This documentary about male-female relationships isn’t just about dating.
Meet the Patels is a straightforward documentary about cultural differences and dating. But pulsing underneath it is a sibling rivalry that gives the film enough tension to make it more than just a fluff piece about modern relationships.
The movie seems inspired by director Ross McElwee’s Sherman’s March, an essential documentary that was originally planned to cover the General’s brutal progress through Georgia. When McElwee broke up with his girlfriend, his movie charted a very different journey: the search for love. While the conflict of the Civil War simmers under the surface of McElwee’s film, another conflict is built onto the surface of Meet the Patels: the arranged marriage tradition of the Patels’ parents and the modern dating problems of first-generation immigrants.
This documentary about male-female relationships isn’t just about dating. From the first frame, it’s about co-directors Geeta and Ravi Patel’s relationship as siblings. The film opens with one of its many black and white animated sequences, a device that makes the film visually dynamic and, as the Patels told Indiewire, allowed the filmmakers to keep a respectful distance on some intimate family moments. It also happens to compensate for admitted shortcomings in the cinematography department.
Opening credits run over silhouettes of Geeta and Ravi setting up a shoot. They work together with mutual respect as well as friendship, a template of cooperation that would be a logical model to follow for a successful dating relationship. But the Patels have had little dating experience; like many children of Indian immigrants, their parents wouldn’t even allow prospective dates to call the house. As the film begins, Ravi, an actor and stand-up comic, has just broken up with his first and only girlfriend, Audrey, a red-headed white woman he dated for two years. He never told his parents about Audrey, and the break-up happened to come right before a family trip to India, where his relatives all hector him about being an almost 30-year old bachelor.
Ravi wonders if his difficulty committing to Audrey revealed a need for tradition, so with a mixture of skepticism and hope he undergoes the process of vetting an arranged marriage. And it is a process. The directors’ parents were married only after considering 11 other matches. One of the requirements of a traditional Patel marriage is that the candidate must also be a Patel. This is not an incestuous arrangement (though some care must be taken to vary the gene pool of course), but a question of caste. It’s a system that has its quirks, but Ravi appreciates that being a Patel means that you’re a member of the world’s biggest family, which has its advantages. He recalls a family trip that ended up at a motel that happened to be owned by Patels. The travelers were treated like close family, even though it was the first and only time these distant family branches ever interacted.
The vetting process involves studying biodata, going on dates that don’t work out and at one point even attending a Patel matrimonial convention, when the world’s biggest family gets together to try to match up their sons and daughters. Through this process, Ravi naturally gets frustrated with his parents, but he also gets frustrated with his co-director. On at least two occasions we see him tell her to turn off the camera. These shots, which you can imagine the siblings arguing over in the editing room, seem like payback for Ravi’s announcement early in the film that much of the footage his sister shot is either out of focus or reveals the fuzzy blot of the on-camera microphone.
Ironically, since Ravi is Geeta’s subject, she’s the one who calls the shots. Geeta appears briefly in the film and, of course, had gone through the same dating issues, but this entertaining narrative of her brother’s struggles is a clever way of shifting attention from her own dating woes. It’s kind of a brilliant ploy to deflect family pressure by making a movie.