Dating in the modern age: You carefully type up a profile, taking care to sound fun, awesome but also so busy enjoying yourself that you can barely find time to date. You list your wants and needs, post a flattering photo or five (one
with a tiger from that time you went on safari), and you hope someone clicks.
Dating 150 years ago: Your parents penned your biography, taking care to make you sound highly fertile. They asserted their wants and needs, and in lieu of having your portrait taken for an exorbitant price, they paraded you around social functions
, hoping someone would take you off their hands. But so we’re clear: They’d decide exactly which someone. Your request for a cute face wasn’t high on their list of priorities.
A few years ago, actor Ravi Patel tried to split
the difference between modern dating and the older method of arranging marriages. He enlisted his parents — who’d had an arranged marriage — to help him find the love of his life. He went to India, brushed up his resume, narrowed his pool to women of his own cultural community a nd went at it. Then he had his sister film it all.
The resulting documentary, “Meet the Patels,” had its popular, but limited, theatrical run last fall. But since then, Fox-Searchlight picked up the movie for a remake as a feature film, Patel made waves as one of the characters on Aziz Ansari’s “Master of None,” and “Meet the Patels” has been finding a broad audience on Netflix.
Late last year, I met up with Patel in Washington because I was on my own search: I was writing a story about whether our Indian parents, not to mention generations of matchmakers in
other cultures, know something we don’t: If you decide to set aside instant attraction and instead choose a partner based on cultural similarity, financial stability and whether they make your parents happy, could love blossom?
“Here in America,” Patel told me, “there’s emphasis almost entirely on love. And because we put so much emphasis on that pillar, our idea of how this thing is supposed to happen, it’s almost like it’s passive: It’s a thing that happens to you. It’s magical, like in the movies. We’ve been conditioned to believe that that is how you meet someone.
“Our generation is simultaneously conditioned to go after after everything else. We’re the achievement culture; we’re killing it in school and career.”
Enter his parents, who inducted Patel into the equally goal-oriented culture of Indian matchmaking.
So, did he meet anyone with wife potential? Patel was holding his cards close to the vest. Nevertheless, our 20-minute chat stretched to an hour, and we ended up talking about spark, and why Internet dating may have everything in common with
arranged marriage. The interview has been edited for clarity and length.
Why do we cling to this model that we should look at someone, feel a spark and date them for two years? What you did was really interesting, because you said, ‘I did that. Now I’m going to try it my parents’ way.’ ”
Everyone knows what it’s like to have dreams, in relationships or otherwise, and to wake up one day and realize either you don’t have them or you don’t feel like you’re headed in the right direction to attain them. So either you figure out a new dream, or you figure out a new way to approach the dream. You become more amenable to new ways of finding the person you love.
So, here I was, almost 30. And if you asked me, in the few times I stopped to think about the future, it was a picture of an Indian woman, little Indian kids — and by the time I was 30, I had all that.
I genuinely love our culture. I love being Indian. I love being American, too. I think most people from our generation feel this way: Don’t care that much about religion. Love culture, love the rituals that come with culture.
I was totally looking for a spark. I think my concept of where a spark comes from has changed. I don’t expect someone to look across the room at me and fall in love with me. I’m, like, a 5-7 Indian dude. No one has ever looked at me in a dance club where you can’t hear any of my jokes and said, ‘I gotta hit that.’ I get girls with personality, so shouldn’t I have the same standard for them?
Your dad chose the 12th woman, he saw, right?
He was in India for three weeks before he met Mom. He knew, like: “I have this limited amount of time, and I’m going to leave here with a wife.’ ” There was never any doubt and anxiety about that. Isn’t that crazy?
Talk about different mind-sets: “Hey, I can’t go skiing with you because I have to go to India and find my wife, but I’ll be back in a few weeks if you want to get dinner or something like that.”
For us, it’d be all we’re talking and thinking about. We’d have to go to therapy to deal with this moment!
You were really open-minded.
I was. I jumped in.
The emotional reaction to this thing, if you grew up in this country, even if you grew up with parents like ours, is: This is wayyy outside of my wheelhouse.
And there’s a shame, like, “I can’t believe it’s come to this … “
There is a shame. It’s embarrassing. But the same shame we’re talking about is the exact same shame every person I’ve ever met has when they start Internet dating. They’re quote-unquote too good to meet someone that way.
It’s actually the exact same as Internet dating. You’re just applying different filters, some of which aren’t necessarily reasonable filters. The only difference with the biodata process is maybe your parents are agenting the process — and maybe that’s not a bad thing to have someone overseeing things.
A great reason I was single before all this is I was not putting myself out there, not in the right way, and I had not gone through the kind of introspective period to pursue a person, and to develop a work ethic about finding a person. Which is a thing.
Your parents had a classic arranged marriage. What have you learned from seeing their marriage?
[During filming] my dad, he said, “I met your mom for 10 minutes. We’ve been married for 35 years. And you know what? I’m still trying to get to know her.”
At least to me, it’s intensely profound. That’s the fun of committing to someone: You get to keep discovering.
The things that mattered to them, to me, were often correlations [to the idea of compatibility]: Height, skin color, horoscope, even what village we descend from. Those things aren’t actually important; but what they think is that those things lead to: “Can we all get along better as a family?” They’re secondary to being a good person and wanting the same things in life.
My parents just want someone who will be their daughter. Who will fit right in, who will hang out, who will cook with them, who will take care of them when they’re old, who can comfortably fit in in a room with their crew.
Your parents’ marriage — did you ever feel like, “I don’t like this about it, I don’t like that about it. That’s why I want a love marriage?”
No. I don’t think it matters how you get there. The “how” of finding that person you spend the rest of your life with, it’s purely based on conditioning. This concept of being set up by my parents with Indian girls is weird only because I was expecting it to be like the movies. My parents, they were excited about meeting for 10 minutes, doing an interview. They were conditioned to expect that.
For everyone, the question is: Would you rather be alone, or would you rather be with someone? At a very basic level, it’s those two things.