September 8, 2015

Family Matters: Transcending Old Traditions with the Patels

Ravi Patel (upper left) and Geeta Patel (front center), directors of 'Meet the Patels,' with their parents, Champa and Vasant.

Ravi Patel is in search of a bride. But he's not your average guy, going online or to a bar for the quest. Ravi is Indian-American, and his parents are heavily invested in him finding his soulmate. When Ravi turned 29, Vasant and Champa Patel took action: The family travelled to India to find their son a wife. That Ravi happens to be the brother of documentarian Geeta Patel (Project Kashmir) meant the birth of the capriciously funny Meet the Patels, which documents Ravi's search for true love—inspired, in part, by his parents' long-lasting marriage. The film has won awards at festivals and, according to the brother-sister directing duo, 98 percent of the audiences have been non-Indian. Ravi reports, "We premiered at the Hot Docs Festival in Toronto, after being rejected from all the major festivals, and the next thing you know, 500-seat theaters were selling out lines around the corner."

The Patels are no niche subculture. It is their close-knit ways, the vast global network of the Patel tribe, and the parents' slowly evolving worldview toward inter-faith/racial/cultural partnerships that make the film so universal. "The vast array of backgrounds of people who loved the movie made us realize that this film was more than just about our family," Geeta observes. "There was a very important moment in the filmmaking where we wondered if we should have interviews with non-South Asians, or different communities, or talk in a certain way so that it's not just our story. Then at Hot Docs, there was a group of gay men, and one of them said the film was a coming-out story for him; he had a similar thing with his parents. We were so happy that we decided to just stay specific because somehow, in being more specific, we became more universal."

Ravi adds, "Mom and Dad gave those guys some advice. They've been giving advice to anyone who'll listen. I think they gave Michael Moore advice during our Q and A with him. Relationship advice."

The Patel parents are from the state of Gujarat, where the Patel clan is predominant, tight-knit and traditional, with a predilection for intra-clan marriages. Patels are abundant around the world—in India, America and South Africa. Ravi has many potential brides to choose from.

Originally titled One in a Billion, Meet the Patels, like most documentaries, has seen many tonal changes since its inception. "The big shift was realizing that this was a film not about boy meets girl, but about boy meets family," Ravi asserts. "So in that adjustment, it's not about finding that one in a billion. It was actually my individuality with my family and my culture; that's where we came up with Meet the Patels."

From Geeta Patel and Ravi Patel’s 'Meet the Patels'

In the beginning of the film, Ravi has recently broken up with his longtime girlfriend—who happens to be white, and her presence in his life had been a long-guarded secret from his parents. Disillusioned by love and overwhelmed by parental pressure, Ravi agrees to give tradition a chance. He goes to India, and returns to the US without a bride—much to the dismay of his parents, who snap into action, tapping into the global Patel network for biodatas (résumés) of daughters and nieces. Then they send Ravi to a Patels speed-dating convention. The quest unfolds like a Bollywood movie. In a car, Ravi and his parents engage in a particularly heated exchange, and Geeta turns her camera off—briefly. For Vasant and Champa, it is now or never for Ravi. And like Ravi, we are almost convinced, but not quite.

The key to so many documentaries is access and intimacy with the subjects. But in the case of Meet the Patels, where the subjects and filmmakers are not only synonymous, but also kinfolk, things can get tricky. The siblings spent seven years on the film. "I don't think there was ever an option for either one of us to abandon the other person," Ravi reflects. "We couldn't fire the other person. That was also what was really hard about this. You are meaner to the people you love because you're the most comfortable with them, and collaborating with anyone in filmmaking is already so hard. We've definitely had it out pretty bad, but we were forced find a way to make it work and respect each other's points of view more. As a result, we're insanely closer. Our entire family is. But it resulted in a better film."

Geeta points out, "The first half of the film was hard for us because of everything Ravi said in the beginning—siblings fighting and on top of that, directors fighting, and then we got to that point where just we had to get along. Then, we actually grew up, not just as filmmakers; we grew up as people."

