Love is on the air
Young Mumbai executive Jayata Sen knows what she wants in her future husband. He should be tall, good-looking, ambitious, successful and surprise her with romantic, candlelit dinners. He should be willing to support her parents, his horoscope should match hers and his income should be at least 100,000 rupees (HK$16,300) a month.
Sen highlighted her wish list for wedded bliss in a video clip broadcast last week on India's first matrimonial reality TV show, Star Vivaah (Star Weddings), which showcases potential brides and grooms to millions of viewers nationwide at 2pm every day on the Star Plus channel.
The two-minute clip shows the slender, long-haired Sen, 23, a Barclays Bank human resources manager, in low-slung jeans and a hippie-style top, dining at home with her parents, shopping in the local market, watering her balcony plants and driving to work. The clip also highlights her looks, voice, walk, values, home decor and her parents - and says more about the prospective bride than any of the matrimonial listings online or in Sunday newspapers' classified advertisements.
India's ancient custom of arranged marriages has just undergone yet another transmutation. For centuries, when youngsters reached marriageable age, relatives and friends would put their parents in touch with eligible partners. Then came marriage bureaus, brokers and popular specialist websites such as Shaadi.com and Bharatmatrimony.com.
The operators of such sites claim they're viewed by millions of people seeking an instant, affordable introduction to a potential Mr or Mrs Right, but Star Vivaah producer and Star TV vice-president of programming Rasika Tyagi says their listings sound similar and wonder how wannabe marrieds can find mates from lineage such as: 'I am a 27-year-old, 168cm engineer from an educated, middle-class Punjabi Hindu family from Chandigarh'.
'Replying to these ads was a total shot in the dark, totally hit and miss,' says the 35-year-old, who refuses to talk about her own personal life. 'And the grainy pictures and brief profiles on the websites - what do they tell you about the person? Hardly anything?'
Tyagi, who has spent 14 years in broadcasting, says she was inspired to start a matrimonial programme earlier this year after a two-month trip around India during which she learned that many people were preoccupied with their sons' educations and their daughters' weddings.
She devised Star Vivaah in the belief that millions of Indians needed help in finding the right partner, and in a comparatively affordable reality show format that Star also beams to Indian expatriates in the Middle East. And in an attempt to counter potential criticism that only losers would go on television to find a partner, Tyagi chose doctors, pilots, engineers and MBAs for the first few episodes and then widened participants' social spectrum later.
Tyagi says she has received 20,000 applications since the show's May launch. And although it's not shown in Hong Kong, Tyagi says she is also planning regional editions of the show in Tamil, Gujarati and Punjabi, and to ask Indians living overseas to post their videos on the Vivaah website.
The show's participants are chosen in an effort to balance serious purpose and entertainment, she says.
'All the eligible ones - the good looking, articulate, educated ones - make for boring television,' says Tyagi. 'All the less attractive ones are more entertaining, but we need a mix.'
The show's candidates are also invited to sing or recite poetry, but expectations differ between the sexes. While female hopefuls seek economic security, looks are a priority for men, Tyagi says, citing one participant who specified that his future bride should have a dimple in her cheek and another who said his Mrs Right should look like Bollywood actress Priyanka Chopra.
One of Tyagi's favourite participants was 83-year-old widower Kishore Khangiane, whom, she says, told viewers that he wanted a 'physically fit and active' companion with whom he could 'see the world'.
Men usually state in their video clips the qualities they seek in a bride, describe their own personality, interests, values and expectations for marriage. Once a potential groom has been filmed at home, at play and at work, he is flown with his parents for free to Star Vivaah's Mumbai studios, where they are interviewed by the programme's two presenters, Mohnish Behl and Aditi Shirwaikar.
Dressed in shiny, flashy clothes fit for a wedding, Behl and the heavily bejewelled Shirwaikar are warm and friendly with the young man and his parents, yet they sneak pointed questions into their affable chat.
'In India, the girl's family is invariably at a disadvantage,' Tyagi says. 'The boy's family has the upper hand, so they don't dare ask them a lot of the questions they desperately want answers to because they're scared they might call it off.'
In a recent episode, for example, the show's presenters asked New Delhi journalist Vikram Chaudhuri why he was still unmarried at 30. Had he had any girlfriends? Yes, he replied. And when Chaudhuri was asked why they had not worked out, he answered that in one case, the girl's parents decided he was not earning enough and in the other, the parents objected to his caste.
The presenters then asked Chaudhuri about his income, religion, plans for children, whether after marriage he would continue living with his parents, and whether he wanted a dowry or minded if his wife worked.
Sen says she felt similar pressure on the Star Vivaah set. When she insisted that her husband should earn 100,000 rupees a month - a large salary in India - a show presenter suggested that perhaps she was being too demanding, and questioned whether she really expected her husband to support her parents.
'I was a bit taken aback,' recalls Sen. 'But I had to be honest, otherwise I would just be misleading any man who might be interested in me. I am clear in my mind what I want and I had to get that across.'
The presenters also press participants to clarify any vague or coy responses, says Tyagi.
'The job of the anchors in teasing out the information that viewers need in order to decide if the person is right for them is a very important part of the show,' she says.
Disabled candidates can be grilled too. When partially sighted Geetika Makhija said that she wanted someone who believed in 'simple living and high thinking' and that she did not regard herself as 'defective goods', the show's presenters asked whether her condition was hereditary.
But their probing helped 32-year-old Neeraj Parasar become the show's first participant to marry.
'Their questions forced me to work out what I could compromise on and what I could not, so it was very useful,' says the bank manager from Bhopal.
Parasar's appearance on the programme was watched by 28-year-old Swechha Shukla and her family, who live in the same town. Having sifted through 1,400 responses and pared them down to 200 and then 50, Parasar says he realised that Shukla 'matched the four major parameters I had laid out'.
After their first meeting, within three days of the broadcast, he checked whether her horoscope matched his. When, to his delight, it matched perfectly, he booked the marriage hall.
'I had been looking on Shaadi.com, but none of the women came close to my ideal,' Parasar says. 'It's so much more immediate and vivid to see the person on television, their lifestyle and their personality.'
And with couples often taking weeks or months to meet or exchange photographs through classsified ads and matrimonial sites, television is also 'a faster, more efficient way to find the right partner', he says.
Star Plus says Star Vivaah reaches about 3.5 million viewers every day, but that not all are looking for partners.
New Delhi housewife Ritika Tiwari says she watches the programme to see what young men and women are like these days.
'The men are all looking for Superwoman!' she says. 'But boys and girls are so clear-minded, it's weird. They're not confused the way I used to be at that age.'