Desi Advocacy: Spotlight on Aparna Shewakramani, Attorney and Cast Member of “Indian Matchmaking”
By Prianka Misra • September 22, 2020•Ms. JD, Writers in Residence
I had the opportunity to interview Ms. Aparna Shewakramani, General Counsel and star of Netflix's "Indian Matchmaking," a reality television show about South Asian dating and relationships. Aparna's outspoken remarks and confident outlook led her to become an international sensation. Although the show did not focus on her career, it briefly touched on Aparna's views about being an attorney. After watching "Indian Matchmaking," I interviewed Aparna to delve deeper into her perspective on being a lawyer, career advice for young women, and opinion about her portrayal in the series.
You mentioned in the show that you wanted to be a lawyer since you were a kid, but that you don’t like being a lawyer or other lawyers. What about the legal profession or working in a legal environment don’t you like? In your opinion, what could make it better?
People tell you to go into the legal profession if you do debate or enjoy public speaking. They tell you to go for all kinds of reasons. But it’s actually quite a lonely field. Yes, you’re in court if you’re a litigator. But a lot of the time, you’re working alone. There’s not a lot of teamwork or collaboration. It’s about your own work, research, and running of the case. It’s very isolating and I don’t enjoy that. It didn’t work for me personally, so I tried transactional work for five years, I tried litigation for five years, and I found the issue to be across the board.
There are definitely ways to transition [out of the field] or to stay within the field and to find something that suits me better. I definitely enjoy being in-house a lot more than being in firms, because there is a lot more teamwork, collaboration, meetings, and phone calls throughout the day. I enjoy those interactions. So I think it’s about looking at your personality type and evaluating whether a traditional legal setting – which I would say is working at a law firm – is right for you.
You have a luxury travel company, My Golden Balloon, which you indicated started as a passion project. Can you speak to the benefits of having a passion project or side hustle, particularly in the legal field, which can be very stressful?
Some would argue that it adds more stress. But for me, it was a creative outlet. Two years ago I spoke to a friend, and she was also not finding her creative needs met in her workplace, even though she is not in the legal field.
I think it’s always good to have that outlet. It could be painting, it could be running, it could be anything. But find something outside of your profession that you love and that you can pour yourself into, because that will sustain your career. I’ve spent 10 years in a career that I said I didn’t really enjoy, and why is that? Because I’ve found so many things outside of my job that I also love. I don’t think it’s necessary that you wake up every Monday thinking, “This is exactly where I want to be! This is incredible!”
A lot of us don’t get that feeling, and that’s okay. But you should do, hopefully, is find it somewhere else. And I found it through My Golden Balloon – I love my Sundays, and am excited to wake up and work on Sundays. That’s the time that I turn off my phone, give time to my business and my business partner, and when we were traveling, that’s when we would plan the trips themselves.
Some people love their jobs all the time, and that’s amazing. But if you don’t, that doesn’t mean that you’re precluded from that feeling. It just means that it’s one day a week, instead of seven, or five.
My column is focused on the challenges that women of color face as attorneys, and some of these challenges go back all the way to law school itself. Can you tell me a little bit about your law school and practice experience as a South Asian woman, particularly in the South?
Vanderbilt Law itself is a wonderful school. Perhaps not the most diverse school, but it is a very kind school. It was ranked one of the happiest [law] schools in the country, and it was also a top 15 law school. So I thought, “what a great intersection that I can find a school that brings in the happiness factor!” It’s also just a wonderful program. I got into better-ranked schools but I chose Vanderbilt, and I’m glad I did. It was a very supportive place.
For example, if I was sick one day and didn’t make it to Torts, before I woke up and slept off my Nyquil there would be notes in my email already sent by three different people who noticed I wasn’t in class. If I didn’t understand a concept, someone would stay up to 2 in the morning with me to explain it to me, because they could tell I was frustrated.
So pick a school – regardless of rankings – that is good for you, and you’ll have a good experience, because law school is so stressful. I can’t speak to the cultural diversity [at Vanderbilt], but there were just such empathetic people.
Did I find that in the workplace in the South? No. It was hard, once my colleagues and I started speaking to each other more freely, to hear that my white male counterparts were indeed making more money than me. It definitely colored my experience at that firm, and it happened at my next firm and my next firm. It was a prevalent issue, and it’s not talked about, and it’s not really ever attended to or fixed, and it was just really disappointing to see.
A common thread between law and television is that narrative matters. The way you paint your client in court can influence whether a jury issues a verdict in your favor. The way you edit an individual’s footage on tv can affect the way the world perceives them. If you could re-write your narrative from the show, what would that be? What message would you want to get across about yourself?
I think that there’s an interesting issue that we have with reality television and the way that we consume it. It becomes quite difficult to bring whole, developed, nuanced characters to life. Especially when there are seven of us, one matchmaker, and eight episodes. I felt, obviously, that my edit was unnecessarily harsh, and it was the stereotype of the mean, angry lawyer I guess? We talked about my [travel] company nonstop on camera, and it never made the air. People are shocked to learn that I own a luxury company. They say that I never mentioned it on the show, but I tell them, “No, no! I mentioned it. It never made the cut.” It didn’t fit the narrative of the lawyer.
