In the opening minutes of “Meet the Patels,” comedian and actor Ravi Patel shares some important facts about himself: 1. He has recently broken up with Audrey, his American girlfriend of two years, whose existence has so far been kept secret from his Indian parents; 2. He is almost 30 years old; 3. He has never been married. This, in Indian culture, is considered “code red,” in Patel’s words.
The rest of this funny, warm-hearted documentary follows Patel’s attempt to undo that state of romantic emergency by finally accepting his parents’ efforts to set him up with potential Indian brides. Meanwhile, his sister, Geeta — also single, also working in the entertainment industry and, with her brother, a director of the film — shoots the entire tumultuous, year-long process. After Ravi circulates his “biodata,” the Indian match-making equivalent of an online dating profile, through his parent’s vast network of contacts, he embarks on what he refers to as a “world tour of dating.”
To ensure that the sample size of potential soul mates is as large as possible, Ravi travels to several cities across North America to go on blind dates. He introduces himself, at his parents’ urging, to Patel-pre-approved women at weddings. He even engages in pseudo-speed dating at a “Patel matrimonial convention,” a gathering designed to enable U.S.-based Patels to make love connections with other Patels. (As the movie explains, Patel is such a common last name in India that it’s not incestuous for one Patel to get hitched to another. In fact, it’s considered the ideal.)
With its appealingly conflicted hero and generous sense of humor, “Meet the Patels” has the breezy touch of a scripted romantic comedy. Ultimately, however, this documentary is less about meet-cutes than it is about family, cultural assimilation and the responsibility that a child of immigrants might feel to honor the values of both his parents and his homeland. Ravi and Geeta’s parents, Champa and Vasant Patel — whose marriage was arranged in the early 1970s after they met each other for 10 minutes — get almost as much as screen time as their son, and for good reason. They’re a compellingly complicated unit.
“I don’t know how they fell in love,” Ravi says, “but they are the happiest couple I’ve ever seen.” That happiness radiates off the screen every time the elder Patels good-naturedly tease each other and their kids, whose single statuses weigh heavily on their minds. After a series of unsuccessful setups with Indian American women, Ravi tells his parents that he still feels encouraged because, as he says, he’s “making progress.”
“You’ll be 60,” his mother complains, mocking his words. “‘I’m still in progress!’”
There’s something weightier underlying what initially seems like standard-issue maternal nagging. The more time we spend with the elder Patels, the more we begin to understand the combination of regret, fear and hope that comes from watching their children absorb American culture and, potentially, lose key elements of Indian tradition in the process. It also becomes clear that the younger Patels are not merely skittish about commitment: They’re afraid of losing some core part of themselves, too. Commendably, the directors peel away these complicated feelings slowly, in a way that never feels heavy-handed.
Because Geeta Patel is often shooting on the fly, many scenes in “Meet the Patels” are poorly lit and haphazardly framed. To counteract this — but also to add more visual texture to the film — some interactions are rendered via animated sequences that, for the most part, get the job done.
But even when the visuals aren’t perfect, it’s impossible not to care about the people on screen.
Come to think of it, that’s a perfect metaphor for the lessons imparted by “Meet the Patels,” a movie that reminds us that any attempt to control those we love is futile. The best we can do is embrace them and let them try to shine in all their messy and unpredictable light.
Chaney is a freelance writer.
PG. At Landmark’s West End Cinema and Bethesda Row Cinema. Contains mature thematic elements, brief suggestive images and incidental smoking.
On Sept. 17, the West End Cinema will host a Q&A with Ravi Patel following the 7 p.m. show.On Sept. 18, the Bethesda Row Cinema will host a Q&A with Ravi Patel following the 7 p.m. show.