London Indian Film Festival: Meet the Patels Review
From its posters, Meet the Patels looks like a straightforward rom-com revolving around an arranged marriage. This remarkable documentary turns out to to be much more. Co-directors and siblings Geeta and Ravi Patel document the latter’s dating life for a year and a half as they grapple with questions about the nature of love, culture, and family.
At age 29, Ravi has just broken up with his long-term, white girlfriend, Audrey. His parents never knew about the relationship. Shortly afterwards, while on a family trip to India, Ravi begins to wonder whether their insistence on a ‘semi-arranged’ marriage may be the only way to find the partner of his dreams.
Thus, with humour, Ravi takes on his parents’ suggestions. Geeta follows with an attentive camera, quipping witty or thoughtful comments from off-screen. They also intercut with animation, which helps in keeping the film lively and well-paced. The story is accompanied by a comic ‘exposé’ of the culture of the ‘Patels’ - a widespread last name among Indian-Americans and in the Indian state of Gujarat. Patels all behave like a large family, regardless of whether they’ve ever met, and Ravi’s parents would not only prefer that he marry someone of Indian origin, but also with the same last name.
Vasant and Champa, the parents, begin the process by sending around Ravi's dating CV (known as a ‘bio data’) across Indian-American families in the US. He in return receives women’s bio data, and through this, begins to go on dates across the country.
Ravi also ends up joining specific marriage websites, is introduced to women at weddings, and goes to a ‘Patel’ matrimonial convention. His encounters raise more questions than answers. What does it mean to be in love? Why is finding someone with a similar cultural background so important? How did his parents decide to marry each other after meeting for ten minutes, and are still radiantly happy thirty-five years on? The directors combine their stories with interviews of couples who’ve had arranged marriages, as well as couples where only one of the partners is of South Asian origin.
Vasant and Champa Patel are brilliant on camera - principally because they seem to forget that they’re being filmed. Their repartees are hilarious, tender, and sometimes painful. The directors honestly show the family’s uglier aspects - in the form of a cruel comment, or barely hidden racism. But, as with every family, there is also much of the beautiful: the pair are still very much in love. The care that they show for one another other, and their children, is unaffectedly moving.
Meet the Patels is an absorbing, intimate family portrait. Ravi and Geeta steer away from thorny questions in order to keep the documentary light, and thus appealing to those who wouldn’t usually be interested in the genre. In a Q&A after the screening, Geeta Patel argued that by opening the door to conversation she hopes to be more effective than by making a film too many would reject outright. Its appeal works. Time flies by, and at the end of the film, you’re likely to wish that you too could be a Patel.