I have rarely laughed as much as I did when I spoke to Ravi and Geeta Patel on August 13, 2015, it was by Skype, with me in San Francisco, Geeta in North Carolina, and Ravi in Hollywood, but the rapport made it seem like we were all in the same room. The subject was their very personal documentary that had been a hit on the festival circuit, and not just among the putative target audience of young Indian-Americans. Their film, MEET THE PATELS, is about family, as in the things we love about ours, the things that make us crazy, and the idiosyncrasies that make each one unique, and yet, somehow, universal.
During out conversation, I learned how the duo worked through many versions of the film before finding the perfect cut in the 34th edit, why animation was crucial, how their relationship as siblings evolved, not always peacefully, when they became filmmaker and subject, Ravi’s revelations about marriage, and the real reason a group of unmarried Indian-American lawyers from all over the country would congregate for a meeting in Los Angeles.
In 2008, Ravi Patel was 29, unmarried, and newly broken up with his girlfriend of two years. For his Indian-born parents Vasant and Champa, who had no idea Ravi had been dating anyone, it was code-red. An unmarried son of that age, they felt, reflected badly on them as parents, and so, on the annual family trip back to father Varshan’s village, Ravi made a fateful decision. Considering that the American way of finding a wife hadn’t worked out for him, and that his parents, who had decided to get married after only 10 minutes into their family-arranged meeting, were the happiest couple he knew, Ravi surrendered to the traditionally Indian way of getting hitched. And thanks to his sister, documentary filmmaker Geeta Patel, we are all taken along for the wild ride of Indian dating sites, bio-data dissemination, arranged dates, and a Patel Marriage convention as Ravi looks for true love, as his parents become increasingly worried that their son will never settle down, and Ravi begins to suspect their worst fears might come true.
MEET THE PATELS, a perceptive, funny, deeply moving documentary about family, culture, and making peace with both of them. With Geeta’s camera catching most of the action, Ravi goes on a series of arranged dates all over North America, dives into the Indian wedding season with his parents along to point out prospective wives, goes online with specialized Indian matrimonial sites, and, finally, attends the Patel Matrimonial Convention, a gathering of Patels who are not necessarily related, but whose families all hail from the approved region of India for finding a life partner.
Far from just a humorous look at one man’s quest for true love with the help of his pushy but loving parents, MEET THE PATELS becomes a sensitive consideration of what it means to be a first- or second-generation American of any heritage, living two separate lives, one in the home, and one in the world, yet wanting to honor, and to retain, what is best about both of them.