MEET THE PATELS (2015) review
written by: Geeta Patel, Matthew Hamachek, Billy McMillin & Ravi Patel
produced by: Geeta Patel and Janet Fries Eckholm
directed by: Geeta Patel and Ravi Patel
rating: PG (for thematic elements, brief suggestive images and incidental smoking)
runtime: 88 min.
U.S. release date: September 11, 2015 (limited)
“You know that girl in “Eat Pray Love”, who goes on an existential journey to India after a break-up to get over her depression, and find out what she really wanted in life? I was that girl, except my entire family was with me.” That’s what we hear from Indian-American Ravi Patel at the beginning of the often hilarious documentary “Meet the Patels”. The Los Angeles based actor had just split with Audrey, his red-headed girlfriend of two years – the one only he and his older sister, Geeta Patel, knew about – and was beginning the annual Patel trip to India to visit family and friends. Most assuredly, his parents will be doing everything in their power to hook him up with a good Indian girl from a good family.
Indeed, throughout the rest of this delightful doc, we get to know the four members of the Patel family as well as many other Patels in both India and here in the States. As the self-deprecating Ravi explains, the Patel name is as ubiquitous as the English name “Smith” and his first name is as common as “John”. As the infectious film continues, it focuses on Ravi’s love life (or lack thereof) and the fact that, much to his parents dismay, he is almost 30 years old (at the time of filming) and is not yet married.
Animated versions of Ravi, his sister and their parents are unserted throughout the film to mix things up, yet the idea here is not just for the audience to observe the highs and lows of dating in the 21st-century, but also to learn how challenging it is when you have an insistent and marriage-minded set of parents looking for the right woman for you.
The right woman has to be a Patel though – at least that is how Vasant and Champa, Ravi’s parents, see it. Preferably a Patel from the Gujarati state. There’s even a Patel Matrimonial Convention that Ravi eventually attends, which is full of available Patels. It’s all quite surreal. When two Americans with the same last name get married, it’s coincidental and kind of strange considering the odds – to these parents, it is expected. “Why would you marry a white American girl?” his father asks, as they travel through his hometown where 90% of the population are Patels. It is indeed strange for viewers to observe, but it is definitely entertaining and quite an education.
We learn that the Indian community have what’s called a “bio-data” for seemingly every single Indian in the world. It’s essentially a marital resume or stat sheet, written by a committee with a head shot that lists off one’s height, weight, skin color – “wheatish brown” is preferable, but “dark” not so much – that is passed around between parents as they try to find the right mate for their child. We see other single Indian-Americans who groan at the mention of their “bio-data”, stating they never want to see it, yet are aware it’s floating somewhere out there for all to see. The film shows how beyond the usual eharmony-type online venues, there are marital websites focusing on Indians, like www.shaadi.com, which should come as no surprise considering the diverse needs of the cultures around us, but nevertheless comes across as something most of us never really thought about.
We also get a better understanding of Vasant and Champa when the film focuses on their past. We’re told that Vasant came to the U.S. from India in 1967 knowing very little English. He enrolled in school, eventually started working and then received a call from his family back in India in 1972, stating it was time for him to get married. His marriage to Champa was arranged, they had not met prior to their wedding and basically got to know each other the way dating couples do after they were married. It’s a good thing for Champa that the easy-going Vasant made her laugh with his sense of humor. After 40 years of marriage, they are obviously happy and content and argue just like any other couple that have been together that long. This background provides the film with a needed understanding and context as it becomes clear that Ravi’s parents aren’t just there to apply pressure.
Vasant and Champa are clearly the spice of “Meet the Patels” and effortlessly become the stars. They are quite adorable and often very funny. They have the sharp interaction of a couple that have spent years together, which adds natural comedy to the film. Their love for their children and their cultural traditions is obvious. Still, Ravi and Geeta are careful to show the toll Ravi’s single status and dating life takes on the two concerned parents. At one point his father says, “….not getting married and staying single is the biggest loser you can be,” but he and Champa eventually ease up, stating, “when you’re ready – you’ll find the right girl.”
Ravi, who can be seen in John Stamos’s new Fox show “Grandfathered” this month, is an extremely likeable and relatable guy. Some of the film’s best scenes are moments where we see him going on dates with Patel women, filmed in clandestine fashion by Geeta. Better yet are the scenes captured before or after the date – where we see his understandable nervousness and/or his immediate reactions to his dates – often with Geeta lovingly chiding him or asking Ravi what he thought of the girl he just went on a date with. It’s easy to imagine what a challenge it all is for Ravi, having his dates filmed and interrogated afterwards, even if it is by his sister. But, he agreed to it and it is admittedly very fascinating to sit back and watch it all unfold.
There are Patel woman who Ravi meets in India, but most of his dates are in North America – arranged by either the bio-data or an online service. Over a year’s time, we see Ravi fly from L.A. to Toronto, Chicago, Detriot, Miami, New York, Dallas – despite his reservations and concerns, totalling 15 dates across the continent with airfare paid by his parents. Ravi experiences it all – with his parents keeping tabs on his progress – and through these moments, he realizes that he keeps returning to Audrey in his mind and eventually, in person. He was most content with her and cannot imagine not being friends with her.
“Meet the Patels” takes a significant turn when Ravi breaks down and finally tells Vasant and Champa about Audrey, the redhead from Connecticut. It’s not easy for either of them to hear, but it’s necessary for Ravi’s relationship with them. Seeing what happens to the family dynamic after this secret is revealed is one of the highlights of the film. It provides not just a character arch for Ravi, but more importantly his parents.
Co-written by Ravi and his filmmaker sister, who also directs and co-produces, “Meet the Patels” feels like an idea the siblings came up with for laughs and the more they thought about it, the more they realized how intriguing (and cathartic) it could be for themselves and others. The camera work is often handheld and may be somewhat shakey (never requiring dramamine though) at times – Ravi can be seen jokingly emphasizing how viewers will often see out-of-focus, poorly-framed footage and the boom mic at the top of their screen -regardless, the siblings have made a warm film that respects their family, while offering a funny, loving and insightful cultural understanding – something we could all use.