Meet the Patels is a documentary that is billed as a laugh out loud comedy. It is indeed a comedy to a degree, and it works as such, though “laugh out loud” may be overstating it. But it deals with serious issues as well, and its light touch doesn’t prevent it from addressing those issues in a thoughtful, intelligent way.
Ravi Patel is an actor who has had some modest success landing TV and movie roles. He was born in the United States to Indian parents who immigrated here as young adults. He is 29 years old, with a sister Geeta who is 32. Both Ravi and Geeta are unmarried, much to the chagrin of their parents.
In Meet the Patels, Ravi and Geeta join forces to tell the story of Ravi’s efforts—with his parents’ assistance and pressure—to find the right girl to marry.
One would think the film would be just as much the story of Geeta, since presumably with her being even older than Ravi, not to mention female, the parents would be even more panicky about her remaining unmarried, but her situation is only touched on briefly here and there, and she almost entirely avoids appearing on camera. Evidently she was not as willing for the world to know about her dating life and her family interactions concerning it.
Indeed, while Ravi and Geeta are able to get a good quantity of quality footage, and to make good use of it, as you watch you also are aware of elements that are missing. In addition to almost all of Geeta’s story being kept from us, there are multiple occasions when one of the family members—sometimes Ravi himself—insists the camera be turned off. In group scenes and in shots of photographs, many faces are blurred out, as presumably they were not able to get signed releases from those people. Many important events and conversations are described after the fact rather than shown. Some scenes, mostly the interviews with Ravi, are replaced by animation, though perhaps that was an artistic decision (or technical problems with the footage), since I doubt Ravi himself refused to be interviewed on camera for his own movie.
So they didn’t get an ideal amount of material, and thus it’s not as thorough as it could be, but they do a good job of working around that. There’s still enough here to tell the story effectively and to enable you to get to know at least Ravi and both of his parents.
At the start of Meet the Patels, Ravi has just ended a two year relationship with the only significant girlfriend he has had in his life, Audrey. It sounds like in most respects the relationship was a success and they were quite compatible and happy together, but as he explains he ended it because he had been hiding the fact that he had been dating a non-Indian from his parents and didn’t want to continue deceiving them.
But there was also the factor that he had always felt in the back of his mind that he belonged with an Indian girl. It wasn’t like his parents were pushing this on him and he was rebelling; he cherished Indian culture and the kind of marriage and family life modelled by his parents and extended family, and he wanted that for himself.
This is one of the things I most liked about Meet the Patels. This kind of story could easily have been presented as a conflict between comically ignorant old country Third Worlders and their hip American son outgrowing them, but that’s not Meet the Patels. The parents are funny at times, yes, but not in the sense that the film ridicules them. It is apparent in how they are presented that they are intelligent, articulate, caring people, and that their defenses of the “Indian” approach to marriage have at least some merit to them. And Ravi himself recognizes that their position is not absurdly old fashioned. He wants to get married, he has at least a slight preference for it to be an Indian woman, and, after suitable prodding, he’s open to his family’s matchmaking-verging-on-arranged-marriage method of making it happen.
There’s a conflict, but it’s more a conflict within Ravi than between him and the older generations in his family. He’s trying to reconcile his American side and the American ways of doing things with his Indian side and the Indian ways of doing things, because both appeal to him, even when they are seemingly incompatible.
So he more or less puts himself in his parents’ hands—which is of course what they’ve wanted for years—and together they set out to find the perfect wife.
It turns out there is an elaborate system that has been worked out by Indians in America for families to exchange information about their available sons and daughters to try to match them together according to caste and such. (They’d ideally like to find Ravi not just an Indian wife, but another Patel, and not just that, but a certain type of Patel whose family is from a certain small region in India.) So they set up dozens of meetings like that with young Indian women all over the United States, and Ravi—with Geeta and the camera in tow—dutifully travels for months to meet all these people.
They also get him to sign up and actively use one or more online dating sites that specialize in Indian people. He goes to a convention of Patels that is in part a matchmaking convention. He attends Indian weddings at his parents’ urging in order to meet the single women in attendance.
He feels he’s giving the methods a fair chance, and he’s confident that while he hasn’t been quick to pick someone and commit to marrying her shortly after meeting her, he’s at least making progress in learning about what’s out there, and learning about himself and what he does and doesn’t want in a wife. He insists that he’s not only open to choosing someone, but that he very much wants to, but that he has to be sure she’s the right one, which means even after deciding on a prospect he would want to date her for an extended period of time before committing to marrying her.
The parents go along with this to an extent, but there’s a limit to their patience. Finally, in one of the funniest scenes of the movie, they go on an extended riff mocking his patting himself on the back for the “progress” he’s making even as he remains unmarried, closing with the father’s impersonating poor Ravi receiving his Social Security checks as he continues to make greater and greater progress toward getting married.
No, they tell him, this American method that leads to nothing but indecision is inferior to the Indian way. Marrying someone and committing to spending your lives together and raising a family together is precisely how you get to know that person. You don’t get to know each other first and then get married, because for one thing that process can last forever. As they point out, after being married 35 years they are still always finding out new things about each other, and the mother still routinely dismisses the father with “You don’t understand me.”
This is a huge deal to them, so there are times their impatience veers a little more toward anger than humor, including a moment when the father remarks that the biggest loser in life is the person who doesn’t get married.
Another thing I appreciated about Meet the Patels is that it doesn’t telegraph the ending. Perhaps some viewers will disagree, but I at least felt like all the possibilities were left open until very late in the movie.
Ravi imagines he would be most compatible with the female equivalent of himself—an Indian, but an American-born Indian who embraces both her American side and her Indian side. Is that the kind of woman he will end up with? Will he instead marry a full-blown Indian from India? Will he find a woman through his parents’ traditional methods (albeit modified by technological advances like the Internet)? Will he marry someone he barely knows through an arranged marriage or something close to it? (His parents spent only minutes together before getting married, and he admits that theirs is as strong and loving a marriage as he’s ever seen.) Audrey has never fully gone out of the picture; might Ravi reconcile with her? If he decides to pursue something with her or another non-Indian, will he continue to hide this from his parents? How will the parents handle it if he becomes even less willing to follow the path they fervently recommend than he is now? Will there be some major falling out? Will he decide that marriage isn’t for him after all? Will he turn out to be gay? Will the focus shift to Geeta’s dealing with these same issues at some point?
By including plenty of humor, and by keeping things moving at a pretty good clip, Meet the Patels mostly stays entertaining. There were times I started to get a little bored, or thought there was more repetition than necessary, but those were the exceptions. The camera work and such is a bit amateurish at times—they make self-deprecating humorous references to this—but I’ve seen a lot worse.
In the end I liked Meet the Patels because I liked the Patels. They are one of those families where there’s truly a foundation of love that ultimately matters more to them than any of the ways they might differ, even when those differences are in important areas. Sometimes that love is less apparent as they deal with disappointments and culture conflicts, but it turns out it’s always there.
By the way, though there are subtitles in this movie, it’s really not a foreign language movie. About 98% of it is in English. The subtitles are used for the other 2% and, helpfully, for some of the conversations where it’s a little harder to make out what a person is saying due to their accent or it being over the phone.