Made in Heaven: Marriage Markets in India

What does a wedding planner do? The latest web series offering on Amazon Prime, Made in Heaven, seems to suggest that they end up doing quite a bit, and then some. Apart from capturing the life and times of wedding planners in Delhi, the show depicts Indian weddings (and marriages) in significant depth. There is already some understanding of precisely what it means to get married in India, with the most typical description being the “The Big Fat Indian Wedding.” This implies (as we also see in Made in Heaven) large venues, extensive and lavish decor, and eager families. Since the show is set in modern and urban Delhi, today’s weddings appear to be no longer just tradition: there are loud music videos, pre-wedding events, and massive production costs. In line with a long line of research on the sociology of marriage in India, there is a lot more diversity in marriages, in particular how they find each other, where they each come from, and how much their families are involved in the wedding. This is where the wedding planner comes in: essentially offering a service to help manage logistics and production design to ensure that all the bride and groom think about is themselves.

But Made in Heaven (the fictional agency and the show, both) appears to do more. Studies typically call this setting the marriage market, where there are participants (those of marriageable age) looking to pair up with the “optimal” partner, and where there are differing supply and demand. Marriage markets in India are layered with matching rules, with the boy and the girl typically being matched by familial or other social networks (heavily intersected with caste and religion). In this manner, it is not uncommon for the man and woman to not know each other at all, but less likely that their families are not connected in some way. The “matchmaker” in such cases is a family member that is present within both networks, and also aware of the availability of both participants on the marriage market. The familiarity is meant to proxy as a signal of virtue between two families, for whom presumably their children are assets.

Enter the wedding planners: in the show, the founders of Made in Heaven face a few situations where they must help the wealthy, urban elite in an entirely new conundrum: their kids have chosen their prospective partners (through their own networks) and must now pass muster with their parents. In the marriage market, two families (and perhaps their children) don’t know enough about each other but independently observe signals (think displays of wealth or values) about each other’s type. This one-sidedness of information (or information asymmetry) is something that has been identified as a core feature of many markets. A family strictly prefers their own type, but with some small probability is willing to “adjust” to their children’s preferences. Research on the changing nature of marriage in India has suggested that we are seeing a shift toward “arranged love marriages,” especially in urban India with the advent of marriage portals. Here, knowing each other can mean anything from just knowing of someone’s availability on the marriage market to being completely familiar with them. Consider that a marriage can be of three types: (a) arranged: where the families know each other (i.e. they are part of the same networks) but those being wed do not; (b) love: where those being wed know each other but families do not; and (c) arranged love: where families and individuals know about each other. In case (a), the individuals must look for signals that will give them more information about the other’s type: whether they can indeed spend their lives married to the other person; whereas in (b) families will seek signals of status and wealth to ensure that their offspring is indeed making an appropriate choice; and in (c) all parties seek signals to ensure that there is type congruity.

A common problem in such a matching market is that signals can be noisy, and talk can be cheap i.e. a family (or individual) has incentives to put up a facade that signals their type to be similar to the other family than what their true type is. Economists call this adverse selection, and it can most certainly ruin the party for everybody. What could help overcome adverse selection in a variety of contexts is the availability of verified third-party reports on true types. Indeed, Made in Heaven suggests that this is precisely what some families do. One way in which the planners are shown to do this is by hiring a private investigator to find details about their child’s future spouse. In this way, they receive verifiable (and therefore credible) information that helps update their beliefs about the other party, and determines whether the signals they received were noisy or otherwise, and whether type congruence has been achieved.

Made in Heaven here is that independent entity, as they are shown to function (except for two cases, the planners don’t personally know the individuals being wed), readily obtaining verifiable information, intermediating between families for demands, and virtuously preventing socially undesirable practices such as dowry, marital abuse, or others. In what is possibly meant to be a balanced depiction, Made in Heaven are clearly not efficient in themselves, since they are unable to troubleshoot issues all the time. For example, in one case, the power dynamics of royalty prevents them from pursuing a rape case against a member of the wealthy family.

The show suggests a way to correct market failures, even if planners don’t take it on themselves to do this. As we see in Made in Heaven, the responsibility is usually thrust upon them under the guise of a socially implicit contract. The relationship between the planners and the families are therefore not strictly mediated only by the presence of a contract; the line between service provider and familial troubleshooter is blurred. What makes a marriage truly successful? Despite troubles in their own personal relationships, Made in Heaven suggests that it might just be the wedding planner. 

Anirudh Tagat