"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."
AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:
In popular Western culture, a whole lot of time is spent thinking about love - maybe too much time.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "ADDICTED TO LOVE")
ROBERT PALMER: (Singing) Might as well face it. You're addicted to love.
CORNISH: That addiction can look very different depending on your background and family expectations. And we're going to hear about a new documentary that explores what happens when everybody around you gets involved in your love life. It's called "Meet The Patels." NPR's Karen Grigsby Bates from our Code Switch team fills us in.
KAREN GRIGSBY BATES, BYLINE: Actor Ravi Patel co-directed "Meet The Patels," so it's not a surprise he's directing when refreshments will be consumed in his sunny kitchen a few blocks from Venice Beach. He's pushing a plate of flaky Indian vegetable pastries toward me.
R. PATEL: I want to make sure that you are eating samosas because they're best...
G. PATEL: You are your mother's child.
PATEL: They're best when they're warm, and you haven't touched it yet.
BATES: Ravi and his sister, Geeta, are happy with the movie they've made, but "Meet The Patels" was inspired by an unhappy event. Ravi was almost 30 when he broke up with his girlfriend he'd been with for two years. He loved her, but she wasn't Indian. And he was worried his parents would be heartbroken, so he kept her a secret. That had its own tension, and Ravi's relationship went kaput two weeks before his family took their annual month-long trip to India.
PATEL: As the movie starts, I'd just gone through this breakup with a white girl that I never told my parents about. And here, we set off on this family trip, and I'm going through this "Eat, Pray, Love" phase with my parents, like, in my face.
BATES: In the film, Ravi mimics his onboard grilling.
(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "MEET THE PATELS")
PATEL: Ravi, you're killing us. You want us to die without the grandchildren?
You know, Champa, I don't even think he wants to get married.
BATES: Geeta was sitting next to Ravi on the plane. She's a documentary filmmaker. His despair was too delectable to ignore, and instinct just kicked in.
PATEL: So I put the camera on him because I'm, like, you know, I'm his sister (laughter). And you're just, like - my brother is really, hilariously suffering right now. Let's film it.
BATES: The result is a documentary that relentlessly follows Ravi's quest to find a woman both he and his parents could love. The process takes him around town and across country, out of the country and even to a convention of hundreds of young Patels in Baltimore where they briefly eyeball each other and exchange personal resumes called biodatas. Think speed dating with an eye to matrimony.
(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "MEET THE PATELS")
PATEL: Hey, I'm Ravi.
Hey, I'm Ravi.
Hey, I'm Ravi. Oh, wait, we already met.
BATES: Patel is one of the most common names in central India. These conventions are held so single Indian-American Patels, often with parents or adult relatives in tow, can meet dates that might eventually turn into mates. Ravi and Geeta say these are modern versions of the arrangements that worked for their older relatives who didn't grow up in a love-at-first-sight culture.
PATEL: From their model of marriage, it's commitment and compatibility that come first, and based on those things, you create love.
PATEL: These are the happiest relationships we know. These are our models for love.
BATES: And the model they most look up to is their parents. In the film, Vasant Patel reminds his kids his marriage was arranged too.
(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "MEET THE PATELS")
PATEL: Does that mean you think that works for me as well?
V. PATEL: Absolutely.
C. PATEL: Absolutely.
PATEL: If you ask me, 100 percent, I believe from the bottom of the heart.
BATES: Small and energetic and oozing good will, the elder Patel has become something of a star on the film festival circuit, where he's often asked for love advice.
PATEL: Happy anniversary.
BATES: As the Patels celebrate their 35th anniversary at home, Champa tells her children what drew her to their father.
PATEL: But let me tell you. When I talked to him, we only talked maybe 10 minutes.
PATEL: And even then...
PATEL: And he made me laugh like crazy.
BATES: It's clear they still enjoy each other's company. Geeta Patel says she and Ravi wanted to go beyond the stereotype she thinks Americans usually see of arranged Indian marriages. She believes their film challenges the popular image of arranged unions that are practical and dry.
PATEL: I think what we both wanted in this film was to humanize the truth, which is, we think our parents are very much in love, and it's a pretty amazing system. And you know, even though we don't want to do it exactly the way they do it, there's some magic there.
BATES: The search for that magic transcends racial and cultural differences. If you want to see whether Ravi found his own magic, you'll need to go meet the Patels at your local theater. Karen Grigsby Bates, NPR News, Los Angeles. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.