The Creator of Netflix’s ‘Indian Matchmaking’ Has a Message for the Woman Haters
How filmmaker Smriti Mundhra made the leap from indie doc phenom to reality buzz royalty
I’ve had the good luck of meeting Smriti Mundhra several times in person. The only way to describe that experience is lucky because the California-native Desi filmmaker is both inspiring and inspired. As creator and producer of Indian Matchmaking, she has managed to take the prickly subjects of love, relationships, race, feminism, and human rights and make them into a fun digestible pop culture snack for a hungry (if fickle) audience on Netflix. By choosing to lift the veil on intimate parts of her culture, Mundhra has entered the social media gauntlet and weathered the torrent of responses to her honest and dedicated work. But that’s the devil’s bargain of creating mass media.
When I first met her, she was premiering the documentary A Suitable Girl at the Tribeca film festival in New York. She had earned critical acclaim for its stunning portrayal of Indian matrimony as seen through the eyes of so-called undesirable women. Her first work, a sharp portrait of Eastern marriage rites contrasts from this sound bite and meme-friendly reality binge. It does jibe with who I saw on that premiere night in New York though. Ms. Mundhra’s deep-set eyes and calm demeanor — she’s always leaning in and listening with a fixed stare, giving each part of a moment her attention — belie how diversely engaged she is in the many jobs she’s taking on during a typical day. That dual ability to focus and to spread out makes her a formidable presence in cinema, where vastness and singularity hold the same immense weight in fine storytelling. I wanted to know exactly how she funneled her sprawling knowledge of arranged marriage into the summer’s most intriguing show. So we sat down to talk about it.
What was your reaction when you first started seeing your show, Indian Matchmaking, trending in the top 10 on Netflix?
It was so weird. So crazy. I mean, it’s a Netflix show. I knew it was gonna be a big show with a global platform but I really did not expect it to blow up the way that it has. I’m glad that it’s sparking conversations and that people are really enjoying it. But I was not ready for what it’s become.
Even though the Brown community in the U.S. is huge and it’s interlinked, it’s also “small” in certain ways where I imagine that people were reaching out to you as Indian Matchmaking was exploding — in a different way than [it was] with A Suitable Girl. Since it’s in popular culture, I wonder whether you heard from people you hadn’t spoken to in a while…with maybe a lot to say?
Oh my God. Non-stop. People I went to high school with. People I hadn’t talked to in ten years. People I hadn’t been in touch with for ten or twenty years demanding to know what happened with a certain character and whether there was going to be a season two. You know, all sorts of corners of my life. And some who were congratulating me. I think, for the most part, people are excited, people within a certain community know about us. But of course, when something gets that big, it’s going to draw its share of backlash.
When you make a popular culture work, the conversation is no longer yours. It becomes other people’s conversation. What’s the difference between how you’ve navigated conversations about A Suitable Girl and the conversations about Indian Matchmaking? What is the tone of the conversations?
For “A Suitable Girl,” it was nothing but love. It was a much smaller work that had a smaller reach than Indian Matchmaking has. It was on the festival circuit and then got released on Amazon. But it didn’t have a big release. We didn’t get a distributor for a while. I think with that film, people were more connected to it because it gave an [inside look] into the lives of young women. It showed the complex nature of relationships. Indian Matchmaking is totally different. It’s much bigger, broader, there’s a lot more humor in it, and it’s also available on a much larger scale than my first film was. And [marriage] is a really triggering topic. I feel like a lot of people feel like we exposed something. It brought into sharp focus not only the good things about our culture and our traditions but it also brought to light some of the ugliness. I think some people are really embracing that and want to have this conversation. And some people are, as they say on Twitter, finding it ‘cringe-worthy,’ you know? And others feel like that doesn’t look like their specific experience or are pushing back against it. But I think the bottom line and what I see through all the comments, whether positive or critical, is that there is a real hunger for representative content. And there should be a lot more sitcoms, a lot more dating shows, a lot more coming-of-age and adulthood stuff. There should be a lot more shows that represent the many aspects and perspectives of our experience.
