This delightful documentary from Geeta and Ravi Patel really tells the story of what every young adult in every close ethnic group who is “of marriage age” hears from their family: when are you going to get married? And will you please choose a nice Indian/Italian/Greek/Jewish girl/boy and make your mother and me happy? What makes it more interesting is that one of the filmmakers, Ravi, is going through it right now, with his awesomely fantastic and witty Indian family. We get to see every painful and hilarious step, thanks to his sister Geeta, who films the whole thing. Adding in a little outside-his-ethnic-group dating, checking out prospective dates on Facebook before meeting them, and one of many laugh out loud scenes involving what could only be described as Indian Speed Dating (The Patel Expo!!), serve to effortlessly weave old and new world together. An Old World Tinder if you will…
Ravi is an Indian American actor living in L.A. with his sister. His parents “help” him realize that, at 29, it is time to find that nice Indian girl who is (evidently) just patiently waiting for him next to her front door somewhere. Ravi’s parents met and married the same way every other Indian couple they know of their generation did: it was arranged by their families, and they barely knew each other. And they have been happily married for over 30 years, so of course they know the same thing will happen to Ravi! He just needs to give in to the centuries old wisdom and let nature take its course. At one point, Ravi’s mom just tells him flat out, “This thing works.” It is interesting to learn the history of arranged marriages through Ravi’s parents; from the fact that everyone and his aunt (literally) weighs in on who Ravi should marry, to learning about “Wedding Season”, to knowing that Ravi needs to meet and marry another Patel from a very small geographic area in India. The viewer is overwhelmed right alongside Ravi. His unvarnished expressions of pained confusion while listening to his parents are so real and horrifically funny.
From a post film exit-duction (as opposed to an introduction), given by Geeta, we learn that the documentary took six and a half years to go from concept to reel. The production is quirky and off beat: interspersed with live action, there are animated sketches, a fantastic score, fast scene transitions, and a frenetic pace, which matches Ravi’s family perfectly. From the first five minutes the viewer knows the Patels are a loving, happy family. That was one aspect that set this film apart and really worked to its advantage: Ravi and Geeta truly love and respect their parents and their marriage; there is no disconnect, which serves to give the film and subject matter the stamp of approval. At the same time, that is also probably the one minor problem I had with the film. We expect truth from documentary films- for this one to leave out the numerous horror stories of arranged marriages definitely slants the final product. Any serious consequences or downsides to arranged marriages are not discussed at all.
If you come from a background where your family didn’t care all that much about who or when you married, the traditions and lengths that the Patels go to are comically dumbfounding. At one point, they engage in sort of an Indian version of The Bachelor: after searching the Bio Data (a huge American Indian database that lists all characteristics of every Indian male and female who are in the marriage pool, including skin tone—“wheatish” is preferred), Ravi’s parents pay for him to fly all over the country to go on 15 dates! The resultant footage is mesmerizing- one can’t conceive how he could keep all those women straight (luckily, unlike The Bachelor, none of the dates took place in a hot tub). The Patels also travel to India to see family, and Ravi gets advice and offers to set him up with dates from nearly everyone in the village. He is alternately horrified and comforted by his close knit Indian heritage- after one of his meet-ups, he tells his sister it was nice not having to explain to his date why his mother called him fifteen times during dinner- the Indian women he goes out with know and accept that parents are just part of the whole package.
Meet the Patels is a truly charming film- it packs a whole lot of love and heart and family and warm fuzzy feels into 90 minutes. Of course I am not going to reveal who Ravi ultimately ends up with but, suffice it to say, there were lots of claps in the audience at the packed Alamo theater! Geeta Patel is a gifted filmmaker; I only hope we don’t have to wait six and a half years to see her next film.