Documentary channel

In ‘Meet the Patels’, American siblings lay bare the secrets of bride-hunting

Made by Geeta and Ravi Patel, the fly-on-the-wall documentary is a seriocomic exploration of arranged marriage in the Patel community in America.

It’s that time of your Indian-born-American-bred life to “settle down” – and make a documentary about it. In 2008, American siblings Ravi and Geeta Patel decided to document the efforts of their parents to get Ravi to submit to the age-old Indian rite of passage called arranged marriage. Ravi, an actor in American television and films, had recently broken up with his American girlfriend (about which his parents knew nothing at the time). Ravi’s filmmaker sister, Geeta, switched on her camera and recorded the process of first travelling to Gujarat India to “find a girl” and then returning to the United States of America to continue the quest. The resulting documentary, Meet the Patels, is an often hilarious and insightful study of the Patels in particular and the Patel community in general. Shot as a home video and narrated in a casual and chatty style with animation sequences thrown in, Meet the Patels has been screened at several film festivals since its completion in 2014, including Hot Docs (where it won an audience award), Doc NYC and most recently the London Indian Film Festival.

Much of the 88-minute documentary’s charm is a result of the openness and warmth of the Patel parents, who nudge but never push their son towards becoming a part of a community that has given them roots and a sense of identity. The documentary humourously skewers racism among Indians in the US and reveals one of the hidden uses of the annual Patel Convention: bride-hunting. In an email interview, Ravi and Geeta Patel talk about the pleasures and pitfalls of turning the camera on themselves.

How challenging was it to get your immediate and extended family members to be relaxed and honest on film?
Ravi Patel: I think the hardest thing for me was just learning how to make a doc. This was certainly film school for me, and we made a lot of mistakes along the way. The good news was that I could learn quite a bit from Geeta, the bad news was that it’s really hard to make a movie with your sister for six years.

Geeta Patel: Ha, yep, we almost killed each other a few times! But honestly, we are so much closer than I could ever imagine as a result of this process – our whole family is – so that obstacle turned out to be a gift. In terms of our family, everyone was remarkably very cool with being in this thing. I still don’t understand why, other than that we made it very clear we would show everyone in the movie with a stroke of love and respect. But maybe they just assumed we weren’t going to actually finish the movie, which I’m pretty sure was why Mom and Dad were so comfortable on camera!

Did you tell them that you were making a documentary, or did you break the news after they got comfortable with the camera?
RP: No we were always up front and honest.

GP: Our relationships are going to last much longer than this movie – it was important for us to do right by our loved ones.

Family members also tend to perform for the camera – did that happen here too?
RP: Everyone was afraid I was going to do that given my career, but I think that’s exactly why I was so natural: 1) I knew the film would only be good if I was honest, and 2) I can notice cameras way less than most people.

GP: I see why you think people might perform. Honestly, it mostly happens out of nerves, and we would make sure we had our tricks to make people comfortable. Surely, we burned some film waiting for people to be themselves.

The film tackles a subject that has been dealt with in fiction and documentary in the past. How did you keep it fresh, engaging as well as relevant?
RP: We’ve seen all those films, and it was certainly a conscious attempt at doing a version of this story that didn’t feel contrived. We didn’t focus on shtick, or cultural shock humor, but rather leaned into the story and characters. The other thing we focused on was just cutting everyone without making them seem crazy or antagonistic.

GP: For example, we hope people watch this movie and see Mom and Dad’s views on marriage as a very reasonable process. We wanted to say that when families fight, it’s often over very different and reasonable paths to a shared goal. I think it would have been very easy for us as filmmakers to paint them as these crazy immigrant parents, but that’s not how we see them or this conflict.

The use of animation creates bridges between sequences as well as provides visual relief. Was its use pre-decoded?
RP: Oh God, NO, I wish. We tried five other things before we landed on animation. It was a PROCESS. Mainly, it came out of us deciding we didn’t want to film these crazy emotional moments that might come up, because it felt disrespectful to put Mom and Dad on camera during those moments.

GP: Of course, these are often the biggest moments in the film, so we had to find a way to tell these plot points in a way that would hopefully feel richer and not surrogate. We are big fans of radio, which is ironically more visual in a way.

RP: This American Life and American Splendor were big influences. After that, it was just about finding something that blended well with the home-video feel. That’s how we ended up with this unfinished, sketchy look.

Was the documentary meant to be a personal travelogue or was there also an attempt to make a film about the Patel community in the US? Or both?
GP: I thought I was just learning how to use a camera on our family vacation.

RP: SAME. And then I eventually thought I’d be a host, like Michael Moore. Of course, it ended up just being about me, which was awesome (not awesome).

How has the film been received at screenings? The film is often irreverent, and did that irk any family members?
GP: People have been going nuts. I can’t believe it. I think Mom and Dad are kind of becoming famous!

RP: I think it ended up being broadly relatable in terms of family in a way that we didn’t anticipate. No family members have complained, but that kind of stuff could take years to really surface in Patel families!



