NEW DELHI – When Sucheta Cholera’s daughter relocated to India after a stint abroad and had not found a partner for herself, the mother knew she had to get involved.
“I didn’t know how I would find someone” for her, said the 55-year-old former travel company executive. The matrimonial sites she tried were inconvenient and impersonal. No one in her network was able to provide leads. That’s when she was referred to Ultra Rich Match, an elite matchmaking service that boasts of finding its clients “someone special” to match even their most minor requirements with sophisticated – and expensive – tools and techniques.
Cholera, who married her college sweetheart, said she felt relief after signing up with the matchmaking service.
“Earlier I was moving around in the dark. Now, I feel there is some direction,” she said.
Even as India, a country of 1.3 billion people, has gone through seismic shifts over the past decades with the liberalization of its economy, rapid urbanization and the alleviation of poverty, social practices like arranged marriages have remained entrenched.
What has gotten an upgrade with time is the way urban marriages are set up through specialized matchmaking services. Enter the recent Netflix show “Indian Matchmaking.”
The eight-part series goes deep into the makings of the new-age arranged marriage, an increasingly elaborate process that aims to marry tradition with modern mores.
At the center of the show is elite matchmaker Sima Taparia. Based in Mumbai, she shuttles between India and the United States to find matches for her Indian and Indian American clients. Some of the characters include a 25-year-old man from Mumbai who wants to find a wife exactly like his mother, a Houston-based lawyer in her 30s whose forthrightness gets her labeled as “negative” by Taparia, and a public school teacher from Austin with a difficult family past.
The show resonated in India for its unvarnished and intimate look at the process of arranged marriages with all its problems. It sparked anger. For some women, the show triggered bad memories and prompted them to share distressing details of going through the process. Critics say the show does not address the issues of sexism, colorism and casteism that it brought forth.
For Cholera, who lives in Vadodara, the process has not been uncomfortable so far. She signed up with Ultra Rich Match over a month ago and likes that the parents are involved right from the start. Profiles are shared only if there is mutual interest. Most importantly for her, the matches are of “good quality.” She hopes to find a liberal family where a girl will be treated as a daughter.
Saurabh Goswami, the Ahmedabad-based founder Ultra Rich Match, has a team comprising relationship managers, a photographer, a chartered accountant and a software developer. His company caters to clients with a net worth of at least $2 million.
The costs vary, but for a successful match the families can expect to pay between $2,000 and $4,700.
The company visits prospective clients, taking down detailed requirements from them and their families. A thorough dossier is prepared on each after verification of their financial status, reputation and lifestyle, down to the make of cars they own. The company also obtains references – one from a neighbor, one work-related and one from a peer – for “full transparency.”
Finally, meetings are arranged.
“We give [clients] everything on a platter with all the right things,” said 35-year-old Goswami. “This way there is no hesitation, and the impression is amazing.”
Match Me, another high-end matrimonial service, uses sophisticated software to match profiles based on location, education and family background among other factors. The company has a life coach to provide personal or relationship counseling.
“There is a traditional way of doing this and a contemporary way. We’re the latter,” said Mishi Mehta Sood, the 38-year-old co-founder. “We deal directly with the boy or girl to gauge the interest of the person before proceeding.”
Samiksha Chopra and Sonali Kapur of the Perfect Match, a matchmaking service based in Delhi, work only with people in their personal networks or through recommendations. “We don’t simply forward bio-datas,” said Kapur, 36. “We prefer to meet personally and do a background check.” They have in-house astrologers to match the horoscopes of clients before sharing potential matches.
Chopra admits she is surprised to see modern Indians who’ve studied abroad with established careers looking for arranged matches.
“It is to do with our tradition. If they haven’t been able to find someone, they think their parents will make the best decision,” she said.
The coronavirus pandemic has not spared matchmakers, either. Video calls have replaced physical meetings with clients. The prospective bride and groom are first connected via phone calls before their families are introduced on video. Families are eager to finalize matches, though marriages will not take place until next year.
In urban India, more than 90 percent of all marriages are arranged, according to a 2018 survey by the Lok Foundation and Oxford University. Only 3 percent respondents said they’d had a love marriage.
The survey found that nearly all marriages continue to take place within the ambit of the Hindu caste system – a discriminatory social order based on an identity determined at birth. Matrimonial advertisements in newspapers prominently mention candidate’s caste and requirement. Inter-caste marriages are routinely met with violence. Suraj Yengde, a scholar on castes, wrote that arranged marriages are effectively caste marriages to “ensure that the caste bloodline remains ‘pure.’ ”
Caste and religion are important determinants for his clients, said Goswami, who has more than 3,500 clients. For Sood’s clientele, that is not usually the deciding factor. Cholera said she is open to castes other than her own for her daughter but prefers that she find a partner within her Gujarati community.
The most common demand, however, is good looks. Kapur said she often feels stuck as intelligent and brilliant women may not make the cut if they are not “very pretty.” Goswami said his female clients expect an educated, well-settled partner, but the most common requirements for men are all about appearances: height, skin color, beauty.
For Ankita Bansal, an outgoing 30-year-old woman from Delhi who is featured in the Netflix show, opening up about body-image issues on air was a way to remove the stigma associated with it.
(Warning: Spoiler ahead.)
“The show gave me a platform to talk to millions and helped me be more comfortable with myself,” she said. “Lots of women write to me about how it empowered them.” On the show, Bansal ultimately decides to focus on her denim brand, There, that she co-founded with her sister, instead of pursuing marriage.
Parul Bhandari, a sociologist at Jindal Global Business School near New Delhi said that the show is a reflection of the ills of Indian society, though she acknowledged that colorism and sexism are global problems. Urban Indians with high salaries, English fluency and high-price lifestyle choices think of themselves as “modern” and untouched by these issues.
“What this show did is address all these issues within the life of these cosmopolitan Indians,” she said.