“Meet the Patels,” is a collaboration between actor and stand-up comic Ravi Patel and his sister, Geeta. After breaking up with Audrey, his girlfriend of two years, Ravi decides he will not only allow his parents to set him up with an Indian girl, but also allow Geeta to film it.
Indiewire spoke with Ravi and Geeta about the origins of the film, the inspiration that desi culture had on the film’s narrative approach and what it was like to film their parents.
How did the idea to make a documentary emerge? It seems like there was a pretty small gap between when you and Audrey broke up, Ravi, and then when you want to India. Did you come up with the premise before you left or was it in the process? Because you had the camera with you while on the trip.
Ravi Patel: The decision to make the film happened after we’d already started making it, in the sense that, obviously what was happening in my life we were seeing in real time. Long before the break up, though, every now and then I get asked to MC or do comedy at charity events, and I was doing this 400 person Jain lawyers convention and they had asked me if I could stay on stage for another ten minutes or so and I said sure. So I just started, kind of off the top of my head, talking about my mom setting me up, pressuring me to get married and then trying to introduce me to Indian girls. The crowd wasn’t just laughing but it was a very shared tragedy type of laugh where everyone is just — you could feel the energy in the room and afterwards everyone is coming up and saying, ‘You should do a comedy tour on this,’ or ‘You should write a book, y’know. I’m just so glad you talked about this.’ People were sharing their stories and they were entertaining, but they were also tragic in a sense, and sad. So that was kind of the first seed of understanding the importance of the subject matter, and then, after the break up, Geeta had just finished her first documentary, it’s called “Project Kashmir,” and she had decided she wanted to learn how to use a camera better and she had just gotten the awesome, new DVX 200, HVX 200…
Geeta Patel: Now it’s ancient — that was six years ago.
RP: Yeah, yeah, exactly. [laughs]
GP: It was cutting edge and now it’s probably the biggest camera in the world.
RP: Geeta, I think it probably makes more sense for you to take the story from here.
GP: So I had just got this camera, I had come out of making a documentary for about seven years, about the war zone of Kashmir. I was exhausted, broke, didn’t even have a car — I ended up selling my car to get through the last couple years. It was basically a time when the last thing I wanted to do was to start another documentary. I bought this camera thinking, I’m going to learn how to be a good director by learning all the jobs — and one of those jobs is cinematography. So I’m just sitting here messing around with a camera in India and Ravi, mom and dad and I are driving around a lot, and Ravi had just gone through this awful break-up that mom and dad don’t know anything about, so he’s talking to me the whole time about it. Of course, he’s hilarious — that’s the way we deal with pain in my family, we laugh about it. So he’s just sitting there kind of telling me, “Geeta, you realize how crazy this is. Do you ever see us from the outside? Patels marry Patels and do you realize mom and dad don’t even know about this epic relationship I just had?” He tells me about the experience he had with the crowd at the event where everybody was really reacting to him expressing all this [and] he says that we should really do something. As he’s going through this during our time in India it’s all on camera because I’m sitting there filming everything. I think it was just kind of…it was like osmosis. I just kind of filmed Ravi as I filmed mom and dad. When we came back from India — I had just made a film with PBS — and I showed the footage to them. Ravi had a strong feeling. He wanted to do something for the whole community, like “Supersize Me.” Something where it wasn’t about his personal life, it was more about what is happening in our community. I show it to PBS and they’re like, “One, oh my god this is amazing. And two, the relationship between you and your brother is really strong.” So then we found ourselves in another documentary and not just another documentary, but an intimate documentary, which is not what either of us wanted. But we both thought about it, and even though it is quite a sacrifice and inconvenience to tell the story of your own family, especially being desi and being from a private, difficult culture to document, we both felt — or I can just speak for myself — I wanted to make the film that I wish was around when I was going through this. I wanted to feel left alone — so that feeling overpowered the sacrifice and inconvenience.
So PBS put you on to this path? I know there were a few different organizations involved, whose names appear at the start of the film, but I would love to hear more about how they helped shape the production process.
RP: The idea itself was ours, but PBS was the first to come on board. They were big fans of Geeta, based on her last film. PBS gave us a lot of momentum both creatively and financially to get the process moving. So then we had all these awesome people come aboard and support the film: the Center for Asian American Media (CAM), the Tribeca Film Institute — Tribeca helped us out quite a bit and they still help us a lot — and then the Hartley Film Foundation, Chicken and Egg Productions and Impact Partners, who were also just very involved in the day-to-day of the film as producers.
