"My parents are both Indian," Ravi Patel explains during an interview as he fixes a cup of chai for a visitor. "And we were born here. And while they grew up the Old School way, not dating, having family put them together, we're like, American. Even though in many important ways we're very Indian."
Which is precisely the tension in Meet the Patels, the new documentary (or reality romance) featuring Ravi and filmed by his sister, Geeta. In a nutshell, the movie asks what happens when your own hopes and dreams clash with those your parents have.
The movie opens as the Patel family is en route to its annual monthlong vacation in India. The trip comes just after Ravi, a Los Angeles-based actor, has broken up with his girlfriend, Audrey. They'd been dating for two years, but he never told his parents about her. Audrey is white, and Ravi's parents — Vasant and Champa Patel — expect their only son will marry a nice Indian girl, preferably from their hometown province of Gujarat. That area is filled with Patels who are all distantly related, and many of whom have married each other since time immemorial. "Patels marry Patels," Ravi shrugs. "It's the way it's always been."
So Audrey and Ravi broke up without Ravi's family ever knowing there was an Audrey. Soon after, he's slumped in a plane seat as his parents hector him about not being married, not presenting them with the grandchildren they long for, etc. There Ravi was "with my parents. In my face. For 15 hours!" Fun.
Geeta, a filmmaker, had recently finished a documentary project. She had brought along a camera purely to shoot family footage on the trip. But watching the exchange Ravi was having with their parents, her filmmaker's instinct kicked in, as did the natural inclination of a big sister to torture her younger sibling. "So I put the camera on him," she recalls, gleefully, "because I'm a sister. My brother is, like, hilariously suffering right now — let's film it!"
And she kept filming for 2 1/2 years. Geeta followed Ravi around, chronicling his attempts to find a woman both he and his parents could love. After agreeing to see if his parents' way to find The One might work better than his own, Ravi began a dating odyssey. It took him cross-town, crosscountry, out of the country and even to an annual Patel matrimonial convention in Baltimore, designed to introduce young single Patels to each other in the hopes that they'll decide to date, maybe even marry. (Remember, back home, Patels marry Patels, right?)
Geeta, a petite woman with a quick laugh and huge eyes, admits that as a student at Duke University, she went to a few of the conventions and returned to school without ever mentioning where she'd been. For one thing, the purposefulness of the Patel conventions was so opposite the cherished Western notion that love just finds you when it's time.
"Here, we'd grown up with all these romantic American movies ... Pretty in Pink, Pretty Woman, whatever." And the convention she'd just been to was a 180-degree shift. She could just hear the judgment: "That is so weird — oh my God, I can't believe your parents made you do that!"
So that part of her life remained hidden, which is why she was so interested in working with Ravi on this film. Her parents, her aunts and uncles, their friends, everyone she loved had arranged marriages — and they all worked. "These are the happiest relationships we know," she says. "These are our models for love."
Perhaps the best models are the people who raised them. Vasant Patel was getting a graduate degree in engineering when he returned home for a brief introduction to Champa Patel. They weren't together for more than 10 minutes, but she agreed to marry him. "She didn't say a word at that time — but she never shut up after the marriage!" Vasant hoots, winking. "He made me laugh like crazy," she remembers fondly. Both fervently believe in having the people who know you best help you find your true love.
The American way, Vasant says, relies on a spark that might fade. "Fifty percent of the marriages fail," he points out. What holds a couple together, he insists, is compatibility: "I met your mom, we got married, then we dated. Worked great!"
Ravi and Geeta dropped techniques from some of their favorite movies into their film. There is intermittent animation, as is seen in the 2003 film American Splendor. The movie also features mini-interviews — several with longtime happily married Patels — in much the same way the old couples reminisced in When Harry Met Sally. Some of Ravi's direct-to-camera narration is a hat tip to Woody Allen.
And although Meet the Patels is about the tension that sometimes exists between being Indian and American, the issues the film raises are universal: How do you decide whom to love? How much does fitting into the family count? How does family change and expand to embrace someone different? And in the end, what is love, anyway?
"I think what we both wanted in this film was to humanize the truth," Geeta says. She wanted audiences to understand that the image Westerners have of arranged marriages — dry, loveless unions created primarily for economic or political advantage — is wrong. "We think our parents are very much in love, and it's a pretty amazing system. And even though we don't want to do it exactly the way they do it, there's some magic there."