How do you feel about when people in the mainstream or the so-called gatekeepers ‘discover’ the appetite for this kind of content? How does that feel?
I’m glad that we made the content we have and I think platforms like Netflix have a lot to do with that. They’ve been tracking the regionally-specific and culturally sensitive content for some time now. I think a show like Indian Matchmaking — that’s now gotten so big — hopefully will open the door for lots of other culturally-specific dating shows or documentaries. I pitched a show ten years ago…more than ten years ago…and was told ‘This show will never work’ and was offered to do a show where the matchmaker would match American white couples. That obviously didn’t feel right to me and wasn’t something that I could get on board with but it took ten years to get to the point where we could do a show entirely about Indian people. I hope the gatekeepers and powers-that-be can see that there is a lot of money to be made and a lot of eyeballs to be captured.
When you were portraying Aparna, and you knew how people might receive her personality, how did that play into what you made?
I was not expecting that Aparna would get as much vitriol as she did. I think things are changing now. I think people are starting to recognize that there was a lot of knee-jerk reaction based on the first one or two episodes. And now people are taking a deeper dive and having a more rounded look at her, specifically. I love Aparna. Aparna and I became friends after the show finished shooting. I think she’s an amazing person and incredibly giving and generous with her friends. I knew that she was very blunt and she wouldn’t be everyone’s cup of tea. And I think she knew that too. So we had a conversation right before the show launched where we said we knew this was going to get strong reactions but I really didn’t expect it to be one-sided. I thought there was going to be a counterbalance. I knew there were gonna be people who reacted strongly to her but I thought there would be others who rushed to her defense. In this world of constantly asking women to conform and be flexible, she refused. I thought that was something to be celebrated. That reaction in defense [of Aparna] is starting to happen now, which I think is great. I honestly think that people’s reaction to Aparna, especially compared to some of the other participants in the show, it’s more a reflection on what we expect of women.
What do you think has to happen for America to accept declarative, selective, strong women?
I think it’s gonna take more people like Aparna putting themselves out there and being who they are unapologetically. We need an environment where people say ‘Wait a minute. Why are we hating on this? What are the expectations of women?’ I see that happening more since the show release but I think we need more of that. We need more women who are willing to live life unapologetically but, unfortunately, that involves taking backlash and vitriol from society at large. Why do women always have to be pleasant? Why do we expect that of women? That’s certainly something that in my process of trying to de-program myself comes up in work that I’ve been doing. It takes a long time to undo. And it’s going to take more Aparnas.
We need more women who are willing to live life unapologetically but, unfortunately, that involves taking backlash and vitriol from society at large. Why do women always have to be pleasant?
How has Sima informed your politic?
There are two parts to this answer. One is that I’m more forgiving of Sima than I think a lot of people are because I’ve known her for years. I know the context for her saying what she says. I’m not saying everyone deserves that kind of grace but I know that Sima is competing against values she’s learned over several generations. She’s speaking from her own experience. She’s also not telling anyone anything she hasn’t told her own daughters. She speaks very matter-of-factly. And she does have quite conservative values as far as relationships and marriage go because she comes from a relatively conservative background. Spending all this time with her over the years — and also realizing what a privilege it is to cast off that cultural matrix and look at society on your own terms because not everyone has that privilege — has influenced me. Because I know her background and things about her life, I know that she didn’t re-evaluate her surroundings until later in life. Not everyone has the privilege to progress beyond certain values taught to them but also when you have this kind of radical change that involves this many people and this many experiences and points-of-view, that change is gonna be messy. Not everyone is going to arrive at this awakening at the same time.
In this world of constantly asking women to conform and be flexible, she refused. I thought that was something to be celebrated.
