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!

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