“Not getting married and staying single is the biggest loser you can be.”
This is the candid assessment that Ravi and Geeta Patel’s voluble father issues during one of many discussions about how marriage, family, and Indian culture intersect in the documentary Meet the Patels, which opens the 3rd I San Francisco International South Asian Film Festival tomorrow (Thursday).
The entire Patel family’s mission to help 29-year-old Ravi avoid becoming an unmarried “loser” is the engine of this charming film, which emerged from family vacation footage that Geeta Patel captured during a visit to her parents’ home village in Gujarat, and alternates live action scenes with animation. PBS later encouraged the siblings to take the story further and turn it into the documentary, which Patel and her brother co-directed.
Early on in Meet the Patels, the audience learns that the Patel parents have activated a community-wide, continent-spanning network to find Ravi a “match.” He goes on dozens of dates with Gujarati American girls around the country, some of which are filmed by his sister, and even attends a Patel marriage convention to try his hand at desi speed-dating.
What Ravi and Geeta’s parents don’t know, as they insistently try to persuade their kids of the merit of the traditional Indian arranged marriage system, is that Ravi has just broken up with a longtime girlfriend — a white redhead whom he’s sure his parents would have rejected.
And, he confesses, he too thinks that maybe he should give this Gujarati American courtship circuit a shot. After all, he’s extremely close to his family, and profoundly influenced by their values and hopes for his life. He wants his children to have a similar upbringing to his, he says. He loves being Indian. Watching Ravi weigh his own priorities for a happy marriage alongside those of his parents will feel intimately familiar to many South Asian Americans watching the film who have pondered the same issues.
There’s also lots about this family that is exceptional. The Patel parents are naturals on camera, dishing nonchalantly about their children’s perceived flaws and even hamming it up like born performers (apparently their mother Champa often emceed functions during her college years, and these days, their father Vasant writes the skits that the couple performs together at community events). Geeta and Ravi’s father delivers zingers throughout the film; their mother, a matchmaker herself, communicates her frustration with impassioned declarations like, “You’re not giving yourself a fair chance, Ravi…you’re not giving your life a fair chance.” Beyond all this, the film makes it evident that the Patels truly enjoy spending time together, which serves to remind the audience why Geeta and Ravi might want to try and re-create this family dynamic.
Whenever I hear about creative works that will take on the arranged marriage trope, I’m always leery at first. Among my concerns is that each new work will reinforce the notion of a single arranged marriage paradigm of the past: that our parents only saw their prospective spouses for 5-10 minutes before agreeing to marry, and that the women had no agency in their betrothal. (Arranged marriage played out quite differently for my parents and many others from their Bombay community in the 1970s, for example, who often dated for months and spent time without their families around before committing to an engagement).
While the Patels’ union was forged through the old tradition, Meet the Patels depicts them today as doting and indulgent of their kids’ individualism, defying common stereotypes about the rigidity of Indian parents.
And, the film points out that some aspects of the old tradition still have utility, despite the persistent religious bias and racism that can be built into the process. In documenting the awkward, unseemly, and rewarding parts of the arranged marriage journey from inside their own lives, Ravi and Geeta Patel took one for the team, and created a thoroughly enjoyable film that will appeal to wide audiences — not just South Asians. And they say the experience brought them even closer as a family. For those who can’t catch the sold out Meet the Patels at 3rd I this week, the film’s web site lists upcoming screenings, including one on November 14 at the San Diego Asian Film Festival.