The other thing I note is that Sima is running a business. She’s adapting to her clients’ needs. I see even in the time I’ve known her, she’s changed the way she’s interacted with clients. When I first started working with her, she’d almost never speak to young people. It was all completely happening through the parents. Now, she interacts more with younger people. She’s recognized that she has to evolve and expand her own views to keep up with the times. She’s adaptable and she’s learning and it’s not all going to happen overnight. Her evolution really mirrors what’s happening in India. There are people who have an education and financial independence who’ve been able to progress out of traditional ideals and those people live a very different life. It warrants a bit of patience but I think the pushback is part of the equation. That’s the only way we’re going to change things.
We don’t honor tradition in the same way in the Western world. Have you found that the younger people on the show discovered real value in those traditions that maybe they did not see before?
I think this is one of the fundamental things that I’ve been wrestling with in my adult life. What do we hold onto from our traditions? What do we let go of? Family, for South Asian people and others in the diaspora, is a very integral part of our lives. Our relationship with our parents doesn’t become a Thanksgiving-and-Christmas thing. We don’t want that to happen. I think that is one of the reasons why people in the Indian and South Asian diaspora gravitate toward finding partners of a similar background. They wanna be able to see their mother every day or talk to a relative about issues in their marriage. We really believe in bringing our parents, when they get older, to live with us. We want to take care of the elders. That’s not always the case with other cultures. And these are some of the fundamental values that we’re trying to parse out from the more regressive stuff (like sorting by height, skin color, stuff like that). It’s a process. For me, I’ve been raised with a lot of agency over my own life. I’ve been raised to be ambitious. I’ve been raised to be educated. It’s really hard for me to conform or to diminish my ambition. I struggled with that for a long time because I really believed that if I couldn’t do that, that if I wasn’t ready to conform to becoming a certain type of person, I would never get married, or I would never find partnership. I waited until 33 to get married and I’m glad because I found a partnership that I believe is equitable. In fact, my husband has been way more flexible about conforming to my needs than I have to his. I’m very lucky to be with someone who was willing to do that. It’s a tough one because we not only have to go through this process of de-programming things we’ve internalized but we also have to do it in a different world where we’re exposed to a lot more. That can be really confusing.
There’s a lot of code-switching that happens among South Asians when we go to school versus when we’re at home. How we are in relationships with non-Indians versus how we are in relationships with Indians. It’s a difficult long process to unravel and different people are going to work their way through it at a different pace.
How were you able to reckon with the body image movement and the anti-racism movement that calls out antiblackness in the production of Indian Matchmaking and how did your work contribute to that conversation?
The first thing is you have to accept that…it’s the reality of who we are and how we see things, for the most part. That is a reality. These [physical traits] are so heavily factored in when it comes to how we talk about what we value in a partnership. We expect women to conform and to mold themselves into certain body types and certain skin colors. That’s why lightening creams sell like hotcakes in India and in other countries. I don’t think there’s any point in sanitizing my show to pretend like that doesn’t exist. Or to make the world of arranged marriage look more inclusive. Because once it’s out there and people are talking about it, then we can apply the pressure for change. But I also think we have to remember that…we’ve been colonized for a long time. There are residual effects of that. India has only been an independent country for 70 years and it’s going to take time to root out that influence. And I don’t think this is only true of Indians and South Asians. I think a lot of us are slowly coming to a place of resisting Western ideals. That’s with everything. In terms of the decision to leave that kind of stuff in the show, it was a conscious one because, one, it’s not for me to make anything appear to be more inclusive of anyone it’s not already inclusive of. And then what I do think is a very valid critique of the show that I’ve seen is that the people who are considered “Indian” could be a much broader group. India is so much more diverse and the culture is so vast. It’s like when I’d talk to my non-Indian friends and they’d talk about how much they love Indian food and I used to think ‘You don’t even know what Indian food is.’ If all you’ve had is your neighborhood Indian restaurant, all you’ve ever had is North Indian food. There’s so much food out there and it’s so different. And that’s where we are with media. People have only been able to see a very North Indian, Hindu, heteronormative version of India. We tried with the show to widen that aperture a little bit while still staying true to the people who were on the show. We didn’t want to revert to tokenism or stunt casting but we tried to represent Sima’s clients who represented more of that identity. What we are really craving is more.