We welcome your comments at letters@scroll.in.
Sponsored Content BY 

How sustainable farming practices can secure India's food for the future

India is home to 15% of the world’s undernourished population.

Food security is a pressing problem in India and in the world. According to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the UN (FAO), it is estimated that over 190 million people go hungry every day in the country.

Evidence for India’s food challenge can be found in the fact that the yield per hectare of rice, one of India’s principal crops, is 2177 kgs per hectare, lagging behind countries such as China and Brazil that have yield rates of 4263 kgs/hectare and 3265 kgs/hectare respectively. The cereal yield per hectare in the country is also 2,981 kgs per hectare, lagging far behind countries such as China, Japan and the US.

The slow growth of agricultural production in India can be attributed to an inefficient rural transport system, lack of awareness about the treatment of crops, limited access to modern farming technology and the shrinking agricultural land due to urbanization. Add to that, an irregular monsoon and the fact that 63% of agricultural land is dependent on rainfall further increase the difficulties we face.

Despite these odds, there is huge potential for India to increase its agricultural productivity to meet the food requirements of its growing population.

The good news is that experience in India and other countries shows that the adoption of sustainable farming practices can increase both productivity and reduce ecological harm.

Sustainable agriculture techniques enable higher resource efficiency – they help produce greater agricultural output while using lesser land, water and energy, ensuring profitability for the farmer. These essentially include methods that, among other things, protect and enhance the crops and the soil, improve water absorption and use efficient seed treatments. While Indian farmers have traditionally followed these principles, new technology now makes them more effective.

For example, for soil enhancement, certified biodegradable mulch films are now available. A mulch film is a layer of protective material applied to soil to conserve moisture and fertility. Most mulch films used in agriculture today are made of polyethylene (PE), which has the unwanted overhead of disposal. It is a labour intensive and time-consuming process to remove the PE mulch film after usage. If not done, it affects soil quality and hence, crop yield. An independently certified biodegradable mulch film, on the other hand, is directly absorbed by the microorganisms in the soil. It conserves the soil properties, eliminates soil contamination, and saves the labor cost that comes with PE mulch films.

The other perpetual challenge for India’s farms is the availability of water. Many food crops like rice and sugarcane have a high-water requirement. In a country like India, where majority of the agricultural land is rain-fed, low rainfall years can wreak havoc for crops and cause a slew of other problems - a surge in crop prices and a reduction in access to essential food items. Again, Indian farmers have long experience in water conservation that can now be enhanced through technology.

Seeds can now be treated with enhancements that help them improve their root systems. This leads to more efficient water absorption.

In addition to soil and water management, the third big factor, better seed treatment, can also significantly improve crop health and boost productivity. These solutions include application of fungicides and insecticides that protect the seed from unwanted fungi and parasites that can damage crops or hinder growth, and increase productivity.

While sustainable agriculture through soil, water and seed management can increase crop yields, an efficient warehousing and distribution system is also necessary to ensure that the output reaches the consumers. According to a study by CIPHET, Indian government’s harvest-research body, up to 67 million tons of food get wasted every year — a quantity equivalent to that consumed by the entire state of Bihar in a year. Perishables, such as fruits and vegetables, end up rotting in store houses or during transportation due to pests, erratic weather and the lack of modern storage facilities. In fact, simply bringing down food wastage and increasing the efficiency in distribution alone can significantly help improve food security. Innovations such as special tarpaulins, that keep perishables cool during transit, and more efficient insulation solutions can reduce rotting and reduce energy usage in cold storage.

Thus, all three aspects — production, storage, and distribution — need to be optimized if India is to feed its ever-growing population.

One company working to drive increased sustainability down the entire agriculture value chain is BASF. For example, the company offers cutting edge seed treatments that protect crops from disease and provide plant health benefits such as enhanced vitality and better tolerance for stress and cold. In addition, BASF has developed a biodegradable mulch film from its ecovio® bioplastic that is certified compostable – meaning farmers can reap the benefits of better soil without risk of contamination or increased labor costs. These and more of the company’s innovations are helping farmers in India achieve higher and more sustainable yields.

Of course, products are only one part of the solution. The company also recognizes the importance of training farmers in sustainable farming practices and in the safe use of its products. To this end, BASF engaged in a widespread farmer outreach program called Samruddhi from 2007 to 2014. Their ‘Suraksha Hamesha’ (safety always) program reached over 23,000 farmers and 4,000 spray men across India in 2016 alone. In addition to training, the company also offers a ‘Sanrakshan® Kit’ to farmers that includes personal protection tools and equipment. All these efforts serve to spread awareness about the sustainable and responsible use of crop protection products – ensuring that farmers stay safe while producing good quality food.

Interested in learning more about BASF’s work in sustainable agriculture? See here.

This article was produced by the Scroll marketing team on behalf of BASF and not by the Scroll editorial team.