Since downloading the TrulyMadly dating app two years ago, Arsath Ajmal hasn't ventured out on a single date. It's not that he doesn't want to. The 27-year-old pharmacist lives in a small town on India’s southeast coast and is loath to upset local sensibilities. "I’m scared that my friends or neighbors will spot me and start rumors," he says. "It is better to avoid." So Ajmal limits himself to chatting with women online and uses the app to divine if they're spendthrift, flirty and look like their profile photo.
Dozens of dating apps have emerged in India over the past couple of years, but Ajmal's qualms are commonplace in a nation where most weddings are still arranged and sex before marriage remains largely taboo. Getting young Indians to do the equivalent of swiping right (in Tinder parlance) requires making dating seem fun, safe—and parent-approved. Dating startups say the effort is justified because half of India's 1.3 billion people are under 25, increasingly global and presumably open to shedding some reserve.
"India is going through a social revolution but young Indians, especially women, rarely get the chance to interact with people of the opposite gender outside of their college or work environments," says Taru Kapoor, who runs Tinder India, the company's only office outside the U.S. "Dating apps are helping break conventional barriers, providing people with more choices, control and freedom."
Online matchmaking isn't exactly new in India. For about 10 years now, sophisticated Indians have used web matrimonial services to arrange the marriages of their children. Potential brides and grooms are categorized by region, language, religion, caste, language, horoscope—even status and annual salary. Once the families agree, the horoscopes are matched, the families (including the girl/boy) meet and then work out the details.
But a marriage arranged online mirrors a tradition Indians have followed offline for thousands of years. Dating is another matter entirely and makes conservatives deeply uncomfortable. It's a country where community leaders and village councils have banned girls from carrying smartphones, Valentine’s Day has been decried in some quarters as an unwelcome Western import and, in one instance, goons beat up girls in a pub in southern India for purportedly destroying Indian values. "Dating apps are a needless Westernization," says S. Prakash, a member of the right-wing Hindu group Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh in Bangalore. "It does not reflect very well on Indian culture."
As a result, dating startups are treading carefully. When Delhi-based TrulyMadly started two years ago, its founders were disinclined to call it a dating site and went for the inoffensive tagline, 'India’s best matchmakers.' "We were scared of using the word 'dating,'" says Sachin Bhatia, co-founder and chief executive officer. "Although the mushrooming café culture was legitimizing courtship, dating was still not fully out of the closet."
Months later, the startup cautiously began promoting itself as a dating app based on matched interests and began a series of 'safe' promotions including book barters, where men and women could meet and get the conversation started. More recently, TrulyMadly aired a commercial called BoyBrowsing, in which women reverse typical gender roles by giving guys the once-over. Many girls responded enthusiastically to the ad. "We wanted to show people that a date’s just a date, it is not sex, it is not marriage—it is just clean, easy fun," Bhatia says. The app’s messaging doesn't emphasize love or marriage–"No algorithm can promise that," Bhatia says—but urges Indians to seek the connections they wanted.
Tinder has tweaked its approach to reflect local conditions. Rather than just location-based matches as it does in the U.S., the company has added education and job titles to profiles. To suit Indians who prefer protracted conversations before meeting, the company added a library of animated GIFs. Tinder's first promotional video in India, released online earlier this year, featured a salwar kameez-clad mother offering style tips as her daughter gets ready for a date. The message was clear: If mom approves, it must be OK. Nikhil Singh Rajput, a 32-year-old Mumbai-based filmmaker who has been on several Tinder dates including one in Patna, a smaller city, said the apps would force Indian parents to eventually take a relaxed view of man-woman relationships in India.
For now, the apps have to tiptoe carefully. "Lot of global trends do not work in India. Even McDonald's had to drop their signature beef burgers from their Indian menu. So also dating apps will have to Indianize and adapt to the social realities here."
Rajput's own parents, whom he describes as conservative, don't know he is on Tinder. "I am 32 years old, I don't need to tell them."
The key to success, whether the dating apps are foreign or local, is making women feel comfortable in a country where crimes against them are rampant. With women accounting for a quarter or less of people using dating apps, there's a way to go. As part of the effort to make them feel safer, most apps subject men to a more stringent verification process including a double-check of marital status and assign them a higher 'trust score' if they provide a LinkedIn account and upload a government ID. Woo, another dating app, ran a series of online sketches called Let’s Talk with real men divulging their aspirations and secrets–an attempt to make them relatable and normal.
In a premium service pilot, TrulyMadly is teaching men how to break the ice with women on the app. Shirin Rai Gupta, who manages partnerships and alliances at the startup, says men are advised to shun formulaic openers like "Hi baby," "You have a beautiful smile, dear" and "I like your eyes." They're also urged to avoid certain profile pictures, among them the bathroom selfie, the sunglasses selfie and what she calls the standing-next-to-expensive-car-that-isn’t-mine selfie.
Instead, men are told to find common ground with lines like, "Have you heard Bon Jovi’s latest?" or "What did you think of Chetan Bhagat’s new book?" Society is changing so quickly, Gupta says, "young people want to meet and go on dates but don’t know where to begin." For women who get lots of ticks, the app’s right-swipe equivalent, and tend to brush off interested men, she says: "Be nice, be nice, be nice."