Does Meet the Patels ever go deeper than an amusing family comedy? It does for a time…
Meet the Patels, directed by Ravi Patel. Screening at Kendall Square Cinemas and West Newton Cinemas.
By Gerald Peary
You’ve seen Meet the Patels, funny and entertaining, under another name. It’s Ross McElwee’s classic documentary, Sherman’s March (1982). A befuddled WASP searching for love across the American South is replaced here by an anxious Indian-American seeking a suitable marriage partner practically anywhere on earth. Both films start with a traumatic breakup by the protagonist and, after a series of failed and inept setups by friends and family, both reach the same conclusion: It’s an abysmal world out there to find a meaningful romance.
Does anyone know the career of Ravi Patel, whose true-life quest for a bride is the subject of Meet the Patels, which he also co-directed? I for one have never heard of this journeyman actor with a resumé of sidekick TV roles on sundry series, and such miniscule movie parts as playing a telephone operator in Transformers (2007). Ravi must be aware that he’s not going to win over women by his minor celebrity. He never name drops his show-biz life when setting up a date, or while on a date, at least that’s what we see in the movie. Ravi’s just another 29-year-old guy in the LA singles scene, 5 foot 7 short with a big nose and, in snobby Indian-American circles, of the wrong skin color, looking “wheatish” (his term) when it’s preferable to be whitish. No, he’s not Johnny Depp, and first dates do not automatically lead to second ones. We see him at a restaurant with a decidedly attractive woman. Afterward, she doesn’t respond to his emails.
Why is Ravi so desperate? Because he’s got his parents on his back, and oodles of relatives all expecting him to marry and have children. The Indian way. His father sums it up for all: “Someone who is not married, who is a bachelor, is a loser.” This is Ravi’s plight: For reasons he’s not sure of, he’s broken off with his girlfriend of two intense years, a redhead from Connecticut named Audrey. Although he and Audrey got along fabulously, Ravi felt he should be involved with an Indian woman instead. Or he should be involved with an Indian woman because he’s so guilty knowing that’s what his parents want and expect. And he’s never told his parents about his non-Indian amour.
Estranged from Audrey, Ravi comes to his mom, Champa, and dad, Vasant, and agrees to abide by their wishes. They will help him find an Indian wife. It’s not like old times, when parents literally picked out your spouse. But they still will serve as active matchmakers, seeking promising young women for their son to check out. So where to start? India, of course, where both parents were born before they emigrated to America. Where in India? The regions where the Patel name literally reigned, where there were villages in which everyone was named Patel, and everyone was some kind of relative, near or distant. A hell of a lot of Patels, like John Smiths, but with every John Smith in the same family.
If you are a Patel, best to marry another Patel.
Ravi travels with his family to tiny rural spots, where cows walk freely in the streets. Where every Patel has someone special, a Patel, to bring him connubial bliss. But Ravi comes to a realization, which he shares with his parents. The Indian woman whom he could marry needs to be an Indian-American. Like himself. More, she needs to be someone with friends from other cultures, like himself.
No problem for his parents. They return to America, where Champa and Vasant send out notices with Ravi’s picture and bio to various Indian-American communities. If Ravi wants to fly to Chicago or Toronto for a date, they will foot the bill. Besides, there are thousands of Patels in North America, described by Ravi as “the biggest family in the world.” And all cheap, Ravi says. When a Patel family takes a road trip, they will often end at a frugal Motel Six, often run by a Patel!
An aesthetic difference from Sherman’s March is that Ross McElwee is an expert 16mm cameraman. Geeta Patel, Ravi’s sister who is the film’s co-director and chief cinematographer, is an amateur videographer. She’s so bad that Ravi, in voice over, needs to tell the audience she’s terrible, with shaky camera shots and woeful lighting, and with a propensity to have a fuzzy microphone showing in the frame. Well, dear Geeta is forgiven by me because there are important upsides. She can have intimate family conversations with Ravi while shooting. (Like him, she is hopelessly unmarried.) Even better, she can film her mom and dad in such an unobtrusive way that they don’t seem to notice the camera. They are the real personalities of the movie, so good-humored and spirited, and so wonderful in sticking to their old-fashioned view of family life.
Does Meet the Patels ever go deeper than an amusing family comedy? It does for a time, when Avi finally spills the beans: Mom, dad, I’ve hidden from you that I had an American girlfriend. Before our eyes, his Indian parents become tragically sad. His jovial mother comes completely apart.
Gerald Peary is a professor at Suffolk University, Boston, curator of the Boston University Cinematheque, and the general editor of the “Conversations with Filmmakers” series from the University Press of Mississippi. A critic for the late Boston Phoenix, he is the author of 9 books on cinema, writer-director of the documentaries For the Love of Movies: the Story of American Film Criticism and Archie’s Betty, and a featured actor in the 2013 independent narrative Computer Chess.