Meet the Patels: A Match Made in India, by David Bax
Geeta and Ravi Patel’s new documentary Meet the Patels, running under an hour and a half in total, may have more edits per minute than any film by Michael Bay or Paul Greengrass. The directors, brother and sister, cut from their main story to animated bits to stock footage and back at a pace that starts off feeling restless and fidgety, as if they don’t have enough confidence in their project to let it play without gaudy adornments. Eventually, and thankfully, they settle into moving at a pleasantly brisk clip, allowing them to approach with levity their examination of the overlap between what people want out of life and family and what years of tradition have made them think they want.
At the start of the story, Ravi has recently broken up with his girlfriend of two years. Geeta and Ravi are first generation Indian Americans and Ravi ended the relationship with this woman, whom we meet via old cellphone videos, because she is white and he was never able to bring himself to tell his parents about her. After the family’s yearly trip to India, to the villages where their parents, Vasant and Champa, had their marriage arranged and where nearly everyone is named Patel whether they’re related or not, Ravi, finally and out of desperation, relents and submits to the modernized matchmaking system of Indian Americans in the 21st century. The bulk of Meet the Patels details that process.
It turns out that Vasant and Champa’s preferences for their son don’t stop with wanting him to marry an Indian girl. No, they would prefer that he actually marry another Patel. That name gives an indication of where in India her family comes from and, in essence, carries with it a sort of pre-approval. Patel, we learn, is not just a common name but, in many people’s eyes, is a category of Indian people in itself. Ravi even attends a “Patel Matrimonial Convention” where Patels from all around the United States gather in a hotel for a weekend to meet potential future spouses. We see some gentle ribbing from comedian Russell Peters about Patels but Ravi describes being one in warm terms. “They don’t keep score. They don’t count favors. You are unconditionally a part of the biggest family in the world.”
Over time, though, we see Ravi’s affection for his family’s traditions start to whither. While Vasant thinks of dating as we know it in this country as a different type of system, Ravi – unthinkingly and tellingly – simply refers to it as “normal.” Whose normal is it, though? It’s not the standard with which he was raised, at least not during the parts of childhood that are controlled by parents. Vasant and Champa may have brought up their two kids to be as Indian as possible but, still, they did not grow up in India. As supportive as the parents are (as well as being hilariously colorful characters), this process starts to wear them down as Ravi is repeatedly unable to connect with the young women with whom they set him up. Like all parents, but especially those from a different culture than their children, they just don’t understand.
Geeta and Ravi, as directors, keep things mostly light, even as the emotions get more raw. In this way and others, Meet the Patels takes as its blueprint the romantic comedy genre. Ravi is the nice, funny guy whom we really want to see grow up a bit and succeed at finding love. Like the best romantic comedies, the heavier themes are only barely obscured under a sugary outer crust. Were this a standard romcom, however, it would be a tad problematic that we only see one half of the love story. Luckily, it’s not. As a documentary, the film succeeds, in large part because Geeta makes a great interviewer. The fact that her subject is her brother allows her to dispense with bullshit.
Geeta and Ravi strive, at the end of the film, to wrap it up with a trite but heartfelt message that marriage is a process, not the culmination of one. That’s true and a case worth making. Plus it’s cute when Vasant says of Champa, “After 36 years, I don’t understand her.” But that’s not actually the point. Meet the Patels, at its best, profoundly depicts generational difference not as rebellion but instead pinpoints the bittersweet feeling of surprise when you realize you don’t want the same things you were led to believe you did.