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'It's about time': How 'Indian Matchmaking' found love - and success - on Netflix

Viral, left, and Aashay in <em>Indian Matchmaking, </em>which is back with a third season on Netflix.
Netflix
Viral, left, and Aashay in Indian Matchmaking, which is back with a third season on Netflix.

It took Smriti Mundhra 10 years to get Indian Matchmaking made.

Mundhra says she first began pitching the reality TV dating show, which focuses on the work of longtime matchmaker Sima Taparia, around 2008, before Netflix even offered original series or streaming television content.

As Mundhra approached other big media companies, she says they all had the same response: "[They said] wow, this is very niche ... The question was, 'Does she ever work with Americans?' I said, 'She does work with Americans. They just happen to be Indian Americans."

She stuck with the idea, eventually pitching it to Netflix's then-head of unscripted content Bela Bajaria – an Indian American woman who, Mundhra says, understood the international appeal of the series right away. In 2020, Netflix released the first season of Indian Matchmaking, unleashing an international discussion about arranged marriage.

Taparia — who tells clients to call her Sima Aunty — explained the job of a matchmaker in the series' very first episode. "In India, we don't say arranged marriage ... there is marriage and then love marriage. The marriages, they are between two families. The two families have their reputation and many millions of dollars at stake. So, the parents guide the children, and [helping] that is the work of a matchmaker."

This week, the show debuts its third season, featuring Taparia shuttling between London and the U.S. – her luggage filled with traditional food — advising singles like Priya, a pretty 35-year-old who is dating after a divorce and worries that men she encounters think she is "broken."

During one episode, we see Taparia sit with Priya and her parents, handing her mother a sheet with information on the prospective match. Though Priya says she plans to be open minded about Sima Aunty's choices, she rejects the first man because he's mostly bald.

Matchmaker Sima Taparia — or Sima Aunty — in <em>Indian Matchmaking.</em>
/ Netflix
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Netflix
Matchmaker Sima Taparia — or Sima Aunty — in Indian Matchmaking.

"One of the biggest misconceptions is that arranged marriage equals forced marriage," Mundhra says. "The beauty of a lot of our cultural traditions is the elasticity of them. Yes, the traditional, textbook definition of arranged marriage is it's arranged by two families. But in this modern era ... the idea of arrangement is more about a recognition that marriage affects more than just the two people who are deciding to marry."

Critics take on 'Indian Matchmaking'

Critics have said Indian Matchmaking glosses over important problems in the arranged marriage system, normalizing preferences for lighter skinned partners, discrimination through the caste system and focusing on Taparia's wealthy, mostly Hindu clientele.

The Atlantic said the show "exposes the easy acceptance of caste." The Guardian called it"divisive." One U.S.-born Indian woman told BuzzFeed News the series was "very triggering" to watch.

But Mundhra says the show encourages a wider discussion.

"It would have been very easy to have scrubbed out references to skin color, or religion or caste or what have you, but it wouldn't feel authentic," she adds. "[Anyone] who is South Asian, especially Indian, watching the show, [if] there was no reference to these things, they would be like, 'That's not real.' "

Mundhra met Tamparia when she used her service years ago — the matchmaker even put ads in a newspaper to help find suitors. Mundhra eventually rejected the process and forged a "love marriage" with a non-Indian man she met in graduate school; the couple recently celebrated their 10th wedding anniversary.

Is it odd that the creator of Indian Matchmaking didn't actually use a matchmaker herself?

"I have had many, many arguments with my mom about the pressure she put on me to get married and follow a certain heteronormative path," says Mundhra, who says it took a few more years of therapy and growth before she was ready for a long term relationship.

"I think the aspect of it that I was rejecting, was the notion that I'm incomplete without this and I'm judged if I don't have this [marriage]," she adds. "It's no knock on the system, or the process. It's more a knock on the societal pressure."

Arshneel, right, one of Sima Aunty's clients in Season 2 of <em>Indian Matchmaking.</em>
/ Netflix
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Netflix
Arshneel, right, one of Sima Aunty's clients in Season 2 of Indian Matchmaking.

Continuing a family tradition

Mundra calls herself a proud "nepo baby"; her father was Jag Mundhra, a native of India who later came to the U.S. He was a self-taught filmmaker, and mentored many other filmmakers.

Schooled as an engineer, Jag Mundhra took a teaching job in California to be closer to the movie business, renting a theater to screen Bollywood films. As she was developing her own career as a filmmaker, Smriti Mundhra says she kept encountering people in the industry who knew and respected her father.

Smriti Mundhra at the 2022 Humanitas Prizes Awards ceremony in Beverly Hills, Calif.
David Livingston / Getty Images
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Getty Images
Smriti Mundhra at the 2022 Humanitas Prizes Awards ceremony in Beverly Hills, Calif.

"I just saw him hustle," she says, adding that by the time he died in 2011, her father had directed 31 feature films in 31 years.

Smriti Mundhra developed her own hustle, working as an intern for director Spike Jonze and later on Jonze's film Being John Malkovich. In 2017, she co-directed her first documentary, A Suitable Girl, which focused on arranged marriage in India and also featured Taparia — winning an award at the Tribeca Film Festival.

Then she hit on the idea of filming activist Bruce Franks Jr., a battle rapper and Black Lives Matter activist elected to the Missouri House of Representatives.
Franks, who resigned from the Missouri legislature in 2019 citing a need to deal with his mental health, says his friendship with Mundhra saved his life.

When he slid into a deep depression after the deaths of two people close to him, Mundhra reached out to check on him, sending over a version of the film which would become the documentary short St. Louis Superman.

"I truly was contemplating suicide," he says, noting a moment featuring him talking with his son King brought tears, as he realized how well Mundhra had captured his story. "That opening scene with my son, put my whole life into perspective ... I always tell [Mundhra], she was my guardian angel at that time."

St. Louis Superman was eventually nominated for an Oscar in 2020 as best documentary short. That same year, Indian Matchmaking debuted.

Aleeza Ben Shalom is the matchmaker in the Netflix spinoff <em>Jewish Matchmaking, </em>which drops on May 3.
/ Netflix
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Netflix
Aleeza Ben Shalom is the matchmaker in the Netflix spinoff Jewish Matchmaking, which drops on May 3.

These days, Mundhra is helping shepherd the growth of the Matchmaking franchise, including a spin off, Jewish Matchmaking, debuting on Netflix May 3. She says such shows can add to the diversity of cultures shown on TV, while expanding understanding of evolving institutions.

Even better, Mundhra says, is the sense that America's TV and film industries have realized that stories from Indian and South Asian culture can also have a universal appeal.

"Part of me thinks it's about time ... I mean, we're a fifth of the world's population," she says, laughing. "So, maybe some content should be about us to reflect our perspective. ... We're not just representing a niche audience or speaking to a niche point of view."

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Eric Deggans is NPR's first full-time TV critic.