Sometime in the middle of 2020 the Netflix show Indian Matchmaking became a social phenomenon taking the internet by storm, and rightfully so for all the wrong reasons. It should not be difficult for a viewer to notice dominant-caste and upper-class people on the show legitimating themselves by promoting beliefs and values congenial to them. In the garb of dating, comedy, glamour, and familiarity, casteist and sexist values were naturalized and universalized.
Sima Taparia, the matchmaker on the show, is often seen remarking, “Matches are made in heaven and God has given me the duty to make it successful on earth.” At least three problems arise from that statement: one that it serves as divine certification for endogamy, second appropriating to oneself the right to gatekeep caste (and class) pride and honor, and third that non-endogamous relationships/marriages have the potential to bring impurity and dishonor to a community, thereby rendering some bodies, through the awful act of invisibilization, as ‘inferior.’ This is the violence of the caste system that Indian Matchmaking attempts to tactlessly normalize.
In his famous presentation at Columbia University in 1916, B.R. Ambedkar set out to define caste underscoring endogamy as the primary mechanism that sustains the caste system. Caste, he observed, is “an artificial chopping off the population into fixed and definite unites, each one prevented into fusing into another through the custom of endogamy” (“Castes in India: Their Mechanism, Genesis and Development”). Significant in this definition is the neat demarcation of groups that caste necessitates and how the practice of endogamy sustains these demarcations. If caste is maintained by the practice of endogamy, then the desire for endogamous relationships contributes, either directly or otherwise, to honor-based killings (painfully highlighted in the Marathi movie Sairat and the documentary film India’s Forbidden Love).
Coming back to Indian Matchmaking, you could be wondering how a small decision taken within the confines of a room in the U.S. has the potential to contribute to honor-based killings in broad daylight somewhere in India. But here is the thing: Indian Matchmaking’s portrayal of dating and romance is anything but innocent, cute, or funny; it is regressive and violent. Regressive? You would agree. But violent? You could probably be thinking that I am reading a bit too much into it, and you could be right, but not entirely, because the desire to validate endogamy is a political statement that has brutal consequences.
As a person who loves eating different meats, let me point out how personal choices have political implications. Almost every biodata seen in the show had vegetarian as a preference. This is not an innocent personal choice. I consider it important to locate that preference within a context where vegetarianism is a marker of caste identity. To speak of vegetarianism is to speak of caste “by other means” as against speaking of “caste on its own terms.” (M.S.S. Pandian, “One Step outside Modernity: Caste, Identity Politics and Public Sphere”) Likewise, clients wanting to marry within their own communities putting forth that want in the garb of mere “preference” is a political statement to safeguard and sustain endogamy.
Desire doesn’t matter as much as who is being desired. Desire is a good thing so long as the one desiring does not desire what is not to be desired. Desire is acceptable only as long as it maintains social order and hierarchy. This is the violence of caste system, and endogamy only sustains such violence in seemingly innocuous ways.
In her article, Dalit feminist theologian Evangeline Anderson-Rajkumar notes how in the process of ‘othering the other’—in the monitoring and disciplining of bodies of women and Dalits—dominant-caste people construct a ‘pure’ self (“Turning Bodies Inside Out: Contours of Womanist Theology”). This ‘pure’ self is what we see in Indian Matchmaking. By erasing Dalit, Queer, and Muslim narratives and bodies, dominant-caste people ended up defining themselves in relation to (i.e., in the absence of) other identities. Men and women unashamedly flaunting their caste or community names wielding it as a badge of honor, seeking to preserve and embrace “culture,” which we all know is a euphemism to caste, is a result of that constructed false-image.
If shows like Indian Matchmaking want to showcase narratives of dominant-caste people, may they be narratives of discomfort, repentance, and accountability, and not one of pride and honor because we know all too well that endogamy so clearly evidenced in Indian Matchmaking is all about preserving caste (and class) honor. With all the glamour, glitz, and opulent clients on display, the Netflix show has fumigated and vaunted endogamy, but if truth be told no amount of exoticism will ever be able to mask the barbarity of casteism.
We must learn to discern how caste materializes in the shows and movies we watch, in the places we live and move in, and in the words and actions we speak and perform. With news regarding Season 2 of the show having made its rounds, I hope the creators of the show would take a cue from Jeff Goldblum’s famous lines and not be “so preoccupied with whether or not they could, but stop to think if they should.”
By Arvind Theodore
Arvind Theodore is a PhD student at Union Theological Seminary, NYC in the field of Social Ethics. His interests lie in the areas of liberation ethics, Dalit studies, protest and resistance, gender and sexuality studies, and cinema and caste. Arvind is also the author of Church and Human Sexuality and blogs at Reflections.