LOS ANGELES - There's a degree of irony in the fact that Netflix unscripted dating show "Indian Matchmaking," the most distinctly Indian content to originate from a platform aggressively expanding operations in India, was commissioned out of Los Angeles, rather than Mumbai.
Netflix launched in India in 2016, but it took a while to warm up to homegrown commissions in a market that thrives on local fare. It didn't help optics that content execs Swati Shetty and Simran Sethi opted to resign rather than be based in Mumbai. They were replaced eventually by Monica Shergill in 2019, who joined existing director of originals Srishti Behl Arya. Amid all the restructuring, the streamer's first Indian commission, 2018's "Sacred Games," a hit for the service, was commissioned by Erik Barmack out of the U.S.
Around this time, "Indian Matchmaking" executive producer Smriti Mundhra's documentary "A Suitable Girl," which she co-directed with Sarita Khurana, won the Albert Maysles New Documentary Director Award at Tribeca in 2017. The same year, the Los Angeles-based Mundhra pitched her idea for an Indian dating show to Netflix in the U.S. and got the greenlight.
Over in India, Netflix -- trailing behind turbocharged local streamers and global rival Amazon Prime Video -- was trying to grow its customer base by trialling cheap subscriptions. But its Indian originals, with the exception of "Delhi Crime," "Bulbbul," "Jamtara" and "Taj Mahal 1989," did not set the Ganges on fire.
Until, of course, "Indian Matchmaking" came along, aimed squarely at India and the Indian diaspora.
Commissioned by Brandon Riegg, VP of nonfiction series and comedy specials at Netflix, the show revolves around Mumbai-based matchmaker Sima Taparia -- who was also featured in "A Suitable Girl," and was executive producer Mundhra's own matchmaker -- who arranges meetings between her clients with a view to getting them married. The clients, all of Indian origin, are based in India or the U.S.
Prior to filming, American reality vet Eli Holzman's The Intellectual Property Corporation hired Indian line-production outfit Organised Chaos to sift through matrimonial advertisements in newspapers and matchmaking sites to select participants.
Organised Chaos fixer Ricky Saxena contacted some 450 matchmakers over late 2018 and early 2019 to shortlist them for the show, but Taparia remained their first preference because Mundhra was already familiar with her. Throughout this process, the Netflix India office was not involved.
"There was some correspondence with Netflix U.S., but not from India, [because] for us this was still an international production," Saxena told Variety. "We didn't know this was for the Indian platform as well, at least at that time. It wasn't a Netflix India Original." Dubai-based outfit First and Ten Productions handled the India leg of the shoot.
"Indian Matchmaking" quickly became a global conversation starter when it began streaming on July 16, going far beyond an Indian audience. Inevitably, criticism followed, with the show being accused of not being inclusive enough, and promoting casteism. "I know there has been a lot of commentary around the idea of casteism in the show, but actually, nobody mentions caste as a priority, and almost every match that's made is inter-caste, as we say, because that is a reflection of the reality," Mundhra told Variety.
"We had to be authentic to Sima's world. We'd be having too heavy a hand as producers if we said she has to do a match for an LGBT couple, or a Muslim couple etc. We had to be authentic to who she is, but then try to push for as much diversity within that as possible."
Addressing accusations that the show hasn't been critical enough of the process of arranged marriage, Mundhra said, "The idea was for the critique to be inherent in the process, to show the push and pull between Sima, who has much more traditional ideas and honestly represents not only what her generation in India feels but what's actually implicit in lot of Western dating shows, but isn't spoken of." She encourages critics to parse their critique of the show with a critique of the institution of arranged marriage.
Other commentators praise the show's honesty. "I believe that it holds a mirror to the absurdities about us," India filmmaker and novelist Piyush Jha ("The King of Bollywood") told Variety. "In one fell swoop, this show exposes us. In fact, it is a telling statement about our hypocrisy. OTT shows can't 'redefine' us. Only we can. And this show aptly shows that we haven't even begun to. We can live in the biggest cities in the world with 21st century trappings, but our minds are still as regressive as those in Victorian times."
Dr. Mythri Jegathesan, who has a PhD in cultural anthropology from Columbia and teaches the subject at the University of Santa Clara, disagrees with what she refers to as the show's "light-hearted" treatment of what are essentially "heavy" issues.
In interviews, Mundhra has spoken about being the only South Asian in the show's key creative team. Jegathesan hopes this changes, should the series be renewed for another season. "First and foremost, the most important thing is to have more people in the room that are from diverse backgrounds in South Asia, around economic status, experience, ethnicity, caste, religion and so forth. I think that simply wasn't the case [with season 1]," Jegathesan told Variety.
"[Mundhra] was the only South Asian in the room, in her own words," said Jegathesan, who hopes to see more representative decision makers involved in such programs at Netflix.
Of course, if season 2 of "Indian Matchmaking" gets greenlit out of Netflix India rather than the U.S., or at the very least, the Indian Originals team gets more involved in the editorial process, that representation could happen automatically. There are signs that such a future isn't far off: Netflix India's content team is bedding in, and local commissions and acquisitions now appear robust, with the streamer recently announcing 17 new Indian Original series and films.
And, agree or disagree with "Indian Matchmaking," people are watching. Poorna Jagannathan, one of the stars of another Netflix South Asian themed hit "Never Have I Ever," tweeted: "#IndianMatchmaking was horrifying. Also, #Netflix, how soon can you drop season 2 (asking for a friend)."