“Meet the Patels” is a warm, funny, and irresistibly captivating romantic comedy documentary about Ravi Patel’s efforts to find love according to the traditions of his family’s culture. His parents, Vasant and Champa Patel, are immigrants from the Gujarati region of India. For centuries, marriages have been if not exactly arranged than lovingly orchestrated by the extended families. This system continues, now with computer assistance but still powered by parents, aunts and uncles, most of them named Patel. Geeta is a documentarian who was trying out a new camera on a family trip to India, just after Ravi, an actor (“Scrubs,” “It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia”) broke up with his non-Indian girlfriend of two years, in part because he was worried he would not be able to make a life with someone who was not a part of his culture. When he agreed to try out the intricate system of Patel matchmaking, involving speed-dating, a sort of Match.com for Gujaratis, a huge gathering like a combination convention and mixer, Geeta and Ravi decided to keep filming and see what developed. The chance to find out about this extraordinary system is fascinating, but what makes the film so much fun is that anyone with a family can relate to the pressure from parents and the often-daunting search for love. And the adorable Patel parents, whose very happy and devoted marriage was a result of this system, really steal the movie. I really enjoyed talking to Ravi Patel and his sister, Geeta, who co-wrote and directed the film.
Who is meeting the Patels here? Is it you meeting 10 million Patel brides-to-be or is this the rest of the world meeting your family?
Ravi: It’s both. Yes, it’s about this time in my life when I had a non-Indian girlfriend that I didn’t tell my parents about. And I was approaching the age of 30, and my parents are freaking out because I was single and I’m married and there is this thing where I’m supposed to marry a girl also named Patel. Not in an incestuous way, like in a caste and the same culture type of way.
How many people who have seen the film who are not Patels and who are not even Indians have said, “Oh my God, that’s my family?”
Ravi: You would not believe it. It’s been such a pleasant surprise. We sold out every screening we’ve had last year, won a ton of audience awards and probably the audience is represented by 98% non-Indians. I would have never seen or foreseen that response with such a diverse group of people from every walk of life, every ethnicity, every nationality, every culture. It’s been really cool. Because I guess everyone knows what it’s like to look for love and everyone knows what it’s like to have a family.
How did making the film affect your relationship as siblings?
Ravi: I didn’t think this movie was going to take so long. We started this filming about 2008. Geeta has another documentary that she just made for PBS. And I thought we would just make like a cool little Michael Moore or Morgan Spurlock-type thing where I’m a journalist. I didn’t know it was going to be such an incremental thing and I didn’t know what it took to cooperate with someone as a director especially when that person is your roommate, especially when your roommate your sister.
So it was hard. We both are pretty opinionated. The whole family is very opinionated and it was hard. We fought a lot, we butted our heads creatively. You tend to be a little more real with your siblings. I got really mean, we made each other cry but then somewhere in the process knowing that we couldn’t fire each other because we are related, we had to find a way to get through it. We wanted to make a good movie, we wanted to be siblings. And so I think ultimately we had to learn how to love each other more, how to respect each other more, how to see the world through each other’s lenses. I think the result was a better movie and we are a million times closer as siblings than we could have ever dreamed of. I could say that for actually the entire family and as writers and directors where collaborators. I would have never said a few years ago that after this we would do another one, yet here we are writing and directing and developing other projects as well.
Oh, I love to hear that. Well Geeta, why don’t you give me your side of things?
Geeta: It was one of those things where Ravi drives me crazy, he is impossible. In just the process of like picking the restaurants for dinner I’m about to kill him. And so every day of making this movie was excruciating and I thought, “One more day, one more day, we can get through a year.” And you can imagine the film took 6 1/2 years to make and I think halfway through the film like Ravi said we wanted to kill each other, we realize we don’t want to do this anymore. And dad has always been very influential in our lives. He has always been someone who, as you saw in the film, is incredibly spiritual and he said to us, you guys need to love more. And you think that you have tried, you are throwing your hands up and saying, we have done everything this is just the way it is going to be but he says, “Try again, try harder, there is no limit.” Because I wanted to get along with him, I had for the first time in my life I had to see things through his eyes and see my own flaws. Because of him I feel like I am a better person, I’m a healthier person, I have adjusted so many things about myself and it has made my life a lot richer. And I definitely think that I have changed his life, let’s be honest, I feel like he is so much better because of me. It’s been great.