They knew I loved to travel, and my travel was turned against me as some sort of uppity vice, not something that I poured my creativity and love into. Everything in the show is a process where your voice is taken out of the situation and someone else’s narrative of who you are is brought to the viewer.
For me, that was a very short storyline - I am only in five episodes, and it doesn’t in any way portray me. But that’s TV. And we should ask TV to do better than that, and consume media that is more aware and not so ratings-based. It should be more about the people and their experiences. I signed up for this thinking it was going to be a docu-series. This is a reality show. In docu-series shows, you do see the whole character. In a reality show, you don’t see that. It’s all about sound bytes and flashy editing and story arcs. That’s something we should think about when we’re creating these shows.
Similarly, some of my castmates were very lovely, whole individuals and that’s not shown throughout. The real villain of the show is the editing. Nobody is as bad or as good as the show portrays them to be. We are just people.
The show has been critiqued for reinforcing harmful narratives about colorism, specifically by emphasizing “fairness” as a criteria for eligible matches. A lot of people are saying that the show needed to have done more to unravel this, especially given the current urgency of the Black Lives Matter movement and the global call for more anti-racist rhetoric. Do you agree that the show should have done more to address these themes, that viewers might potentially find problematic? Or do you think that these issues need to be authentically portrayed without an additional layer of commentary?
Well, I personally am happy that they did not sanitize the show. These are important conversations that the South Asian community needs to have, as well as other communities. If we don’t have these conversations, we can’t move forward or change the majority views and say that this is unacceptable. The more we talk about what’s unacceptable, the more prevalent the majority view that “this is unacceptable” becomes.
Keep in mind, this is South Asian media. We have not had it before. [Mindy Kaling’s] “Never Have I Ever” was revolutionary. It just came out this year, and it is a scripted show. Family Karma came out on Bravo. [Indian Matchmaking] was one of the first global shows about South Asians on this kind of platform, and it couldn’t do everything. It is eight episodes of 40 minutes, and it’s about their journey with one matchmaker. That’s already ambitious, and you want us to unpack and unravel casteism, and heightism, and colorism, and sexism, and misogyny -- all of these things and it’s like, hello, these are 40-minute episodes.
What we need is more South Asian representation. Take The Cosby Show – was that an accurate representation of all Black people in America? No. Have we since then come up with many, many documentaries, and scripted shows, and unscripted shows about the Black experience and Black culture -- and all aspects in between? Yes.
Maybe someday that’s where we’ll get with South Asian media so that we’re seeing more. So that we can watch a show that really delves into colorism, and one that delves into casteism. If we could do that, I think that would be great. Right now, we’re expecting so much from our media, and it’s just not able to give it to the viewer. I understand the expectation of the viewer. But we have to think of what we can do with what we have.
In another interview, you said that being stubborn means that you are asking for what you want and you believe that you deserve it. That’s what women should take away from the show. If you don’t believe that you deserve something, then it doesn’t matter what you ask for. I’ve heard this advice in a legal context and a personal context. But for some, it takes time to unlearn cultural practices that encourage women - Asian women in particular - not to ask for too much, be unyielding, or be perceived as “harsh.” In light of that, do you have advice for young women of color who are on their way to becoming attorneys, or who are new attorneys?
Find your cheerleaders. And if you don’t have them, find them. They can be friends, family members, coworkers, or mentors. Go to them, and have them cheerlead you. It could be your mom who knows nothing about your job, but you need her to tell you, “Hey, you’re doing well. Speak up. Negotiate your salary. Ask for more. Hey, let’s bounce ideas off each other.” The more of a network you build, the more space that you feel you deserve to take up in the office. I think that comradery of young associates is very important. If you don’t have that in the office, then comradery with your friends from law school in the profession. You need someone who understands that you are doing well, and with whom you can have discussions about salary and expectations. I don’t think you can do it alone if you don’t have cheerleaders.
I don’t think I identified my cheerleaders, just because I’ve been surrounded by them. And I think that’s why I felt so comfortable in the process [of Indian Matchmaking] telling Sima [Taparia] what I wanted. My whole life, I’ve had amazing family members and friendships with people who have always supported me, my hobbies, my decisions, and my desires. So it was easy for me to say, this is what I want.
I wasn’t asking for a certain height or a certain skin color in a person. I was asking for someone who was South Asian, which was a baseline for the show, and then I wanted them to be more laid back, introverted, and relaxed and very intelligent. And I felt I deserved that.
So I would say, to any woman, find those people in your life who will support you and cut out the people who don’t. The people who say, just stick it out, just be happy with what you have. You don’t actually have to stay with anything or stay anywhere that is toxic. Go somewhere that isn’t harming you and causing you undue pressure. There are always extenuating circumstances - I’ve stayed in positions much longer than I would have liked to. But start looking for something else and take care of yourself in the interim. That’s what I would advise.
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