“Hello, Guru. I’m Sima, from Mumbai,” she said when we spoke for the first time, months before my date on the second episode of Netflix’s “Indian Matchmaking.” I was having my marriage consultation with Sima Taparia, who is touted as Mumbai’s top matchmaker. I connected with her after replying to an advertisement on Backstage.com, a casting site for film, television and entertainment jobs. Though I was a lawyer working at a firm in Manhattan, I took theater classes for fun on the weekends, and visited Backstage.com occasionally to check out acting gigs in New York. The listing sought participants for a docuseries centered around singles paired by an elite Indian matchmaker. I applied and got cast, but the episode I eventually appeared in did not come close to covering what I experienced.
As a single, American, millennial lawyer working at a white shoe firm in Manhattan, I never thought I’d use an Indian matchmaker to find a partner. American culture emphasises the importance of the individual and made me think that the primary responsibility of choosing a partner rested with me. Arranged marriages, which involve the family in the selection process, reflect Asian culture’s emphasis on the “we.” Hiring someone to help find me a spouse sounded like a personal failure ― it would mean I lacked the swag to do it on my own.
My parents didn’t expect me to have an arranged marriage either. Even though my mom was from Guyana and my dad was from India, they met without a matchmaker. Seeing the listing challenged my views. It made me wonder whether using an elite matchmaker could be better than relying on the matching algorithms of dating apps. I remembered being resistant to yoga as a kid so that I could better assimilate into American culture, only to feel surprised when yoga ended up proliferating in America after being embraced by the dominant culture. I questioned whether my resistance to arranged marriages was similarly influenced by xenophobic views about Asian cultural practices and if I was ruling out something that could actually benefit me.
I applied to be on the show and felt more confident about doing so after learning more about the production team and feeling those involved had legitimate experience in filmmaking. Smriti Mundhra, one of the lead producers, had directed a well-reviewed documentary called “A Suitable Girl,” which followed women preparing to participate in arranged marriages in India. Still, I didn’t tell anyone I was going through the process because I figured that most people would judge me negatively for applying to be on a reality dating show.
Once I heard back from the producers, I underwent hours of interviews and a rigorous psychological screening. Then, after months of hearing nothing, I received a call to schedule a telephone meeting with Sima. I was excited to chat with her and genuinely curious to see what all the hype was about.
“I instantly became self-conscious as I wasn’t sure how my choices would be portrayed by the production company. I wondered if I’d come across as ageist if Sima excluded women of a certain age from my search or if I’d look like a jerk if I had a preference for my partner’s height.”
Our call started out warm and informal. It actually felt like a relief to have someone want to help me find a partner. But, as soon as we started to get into details about what I wanted, I struggled.
Sima asked me if I had any age, height or educational preferences and whether I was okay with someone who was a vegetarian, drank alcohol or had kids. I instantly became self-conscious as I wasn’t sure how my choices would be portrayed by the production company. I wondered if I’d come across as ageist if Sima excluded women of a certain age from my search or if I’d look like a jerk if I had a preference for my partner’s height. I wondered if I’d be portrayed as elitist for preferring a partner who held a degree from a high-ranking university. I noticed that Sima did not include persons with disabilities.
I found myself running into a wall as I tried to figure out if it was possible to take an intersectional approach to reviewing the dating profiles. I wanted to decenter norms around ethnic, religious, and economic statuses and make a holistic choice about my match, but the biodata ― or biographical information about my matches ― was flimsy and shorter than a resume.
As we continued chatting, I could tell Sima was also asking questions to determine my suitability as a partner. We discussed whether my parents were still together, what their religions were, and their ethnicities. I had never encountered these kinds of questions on a dating app and I had mixed feelings about answering them. When I said my parents were divorced, I felt less-than for not being in an intact nuclear family, something that was totally out of my control. When I told Sima my father was Sikh and my mother was Hindu, I wondered why the faith of my parents mattered. Even though it may be easier to create a relationship between two people where both of their families are of the same or similar faiths, I was wary of having my personal views on God subsumed by the religious practices of my family and ancestors. Talking with Sima about my ethnic and caste preferences also forced me to consider whether wanting to marry someone of the same ethnicity was problematic.