As Geeta implies, Meet the Patels was not a cozy sibling collaboration initially. In fact, she dragged her feet about involving herself in a documentary so soon after Project Kashmir. "I had just come out of three documentaries in seven years, " she says. "I said, 'Ravi, I will shoot a little bit, and then I'm stepping out.' I was especially adamant about not being in another documentary." Ravi interjects, "But PBS loved this intimate relationship of a sister documenting her brother going through some serious problems while, ironically, the person hiding behind the camera was going through things that were just as bad, or worse."

From Geeta Patel and Ravi Patel’s 'Meet the Patels'

Ravi applied his parents' skills at persuasion; although Geeta rarely appears onscreen (except during animation sequences), she is the filmmaker, sharply observant about her family's flaws, beyond the comedy she is used to. And gradually, the film evolves into an important second-generation account of a tentative change of guard, where honor and the rigors of communal and religious rules may have relaxed a little.

The siblings divided directorial labors but found themselves seeking out help in the post-production process. "Matt Hamachek [Cartel Land, Gideon's Army, If a Tree Falls] came on for the very first version of the film," says Geeta. "He went through the raw footage with us and really pioneered the film. Ravi and I ended up learning how to edit for a while, and then it got beyond us to where we needed an expert. I had worked with Billy McMillin [An Open Secret, West of Memphis, Iraq in Fragments] on my last film, and he's a genius. So he came on and just finished it to the end."

Sustaining comedy—a hard task in the doc genre—was not an editorial challenge for the film, claims Ravi: "I feel we just know how to produce comedy in anything. I know that sounds really arrogant, but it is the truth, and we had the gift of Mom and Dad. They're just the sweetest, most charming, charismatic characters a filmmaker could ever have the pleasure of cutting." Adds Geeta, "We were so tired of the movies and clichés that featured South Asians who were funny, but didn't have any heart."

One wonders if Ravi and Geeta are simply filming an ode to the best version of love they see embodied in their parents, or defending an already fierce microcosm. Observes Geeta, "Growing up, it was really hard to explain to non-Indian friends how beautiful we thought our parents' relationships were, and who didn't quite get why we listened to our parents or why we didn't just say, ‘This is my life.' Or how beautiful we thought the culture was, even though it seemed so strict and traditional."

From Geeta Patel and Ravi Patel’s Meet the Patels

Despite a plethora of audience awards and accolades on the festival circuit, finding a distributor for Meet the Patels has also been an unanticipated journey; the film makes its theatrical debut September 11, a year and a half after premiering at Hot Docs. "We felt like we failed our funders," Geeta admits. "We didn't even think we'd get a theatrical release. Then all the screenings started selling out. We were at the LA Film Festival and we got a bunch of distributors to come, and then with UTA [United Talent Agnecy] and Rena Ronson as our sales agent, we signed with Alchemy."

Ravi adds, "The big dream is to send Mom and Dad around with a bus that has a screen on it. Maybe serve samosas and chai and do screenings. Geralyn [White-Dreyfous, founder of Impact Partners, which helped find funding for the film] really wants to send them around the parks of Utah near Sundance."

"I think we want to make a film for our community because we have a very private community," Geeta adds. "These stories are usually not shared as easily in the South Asian or even the Asian communities or the immigrant communities, Orthodox Jewish communities, etc. So we're constantly amazed by the perspective we were gaining by making this documentary."

The idea of Patels marrying each other originates in a system of communal adherence. But Vasant and Champa also believe they are doing what OkCupid or your best friend tries to do—set you up with your best match. As hilarious as their parents are, the Patel siblings may be making a more delicate point. There is something to be said about love here, especially in the age of Tinder, when everything is set up anyway. As Geeta asserts, "We didn't want people to think that just because our parents' marriage was arranged, it's not any less romantic, or any less promising."


Meet the Patels opens in theaters September 11 through Alchemy.

Nayantara Roy is a writer and journalist, currently pursuing a graduate degree at Columbia University.