Your parents are just completely adorable and wonderful. Tell me a little bit about the challenge of presenting them on screen and how they feel about it now.
Geeta: Well first of all they didn’t know they were going to be in the movie. So that was the best part of the whole thing. They were so raw and so open because they had no faith that we were really making a movie. They thought we were doing one of our gazillion projects that never get finished and we were just messing around with the camera. So they were completely kind of oblivious to what it really would turn out to be. Wouldn’t you say Ravi?
Ravi: They are who you saw in the movie. They are cinema gold I think. They’re just charming and totally unaware of the camera and they are just comfortable. So that part of it was in retrospect, I’m shock that it was so easy.
Geeta: And Ravi and I were like, “Okay mom and dad, you’re going to walk on the stage and we’re thinking they’re going to be nervous, they’re going to stumble. Oh my God! They got up on stage as if they are walking to the living room. Like all these people, standing ovation, you know Michael Moore I remember was sitting there waiting for them and they are just talking as if there were hanging out by the pool.”
And are they trying to fix people up that they meet?
Geeta: Yes. And everybody asked them to set them up and it has been really hilarious and really awesome that they actually do. And they follow through.
We have a lot of views in Western culture about what we look for in a romantic partner. Is the traditional Indian way less focused on romance?
Ravi: Yes, for sure I think being raised here as Americans the things we look for are more related to kind of chemistry in love, the spark, personality traits like sense of humor. Whereas my parents come from this model of marriage where love is actually the least important thing because it happens after you find that person. The two things that matter first when you are looking for someone are commitment and the compatibility. And these are the kind of biodata statistics that you see in these Indian biodatas forms in the film.
Geeta: What is interesting is that we see a lot of stories about arranged marriages being kind of strange and alien and weird and even when we were growing up we would tell our friends our parents were arranged and they want us to marry Petals. They look at us like, “Oh my God I’m so sorry.” Like, “Oh, that’s so weird,” but for us we never felt that way because the thing is honestly our model for love, our parents are the happiest couple we’ve ever met. Our cousins who have been married through the matchmaking system, they are really happy. These families are really healthy. And look at this country, it has the highest divorce rate, over 50%.
This idea of marriage is in crisis, so many people are choosing to live alone because they just don’t want to bother with the complications of kids and a relationship is so hard. We seriously have a problem. And yet there are all these kind of — for lack of a better word — what people think are orthodox families from different cultures who were actually doing all right. Even though we may not agree with certain political things about it, I’m sure there’s room for growth and movement. That doesn’t mean we see things as black and white. I think this film is really about the gray area, what is there that we can learn from these communities? I mean, yes we may not agree on everything but we all have the same questions in life, and it’s the greatest enigma, which is what is love? And how do we find it and when we find it how do we keep it?
Tell me about the animation which I thought was very effective in the film. How did you come up with that style and what do you think is the purpose of the animated segments?
Geeta: “When we started making the documentary we didn’t want to film our parents going through hard moments.
Ravi: We would set the camera on their faces in these times and it would make them uncomfortable.
Geeta: We had to think about this, we are like, wait a minute we don’t want to film the turning point and we needed to find a way to tell the story of those moments. And we both love radio and we listened to This American Life all the time and we were like, as Ravi always says, radio is more visual than visual. And so we decided to challenge ourselves with making these with those animations that were basically the missing moments, bring them to life through storytelling, and not just storytelling but really good storytelling and really honing each of those sections in the way that This American Life does. And so we met with Ira Glass, we studied radio, all those manifestos. We really kind of made sure and I think we spent about two years just on the animation sections. First we made sure that the audio was solid and we tested like crazy and closed our eyes, and once that was solid we started looking into animation after we tried 1 million other things I mean animation was also the last thing we came upon. We didn’t know how it was going to work but everything kept feeling too contrived, way too polished and we needed something raw. And when we did the audio storytelling it felt really perfect. We then went to maybe four or five animators and at one point we were doing a test screening and there were storyboards put in. And Ravi was like, “Wait a minute these storyboards are so raw and unfinished and it fit so we told the animators, “Stop there, we don’t want any more.” They are like, “What, we don’t want people to think that we are bad animators” and we said, You’re not bad animators but please stop right here” and that was a hilarious conversation because they were so confused and we were like, “This is it right here!”
So will the next project be about marrying Geeta off?
Ravi: That’s what my mom says.
Geeta: Oh God no! God no!