After my chat with Sima, the producers provided with me with the biodata of a woman who lived in California and they offered to fly me and my mom to meet her. One of the producers sent me a contract that I needed to sign in order to move forward. The contract would have required me to sign away the rights to my image, in perpetuity, without compensation. I spoke to a lawyer and a few lawyer friends, and they all advised me against moving forward. I contacted the producers and tried to back out the show. They wanted me to stay on. They insisted the show was a docuseries, not reality TV, and that I had nothing to worry about because the other single professionals on the show were comfortable participating. I didn’t think I’d be able to be as vulnerable about dating as I wanted and was concerned about how they’d portray my mom too. I declined to move forward and didn’t hear from the producers for months.
Then, out of the blue, I got a call from a producer practically begging me to go on a date for the show. The producer told me I would be meeting Nadia, a Guyanese American, and promised that the date would be casual, that the team might not even use the footage, and that my portrayal would be handled well. The producer also said the contract I was concerned about was a formality and that I could trust the team. Ultimately, though I was still somewhat wary of what I was getting myself into, I agreed to go on the show. Little did I know I’d end up in the trailer for the show, be featured significantly in one of the episodes, and find myself in the middle of a controversy about a mimosa.
Based on the biodata that I received, I learned that Nadia and I were similar ages and ethnic backgrounds, grew up in similar parts of the country and both went to graduate school. But I had never gone on a date with someone without communicating with them at all prior to us meeting. I don’t know whether Indian matchmakers intentionally block matches from talking before meeting, or whether we weren’t allowed to speak to build suspense for the show, but it felt strange. The benefit of online dating is that I could banter via text or have a phone call with someone to figure out whether we had a good rapport. But for my date with Nadia, we didn’t speak at all before we met to film our date.
The producers asked me to arrive at the restaurant where the date was being held an hour before it was scheduled to begin. I chatted with the team when I got there but I was nervous and a big part of me just wanted to go home. But then Nadia arrived and the date began.
There were cameras on both sides of our table and light reflectors shined in my eyes. Though the date was only a few minutes long on the show, in reality it lasted over 90 minutes. I tried to keep the conversation casual and really concentrated on trying to get to know Nadia. The way the date was edited made it seem like I judged her for ordering a mimosa and for wanting bacon mac and cheese, but, honestly, neither of those choices was a dealbreaker. The episode also made it seem like I was being vague about what I wanted in a partner. The truth is I didn’t want to get into a protracted conversation about my gripes with Sima’s services.
At one point I told Nadia that she reminded me of Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) and she told me she didn’t know who that was, but I said that was OK, and noted that there were probably well-known people that she knew of that I didn’t know about. Still, that exchange, and several others like it, did highlight for me that it didn’t seem like we had a lot in common and we probably weren’t a match. When the date was over, we traded our contact information, but I didn’t move forward, largely because I did not want to give Hollywood producers the right to tell my love story without any of my input.
“It's hard to gauge whether the overall impression was negative or positive. I posted my reaction video and it generated tens of thousands of views. A mob of mimosa lovers attacked me for judging Nadia over having a drink. People on Twitter claimed I had 'Indian Dad Energy' and that I wore ill-fitting clothes.”
As the premiere of the show approached, I decided to record my reaction to the episode and taught myself how to use iMovie to do so. The night the show debuted, I set up some lighting equipment in my apartment. Then, when I finally saw the date ― or at least how it was portrayed on the show ― I almost broke down. My friends texted me things like, “Netflix played you” and “they made you look antisocial.”
Some of my friends were happy for me, and it’s hard to gauge whether the overall impression was negative or positive. I posted my reaction video and it generated tens of thousands of views. A mob of mimosa lovers attacked me for judging Nadia over having a drink. People on Twitter claimed I had “Indian Dad Energy” and that I wore ill-fitting clothes. Though some friends told me to ignore the negative reactions, I couldn’t help but take the attacks personally.
