12 January 2016

"Meet the Patels"

Meet the Patels (2014) Poster

We found it frustratingly difficult to find a showing of the docu-comedy Meet the Patels. Whether we were in Tidewater or the Triangle, this film about the search of a 30-year-old Indian-American for love and happiness always seemed to be showing somewhere else. We were very pleased that as a Christmas gift daughter Lisa, who had tracked down a one-day showing in a Chicago suburb for when we were to be in the Windy City, gave us a gift card so we could finally see it.

Meet the Patels is presented as a documentary filmed by Geeta Patel about her older brother Ravi's attempt to find a suitable marriage partner in the new old-fashioned Indian way. Their parents' marriage had been arranged in India not long after father Vasant has come to America to make a life for himself. Geeta and Ravi grew up speaking Gujarati and worshiping traditional Indian deities at home but everywhere else were fully Americanized. They were nonetheless expected to marry an Indian and another Patel at that. (There are plenty of options given the vast number of Patels in India and America.)

As the film begins Ravi has just broken up with a white American gal he had been dating for two years, and which he had kept secret from his parents. Feeling the strong tug to marry as expected, Ravi asks his mother Champa to arrange a match. While fully arranged marriages are not practiced in America (and increasingly less so in India), the contemporary match-making efforts involve exchanges of bio-data and resumes from which a range of possible future spouses is picked and then dated. Either prospective partner can veto a second date and in the film either Ravi or his possible match do so every time.

After a year of futile dating across the United States and Canada, Ravi finally confesses his affection for his American girlfriend to his parents who with great disappointment ultimately consent to his renewed pursuit of a relationship with her. The film ends at this point leaving the audience unsure of whether that relationship culminates in marriage.

The film's amateurish documentary style suits it subject. Ravi acts the equivalent of an Indian-American nebbish while sister Geeta's off-camera wisecracks work to increase Ravi's discomfort. Roles are reversed, however, when mid-film Geeta admits she gone on 200 dates of her own without finding a match and again at the end she comes home after yet another futile effort to find love the "American way."

It's hard to know how much of the film is documentary and how much is scripted. The words and expressions of parents Visant and Champa, however, struck us as from the heart. Deeply committed to the life and practice of their cultural heritage but stuck all-too-successfully in their realization of the American dream, they can do no more than counsel their children and feel anguish at the impending changes. Ravi and Geeta, in turn, are far from actively rejecting their parents' culture but still are so enmeshed in the romanticized American conception of love-as-personal-fulfillment that they cannot break free.

Unlike The Namesake, Meet the Patels maintains a light-hearted approach to a serious subject. Like the earlier film, however, Meet the Patels epitomizes the relentless power of contemporary American culture, which in one generation undoes centuries of tradition.

Meet the Patels is filled with laugh-out-loud scenes of the peculiarities of Indian-American life and serious but not-so-funny discussions of the importance of skin color in the choice of a marriage partner. We thus recommend Meet the Patels to anyone who wonders about the behind-the-scenes lives of all those Indian owners of motels and 7-Elevens as well as to those who are curious about the the inter-generational experience of cultural transition in America.

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