GP: …and Whitewater, Ravi. I think overall, once we got the broadcast deal with PBS, which comes with their funding, Ravi and I had a much easier time getting the rest of the funders aboard. One of the strongest relationships we’ve had on this films, besides PBS, is with the Tribeca Institute. Beth Janson came on to the film early and she really saw the vision with us — as far is it being a funny film that could actually get into the communities that don’t usually watch documentaries, and address the issues of interracial marriage, interracial dating, race in America on a broader scale, relationships.
RP: One thing that they were all really on board with is this idea of making a film that was super entertaining, so that it could hopefully have as much impact as possible. That was obviously a big emphasis that we put in the film — making sure it was fun to watch and hopefully offering a narrative experience that people who don’t usually watch documentaries, would watch it.
Definitely. But like you were saying Geeta, Indian culture is a very private culture. So I was wondering whether you could speak to how involved your parents were in crafting the narrative, besides agreeing to appear onscreen? Did they sit with you during the editing process? Did they watch cuts with you?
RP: I think respect for the community was something that we were very conscious of from the outset. We wanted it to be something that was respectful, not only to our parents, but to all the people that are in the film and the community. So we did it in a few ways. One was that we always made a point to tell everyone who was in it that we were going to do our best to make sure we were respectful of how we portrayed them in the film. I feel like we did a really good job with that. In terms of our parents, we had the gift of them being incredibly comfortable on camera. I think that a lot of it had to do with the fact that they trusted Geeta and I — they knew that we had that respect…
GP: …and they’re used to Rav and I goofing around. I always have a camera in my hand. Well I did. I’m on a break at the moment. They also just never knew what I was really doing. They never knew what was going on — if I was just messing around or if it was a film. I don’t think they ever took it seriously, Ravi you tell me. I don’t think they really knew what was going on even though they were comfortable and they were doing everything for it. They were like, “It’s the kids project.” When they saw the film, they had not been involved at all, besides us just filming. Don’t you think, Rav?
RP: Yeah, they didn’t see a cut of the film until two years ago.
GP: Even when they saw it, they were so shocked. They were completely like, whoa. Just like your typical desi parents — just how your parents would react if you all of a sudden showed them a film about themselves — their eyes were so wide. They were [also] excited, and that was a surprise to us.
RP: And now they do consider it their film. They’re our biggest fans. Dad opened a Facebook account recently. He’s on the Facebook page [for the film] talking to people, which is hilarious. It’s been pretty beautiful. It’s really turned into a family project and everyone is involved and excited to be a part of it. Geeta and I always say, the success of the film has already happened because of what it’s done for our family. Not only the experience it’s given us to do something together, but also how much closer it’s brought all of us, which you see onscreen in the film. The movie, more than anything else, is really about our family and about how this specific time in my life was also a time of evolution for our entire family. As a result, we’re so much closer together.
So where did the idea for the animated sequences originate?
GP: You could do a whole sidebar on the animation experience in this film. It was intense and it took years.
RP: And it started with us making a lot of mistakes and trying a bunch of other things first that didn’t work. I think the seed of it was our saying that whole thing we were talking about with respect for the community. From a filming perspective there were a lot of moments during that time that we chose not to film for ethical reasons because we didn’t want to have a camera in our parents face when they were going through some real stuff. It wasn’t respectful to them basically.
GP: We didn’t want a camera in mom’s face when she’s about to cry. So we had a big problem. Do we make the film or not when we don’t want to film these moments? That was a really hard line for us and our family came first.
RP: So the question was, how can we not film these moments that are incredibly significant to the film, while still giving them life? We experimented with all sorts of storytelling techniques for these plot points — kind of Woody Allen-type, me talking to camera comedy, stand-up comedy moments and that didn’t quite work as well. We also did an entire shoot with a white background that represented my mind and I was hosting a talk show with all these experts and we would run off to do sketches. But that didn’t really mesh well the home video quality of the film. There are some animations that “This American Life” does and we’re also big films of this film called “American Splendor,” so we started thinking about animation and got an animator. When we got the first storyboards we put them into the film — [even though] we didn’t know what the animation would look like when it was finalized — and when we showed a rough cut at a meeting with Impact Partners a lot of people thought that was it and they loved it. We started to realize that [animation] makes a lot of sense tonally with how the rest of the film looks and feels. Then we spent a couple years to get that tone right and finding animators who could pull it off. We went through a lot of animators to get through it because a lot of animators felt that this unfinished, raw sketchy quality of animation looked unprofessional. They were afraid that people would think that they were bad animators. We were like, no, no, no, this is what we want.