When Indian Matchmaking started streaming on Netflix, it quickly began trending, with many calling it out for depicting “blatant colourism”.
Over the weekend, I hunkered down to commence a lazy day of Netflix viewing. Sitting in the top slot was Indian Matchmaking, a show that’s about, well, Indian matchmaking. It depicts the work of Mumbai-based Sima Taparia, aka Sima Aunty, a successful matchmaker who helps clients in the U.S. and India in the arranged marriage process.
From the synopsis, it sounds great – and it kind of is. After the first episode, I was hooked. But beneath the awkward first meetings (seriously, Aparna’s mum needs to stop), frustrating ghosting (how dare you, Vinay) and sweet moments (basically every scene that involves Vyasar and Rashi), lies one thing that trickles through every episode that I couldn’t ignore: South Asian culture’s colourism issue.
When Taparia’s clients – or rather, her clients’ parents – are asked for their criteria in a spouse, the majority of them list ‘fair’ as a requirement. Yep, ‘fair’. They’re flagrantly and unashamedly stating that they would prefer their partner/child’s partner to have light skin.
These statements, understandably, struck a cord with many viewers, leading some to describe the series as a “cesspool of casteism, colourism, sexism and classism”.
While some people have taken to dismantling the show and claiming it “glorifies” colourism, sadly it isn’t exaggerated. Each episode portrays the bleak reality that many South Asians still uphold these problematic ideologies.
In the sixth episode, we’re introduced to Ankita, a forward-thinking and successful businesswoman who runs a denim clothing brand with her sister. As Taparia and a fellow matchmaker called Geeta scan Ankita’s biodata (a type of CV for marriage), they begin to list her achievements, before Taparia boils everything down to one sentence: “Looks-wise, she’s okay, but she’s not photogenic”. Ankita is gorgeous and her outlook on equality in a partnership is so refreshing from what we’ve seen in previous episodes but because she doesn’t fit the region’s stereotypical ideals of beauty, her choices for a match will be limited.
On the flip side, in the last few minutes of the entire series, we’re introduced to Taparia’s newest client, Richa, a seemingly modern woman who lives in the U.S. Taparia tells the camera: “Richa has beauty, she has smile, she’s tall, slim, trim, educated, from a good family. I can give her, I think, 95 marks out of 100. So she has the upper hand to choose the boys.”
And when it comes to Richa listing her criteria, she specifies: “not too dark, you know? Like, fair skin”.
Oscar-nominated documentary filmmaker Smriti Mundhra, who is also an executive producer on the show, responded to backlash in an interview with Decider, stating “[the production team] were not trying to shy away from any uncomfortable conversations”.
Of course, there are so many success stories in arranged marriage and physical appearance can play a part in searching for a life partner, but when the system relies so heavily on racist, fatphobic and classist ideologies, it’s clear the system is broken.
Colourism has long been a problem in South Asia. Growing up, I believed that fair and lighter skin was superior and Asian girls with lighter skin were deemed more attractive. I saw some of Bollywood’s biggest movies stars promoting skincare products that will lighten your skin. I was told to cover up before going in the sun. I was once told by a friend’s mum – a lovely, quiet woman – that my tan looked “dirty” and I should’ve taken “more care” while on holiday. When it comes to discussions around topics like skin tone, the South Asian community appears to have a no holds barred approach.
Thankfully, the tide seems to be (very slowly) turning. Last month, Unilever announced it would no longer use the word “fair” in the name of its popular skin-lightening cream Fair & Lovely. Johnson & Johnson has discontinued two skincare products that promote “fairness”. While, most recently, L’Oreal has stop using the words “fair”, “fairness”, “light” and “lightening” on its products.
But that’s just the tip of the iceberg.
Systemic racism is heavily embedded throughout South Asian culture. The colour of your skin isn’t just used as a marking point of attractiveness. Along with your place in society’s hierarchy and even your family’s status, the colour of your skin is frequently used to determine your self worth. And this toxic rhetoric spills out of the community and feeds into anti-blackness.
While some believe this way of thinking shouldn’t be given a platform, it’s important for us to see it as a bit of a wake up call. The show has made me more aware of the racist micro-aggressions that have become part of our culture’s daily dialect, particularly among older generations. We need to question how we’re being actively anti-racist to break the longstanding legacy of colourism in our community.
Ripples of movement are being made but watching a series like Indian Matchmaking confirms that we still have a long way to go.
Main image: Netflix