Part home movie, and part romantic comedy, Meet the Patels is a documentary crafted by brother-sister team Ravi V. Patel and Geeta V. Patel. The crux of the film lies within Ravi’s (and, it’s implied, many Indian Americans’) life crisis: The former investment banker-turned-actor/comedian is nearly 30 and still single, which sends him—and his traditional Indian mom and dad, Champa and Vasant—into panic mode. Ravi wants to find love, pronto, so he and his sister Geeta document his search, touching upon universal themes of family and cultural appropriation despite the specifically personal nature of their narrative.
The film begins with a breakup between Ravi and his red-headed American girlfriend, Audrey, who he’d been dating for a couple years, keeping her secret from his parents the whole time. Though he’s reeling and depressed after the end of his first real relationship, he travels with his parents and sister on their annual vacation to India. In lighthearted voiceover (which runs throughout the film), Ravi likens his now-existential trip to find himself to Elizabeth Gilbert’s memoir, Eat, Pray, Love: “I was that girl. Except my family was with me the entire time…The entire time.”
During the India trip, and in meeting with his extended family, Ravi decides to do whatever it takes to find a wife. He looks to his parents’ and others’ successful arranged marriages and agrees at least to consider a semi-arranged marriage, set up by his mom, dad, aunties, uncles or whomever else might know of an eligible woman—ideally also named Patel. Which is when the purview of the film grows, becoming an eye-opening examination of a particular plot of Indian culture (namely, the state of Gujarat). This is where Ravi’s parents are from, and in Gujarat, Patels marry other Patels—it’s not incest, it’s more of a “caste thing,” Ravi says, in which eligible singlets pair up with others generally within the same 50-square-mile tract of land. Ravi admits that the tradition is weird, yet totally normal to first-generation Indian Americans like himself. Still, even he seems baffled by the barely discernible nuances between Patels and their respective territories when his father explains it all to him, map in hand.
Next, we follow Ravi on his dating frenzy, in which his parents put their networking skills into overdrive. Ravi fills out his “biodata”—an infosheet for making matches—that asks detailed, pertinent questions about such “values” as skin tone, caste and religion, replete with headshots and resumes tailored for potential relationships. Ideally, according to the film, the lighter the skin tone the better, but these dating qualifiers are casually brushed aside, and Ravi and Geeta miss a pretty obvious opportunity to delve further into prejudices within the Indian culture in terms of race, religion and social status, especially coming from a film that explicates its cultural differences quite overtly.
His sister (and the audience) tag along on some of his awkward first dates, and his parents are only happy to help foot the bill on 15 dates across North America, including various weddings, Indian websites and even a Patel Matrimonial Convention. In essence, Ravi seems to be looking for a female version of himself—or he’s looking for another Audrey. With each date, Ravi can’t help but compare the women to his ex-girlfriend, which leads to some very raw interactions between Ravi and his parents.
The family puts all its emotional baggage front-and-center, so out of respect for their parents, Ravi and Geeta keep some of the most delicate moments off-camera—Keeping Up with the Kardashians this is not. Instead, the film features animation care of Powerhouse Animation Studios to recreate such charged moments, with Ravi providing NPR-like narration. The interludes illustrated with simple black-and-white drawings work brilliantly to convey the emotional intent behind such moments while preserving the family’s privacy.
Early in the film, Ravi calls out Geeta’s lack of cinematography skills, pointing out where the microphone drops into the upper corners of the frame, or her questionable focus, or her shaky hand-held shots. Meet the Patels can be rough around the edges, but Geeta, who’s directed the documentary war thriller Project Kashmir and is behind upcoming action film Mouse, almost seems to be employing certain techniques—cinéma vérité perhaps?—on purpose to lend the film the tone of an intimate home movie. She also inserts herself into the film when necessary, often heard but not seen. She’s older than Ravi, and also single, but she claims her parents have given up on her, so her perspective as the sibling free of such pressure and familial scrutiny is vital to fully grasping Ravi’s situation.
Ravi and Geeta’s father Vasant, an affable man with relationship advice at the ready, very plainly states, “Not getting married and staying single is the biggest loser you can be.” Ouch. And Champa, a well-regarded matchmaker within her community, is dismayed that both of her children aren’t yet married: She has her pride and her personal reputation at stake. But something revelatory happens during the course of Meet the Patels: We watch as a family learns to communicate, honestly, with each other. With that, Meet the Patels is a journey of self-discovery, but it’s not Ravi’s alone. It’s his parents’, his sister’s—it’s the journey of anyone who’s ever felt pressured to settle down, to accept tradition and one’s lot in life, and to try to find happiness within those boundaries.
Directors: Geeta V. Patel, Ravi V. Patel
Writer: Ravi V. Patel, Geeta V. Patel, Billy McMillin, Matthew Hamachek
Starring: Ravi V. Patel, Geeta V. Patel, Champa V. Patel, Vasant K. Patel, Audrey Alison Wauchope
Release Date: September 11, 2015
Christine N. Ziemba is a Los Angeles-based freelance pop culture writer and regular contributor to Paste. You can follow her on Twitter.