MEET THE PATELS. Director: Ravi Patel, Geeta Patel. Players: Champa V. Patel, Geeta Patel, Ravi Patel. Screenplay: Matthew Hamachek, Billy McMillin, Geeta Patel, Ravi Patel.
Mama Patel is clanging the pots and pans in the kitchen, her lips pursed in a tight line of displeasure. “I am not giving up my culture so easily,” she manages tersely.
The threat to her culture? Not mass-conversions of her kin. Not even a contested holy site. The threat to her culture is a red-headed girl called Audrey. The love of her son’s young life. Audrey is white American. And most decidedly un-Patel.
Yes, it is the age of marriage equality, but can you blame Mama Patel for all that lip-pursing?
Feeling the tug of his Indian ties, Ravi has broken up with Audrey. He wants his kids to have the warmth and love of the Great Indian Joint and Extended Family System. He hopes that his kids will stop at Patel motels on their journeys and be immediately accepted as part of the Patel collective. He is, in short, ambivalent about leaving the comfortable world of Aunties and Uncles, Betis and Betas to venture out into a hyphenated world.
And so, with much encouragement to “give life a chance,” Ravi embarks on a search for a suitable bride. The trajectory of this search takes him to interesting territory. Speed-dating at the Patel Matrimonial Convention, bio-data exchanges, and marriage advice by well-meaning elders only occasionally result in hurt feelings. Most of these matrimonial exchanges occur within a brisk and business-like climate, akin to a search for education or employment. Or a washer-dryer, for that matter.
The film takes a fresh look at so many of the familiar memes. Arranged marriage, preference for wheatish-brown skin, marrying within the community, all come under scrutiny. In the hands of the film-makers, the arranged marriage is given a more loving examination.
The film also speaks of grit. It took six and a half years to make, and the funding came in trickles from sources that are varied and numerous. The payback came in the form of delighted audiences and numerous audience awards at film festivals.
The animated sections are skillful, and provide an introspective look. The fast-paced editing is tight. Geeta’s cinematography, jerky with a hand-held camera, remains a running joke between the siblings.
In the end, it felt like a very humorous, very loving look at the Indian diaspora. Like being included into the chaos of the Patel household. Champa is making the rotis, Dad is reading the paper, and the kids are all right.
I was delighted to speak to the witty Patel siblings.
Let me ask you why you decided to make this film?
Ravi: Ya, it started out as a home video. Geeta had just come off a previous documentary called Project Kashmir, and she had bought this camera, and she wanted to learn how to use it, which I regret to say she never did.
Geeta: Ha ha.
Ravi: We went on this family trip to India. Geeta had this camera. At this time, as you saw, I was single, and my Mom and Dad were pretty obsessed with solving this international crisis of getting me married.
We had these conversations that people in our generation were really struggling with, and we said: let’s send this to PBS. Maybe there’s a Morgan Spurlock or Michael Moore type journalistic project here. Maybe it can be super entertaining and funny. The folks at PBS really loved the relationship between us two siblings, with one of us filming the other.
It seems like you were trying to understand the values of second-generation Indian kids and their parents, the challenges that present themselves. So these film-makers were your inspiration for making this film?
Ravi: Yes, and we love romantic comedy.
Geeta: Additional films like American Splendor, When Harry Met Sally, Dirty Dancing, Jerry McGuire … we love them all. What if we make a documentary that doesn’t feel like a documentary.
I did see your homage to Dirty Dancing. That was so hilarious, how you contrasted the “no kiss” culture of Bollywood to the “kiss” culture of Hollywood and having to negotiate these cultures. It seems like you managed to spoof many of the “big ones:” the arranged marriage, the color preference, the aunties.
Geeta: There’s a lot of media out there about India and being Indian. We didn’t want to make a film making fun of arranged marriages. Instead, we wanted that people would come out of the film saying “God, I wish my parents would do that for me. God, I love your parents. They are so loving. That is a really beautiful process.” We hope that they would see the other side of it, how beautiful the relationships are.
Ravi: Worst case, you will laugh a lot in this movie.
Geetika Pathania Jain. Ph.D. is a frequent contributor to India Currents magazine.