“Meet the Patels,” a documentary directed by first-generation Indian-American siblings Geeta V. Patel and Ravi V. Patel about the latter’s attempt to find a wife through traditional Indian means, is often riotously funny. It’s also, in its own modest way, an often sharp microcosmic treatment of the conflicts and compromises that all culturally nebulous families must navigate, even if it sometimes wrings them for all they’re worth. Shot through with a breezy sort of intimacy and enlivened by sporadic animated sequences (and the filmmakers’ equally animated parents), “Meet the Patels” should be a natural fit for fests — it won an audience award at the Los Angeles Film Festival — and it wouldn’t be out of the question to see indie distribs come courting.
Ravi, 29 when the film starts, is an actor living in Los Angeles with older sister Geeta (frequently heard from behind the camera, but rarely seen). He’s just broken up with his first longtime girlfriend, Audrey, a Connecticut-bred redhead whom he kept secret from his parents for two years. On his annual family trip to India, Ravi is all but buried in an avalanche of relatives asking why he has yet to tie the knot, and starts to wonder if perhaps the time-worn route of arranged (or semi-arranged) marriage isn’t worth a try.
Once back in the States, Ravi begins his search for a partner via cross-country travel, parental hookups, “bio data” (a sort of marriageability resume circulated among vast networks of relatives), Internet dating, and even a convention of fellow Patels. (The vicissitudes of the Patel moniker, a wildly common and culturally specific surname from India’s Gujarat state, are so complex that even Ravi seems confused by them at times.) Egged on by his sister — who, we gradually learn, is dealing with many of the same pressures — Ravi’s dates fall flat again and again. (The pic certainly stays on topic, though after a while one starts to wonder if this family talks about anything other than marriage.)
On paper, this all sounds like a potentially Morgan Spurlock-esque stunt, and a few scenes do lean in that direction. However, Ravi usually seems quite sincere, speaking eloquently about his desire to provide his future progeny with the same happy Indian-American childhood he experienced. He’s enough of an American kid to recognize how foreign the protocols of arranged marriage must look to his non-Indian friends, and the film does hesitantly address the latent racism behind some of these protocols (Ravi’s “wheatish brown complexion” is apparently an important quality). But when he looks at his parents, still happily married 35 years after their arranged coupling, he sees the work of a system that can’t be so flippantly dismissed.
More than just models of matrimony, Ravi’s parents Champa and Vasant very quickly become the stars of the show. Blessed with reserves of sharp one-liners and quips, the elder Patels often seem one rehearsal away from launching a comedy act in whatever the West Indian equivalent of the Catskills circuit is. Yet thanks to the all-in-the-family production situation — most of the film’s scenes were apparently shot with zero non-Patels present — they rarely appear to be playing to the camera; nor do they hesitate to reveal some unattractive cultural hangups.
The film’s technical quality can be rough, and Ravi acknowledges as much early on, noting that the next 88 minutes will contain “footage that’s out of focus, poorly framed, and often has a microphone in the upper right-hand corner.” But even for a film that started life as an actual homemovie, it’s never too much of an obstacle. Interstitial animated elements —particularly Ravi’s direct-to-camera interview segments, which might have been distractingly “Real World”-like as live-action — add some welcome visual flair.