely Heroine of Netflix’s Indian Matchmaking

Illustration: Robin Chakraborty

The first time we meet Aparna Shewakaramani, a 34-year-old Houston-reared Indian-American lawyer in Indian Matchmaking – the Netflix reality series that follows an elite Mumbai matchmaker brokering marriage among affluent families – she launches into a diatribe against arranged marriage. “I see some of my friends and they’re with their husbands all the time and I’m like ‘Don’t you hate that person? You see them all the time,’” she says with a scrunched-up face. “Oh, do we have to see our husbands all the time? ‘Cause I’d rather not, I think.”

In the few days since Indian Matchmaking debuted on the streaming platform and acquired a life of its own as Twitter fodder, it’s become clear that this comical moment, like most of the things that Aparna says on the show, makes for immensely satisfying reality TV.

But look beyond the memes and you’ll notice that her frustration is also an apt encapsulation of the parts of themselves that women willingly forget when they enter a marriage. It’s certainly the closest the glossy Indian Matchmaking gets to questioning the repercussions of an imperfect cultural practice on the next generation of Indians.

Spread over eight episodes, Indian Matchmaking revolves around a 50-something Sima Taparia, a flamboyant Mumbai matchmaker tasked with finding seven eligible bachelors, a suitable life-partner. It opens with an Indian mother on a mission: Akshay, a pampered 25-year-old heir of a business family watches as his mother reveals her laundry list of qualifications for her future daughter-in-law. She should be willing to acquiesce to all her demands, attractive, fair-skinned, cultured, and tall. Any girl under 5’3 is a dealbreaker, she tells Taparia, matter-of-fact.

Over the course of the season, her persistence slowly and steadily morphs into full-blown emotional manipulation: At the dinner table in one episode, she clinically instructs her elder daughter-in-law to have a baby next year. Akshay himself is like a classic Imtiaz Ali heroine: subservient, silent, and more pleasing when not allowed to have an opinion. The rare time that he speaks, he confesses things like wanting a wife exactly like his mother, revealing that like most Indian men, he too, isn’t looking for a wife but a full-time nanny.

We often find ourselves unwittingly submitting to an array of social standards, and at times, settling, just because it is easier.

Unsuitable boys… and girls

By all accounts, Aparna is the farthest from any of the criteria that either Akshay or his mother are looking for in an ideal Indian daughter-in-law so much so that if Akshay’s mother were to meet her, I’m certain she would have a cardiac arrest. In a show that reinforces worrying instances of gender discrimination as “tradition” and features a matchmaker whose only expertise is in advising women to “compromise,” Aparna is the only person worth listening to.

Watching the whole season in both horror and awe, I found myself hanging on to every word she said, whether it was her reciting her now-viral anecdote about judging a man for not knowing that Bolivia has salt flats. Or her steadfast “55-minute date” rule, where she admits to timing her meeting with men in such a way that they have only an hour for the date before the restaurant closes, so she doesn’t waste her precious time on potentially mediocre men who bring nothing to the table.

Sure, much of the reason I was taken by her was because there’s never a dull second when Aparna, the human equivalent of a really hilarious meme, is in the frame and her opinions are never not interesting even when they’re ridiculous.

But as the season progressed, my fascination – which, I admit, stemmed from witnessing someone publicly embarrass themselves – turned into admiration. It wasn’t just that she was the prototype of a modern, independent woman: successful, immensely driven, opinionated, confident. Instead, it was the fact that I don’t remember seeing another woman on a reality show who was so unperturbed by the need to come across as likeable.

Indian Matchmaking gets to questioning the repercussions of an imperfect cultural practice on the next generation of Indians.

Unlikely heroine

As single women who get to enjoy a degree of independence far greater than the one afforded to our parents, we wax eloquent about our determination to live life on our own terms. But we often find ourselves unwittingly submitting to an array of social standards, looking the other way, and at times, settling, just because it is easier.

For Aparna, a lifetime of being alone is still a better prospect than a lifetime of ending up with someone who might be completely wrong for her just for the sake of companionship.

That her refusal to “settle” rankles Taparia is obvious, who goes on to call her “negative” and even implies that her mind is “unstable,” for being picky about her choices in men (by contrast, Akshay rejecting over 100 women is a matter of pride). But Aparna hardly lets either bad dates or Taparia’s judgement deter her from being steadfast about prioritising a future where she prioritises herself.

On more than one occasion, she states that it’s imperative for her life-partner to fit into the life that she has built for herself and not just the other way around. You can almost sense Taparia’s displeasure when Aparna, episode after episode, keeps demanding a certain standard from the men that she is set up with. As the season progresses, it becomes clear that it’s a concept not just unfamiliar to the matchmaker but also to a society where “expectations” in a marriage are inherently one-sided.

That Aparna subverts this convention and still finds herself in a position where she has to embrace an outdated practice, offers a rare complexity to an otherwise simplistic show. It’s fun watching a woman not scared of being herself on screen, but as Aparna proves in Indian Matchmaking, it’s even more fun to watch a woman who scares the world just by daring to be herself.

Much of Aparna’s blunt candour stems from the fact that she was raised by a single mother, which Indian Matchmaking makes a pretty fine job of dissecting. Aparna’s mother reveals that she wants Aparna, the younger of her two daughters, to have all the choice and time in the world before she decides to settle down – choices that she didn’t have.

It’s an emotionally arresting moment in Indian Matchmaking, and makes Aparna’s aspirations and fussiness that much more believable. Even then, the fact the creators make Aparna come across as the antagonist of the show, says a lot about a culture that sees female rebellion as a sin.

The reason that Indian Matchmaking became an overnight phenomenon and partly, why I enjoyed it so much was because I was sure that something as preposterous as this would never happen to me. But I’m also in my late 20s, so I can never really be sure. I’m just glad that if I do find myself in a similar situation, I have the Aparna rulebook to fall back on. From now on, all my dates will be under 55 minutes.