Most singles in their 20s and 30s can relate to having parents push them on the marriage issue — Ravi Patel’s are just a bit more vocal about it. In a documentary co-directed with his sister, filmmaker Geeta Patel, Ravi, a Los Angeles-based actor, bravely puts his dating life in the hands of his parents and on screen in the film “Meet the Patels.” A hilarious investigation into the culture of contemporary Indian-American matchmaking/marriage arranging practices, this doc about dating focuses on the importance of love, and especially the kind of love that exists in families.
What inspired this crazy journey? A break up, of course. Reeling from the end of a two-year secret relationship with a white American woman, Audrey, Ravi Patel and his family set off for a trip to India, where of course, his extended family can’t stop asking him when he’s going to get married. Sister Geeta is along for the trip, and with her new camera, captures the many, many conversations about Ravi’s lack of marital status. Their parents, coupled through an arranged marriage, insist that the process can work for their two single adult kids, who grew up straddling the line of both Indian and American culture.
Eventually, Ravi relents and allows his parents to set him up on some dates. Just imagine online dating, only your parents are sending you printed out profiles (“biodata”) of your future dates. Father knows best, indeed. Ravi sets off on a North American dating tour, where, he doesn’t necessarily find his future wife, but starts to learn more about what he’s looking for. He also does online dating too, meets dozens of women at weddings, and even attends a Patel marriage convention, which is sort of like speed dating on steroids. All along the way, his sister and her trusty camera follow his adventures, through all of the nervous primping, first time awkward coffee dates, parental pep talks, and more. Without much success, and a lot of indecision on Ravi’s part, he, and his parents, are increasingly frustrated with the process, and eventually, it all comes to a head.
The film is a unique portrayal of this journey, because as a sister and daughter to the main characters (and an unseen character herself), Geeta Patel has a deeply intimate access to her parents and brother. They are candid, uncensored, and entirely forthcoming with her, no doubt used to having conversations in front of her with a camera in her hand. Due to the warm and lively presence of the Patel family, the film is an entertaining feel-good doc on the topic of love, family, culture, and what it means to carry on that culture. The Patel parents are instant stars, too, with killer reaction shots and one-liners. One almost wants “Meet the Patels 2” just to spend more time with them. Their marriage advice isn’t half bad either (Mama Patel has arranged about ten marriages of her own).
The film itself has a bit of a home video vibe to its look, no doubt due to the relaxed shooting style, and Geeta, as filmmaker, is often addressed as the other character in the room. Storyboard style animation serves as a framing device, preserving the Ravi onscreen/Geeta offscreen dynamic, but the conversational tone of the back and forth (Geeta sounds so much like Carrie Brownstein in voiceover it’s weird) enhances the intimate and candid flavor of the piece.
“Meet the Patels” is a fascinating window into the cultural practice of arranged marriages through a contemporary lens and anyone who’s been through the trials and tribulations of dating (or parenting those who are) can relate (it’s no wonder it won the Audience Award for Best Feature Doc at the Los Angeles Film Festival this week). But despite all the dating adventures, what Ravi ultimately finds while looking for love is an appreciation and a recognition of the love that he already has around him, in his parents, sister and friends. It’s a lesson all struggling singles could stand to remember from time to time. [B+]