At first, I tried to respond to the negative comments, in hopes of getting my truth out. Though some people became fans, I realized that responding only made sense if it was strategically tied to a social media strategy or objective. For example, a brand can use negative comments to understand customer pain points, reply with a constructive message that drives sales or show responsiveness to customer needs. I’m not a company and on my personal social media profile, I don’t offer a product or a service. I had to think differently about how my replies further my mission and whether or not it was really worth it to respond to negative commenters.
But for the most part, my inbox was overwhelmingly filled with support, and I even received messages from single women who said they loved me for not drinking or cutting back on meat. Still, in the period after the show came out, I experienced a flood of emotions, and I struggled to sleep or eat.
I reached out to a South Asian therapist. Instead of having a private session with her, I suggested we record our session with a videographer and post it online. I wanted to use my new larger platform to reduce the stigma around therapy and mental health among cis, straight, South Asian men. I talked with her about my experiences with social media trolls, dating, marriage and identity. The video got thousands of views and I received messages from people all around the world thanking me and saying it was courageous of me to open up.
As for Nadia and I, we exchanged a few texts before “Indian Matchmaking” premiered but nothing came of our interactions. Since the show aired, the cast has participated in private calls over Zoom, and we’ve all enjoyed getting to know each other. We also continue to chat in a Facebook group.
Now that I know the kind of editing that takes place and other manipulations that go on behind the scenes on reality television, I would not audition for another show. I want to be seen and known as someone credible and authentic, and it’s difficult for me to trust anything or anyone I’ve seen on a reality TV show. What’s more, the “appearance release” each participant of “Indian Matchmaking” was forced to sign is non-negotiable and leaves almost no rights to us. The contract essentially assigns image rights to the company in perpetuity, bars the ability to terminate the contract, and gives the production company the right to alter a participant’s image in any way, regardless of how harmful the depiction may seem. I understand that this is common practice for reality TV series, but I personally am not comfortable with signing something like this again. Finally, I’m also disappointed that the producers did very little to help cast members prepare for a possible social media backlash.
Sometimes I have regrets about going on the show and wish I had known more about how vulnerable I would be to editing and the producers’ desire to tell a good story. Other times, I wish I had done my date with Nadia differently and maybe even decided to go on a few more to see if anything was there. Once in a while I even daydream about what would have happened if I had been ― and created ― a completely outrageous character for the cameras.
I thought the first few episodes of the show were entertaining, largely because of the novelty of seeing an Indian tradition and a South Asian cast represented on Netflix, but I feel the show’s energy waned later in the season. It’s hard for me to objectively talk about the show because I was on it, but I will say that the producers missed opportunities to discuss and explore casteism, homophobia, and ethnocentrism. I believe some of these tough issues could have been broached while keeping the series light and funny.
Surprisingly, “Indian Matchmaking” made me realize my opposition to arranged marriages was based in Western biases. While there are valid criticisms of the practice ― the most significant one being that it’s a form of family control over a child’s choices ― Sima opened my eyes up to the benefit of having a person in your corner trying to find you a match. As I move forward, I’m leaving all options on the table with respect to finding a partner. I believe that a matchmaker who can provide a thorough consultation, involving substantive biodata, would be a strong alternative to online dating. Still, there are limitations to a matchmaker’s strengths. Online dating benefits from network effects, where the number of people participating increases the value of the service. In contrast, a matchmaker is only as good as his or her clientele.
My life now is not much different than before, except that I get recognized on the street occasionally. New people I meet are surprised I’m not an awkward mimosa hater. As far as my love life goes, being on Netflix has provided me with a fun story to tell on dates. I now take a more methodical approach to dating and ask questions about marriage, finances, children, family and careers. I’m still excited at the possibility of getting married one day ― you just won’t see it on Netflix.
Ravi Guru Singh is a writer and lawyer based in New York City and from Brooklyn, New York. He graduated from the Freestyle Love Supreme Academy, Upright Citizens Bridge Theater, Northwestern Pritzker School of Law, and Vanderbilt University. His film debut will be in “Terrible Children,” directed by Shanti Thakur, and his animated comedy sketch “Doing the Robot” will debut in 2021. He served as a Council of Urban Professionals Fellow and a New York City Urban Fellow in the Bloomberg administration. You can follow him on Instagram and LinkedIn.