MEET THE PATELS
Directors: Geeta Patel and Ravi Patel
MPAA Rating: (for thematic elements, brief suggestive images and incidental smoking)
Running Time: 1:28
Release Date: 9/11/15
Review by Mark Dujsik | September 11, 2015
Meet the Patels lifts the veil on the modern process of arranged marriage. A lot has changed in just the matter of a generation, we learn from the movie. The children of a pair of immigrants from India have a bit more freedom than their parents—or at least the illusion of it.
Back when their parents were married in the 1970s, their father had to return to India and choose—and be chosen by—a woman within a 30-mile triangle within a certain province. Also, the woman he would choose—and who would choose him—had to have the same last name. It's more of a caste thing than a familial thing, the father explains.
Yes, everyone is somehow related to varying degrees, but we're talking levels of cousins and once-, twice, or thrice-removed and other complex matters of genealogy that make it almost impossible to tell how these people are related. One married man explains that his brother ended up marrying his wife's sister. For a process that theoretically should make marriage simpler, it certainly makes descriptions of family relationships a lot more complicated.
The children's parents have been married for 35 years. They celebrate their anniversary with their two children in their home, sitting around in sweatpants and telling stories of their courtship. Their father made their mother laugh when they first met, the mother recalls. That was what made him stand out from the others.
He still jokes. She still laughs. They're comfortable with each other, and even though their outward displays of affection are limited (Everyone here says that's fairly common of the parents' generation, with a photo of the father kissing the mother on the cheek being noted as relatively risqué), it's obvious there's a deep bond between them.
Vasant K. and Champa V. Patel, the parents, are living proof that this system works. Their children, who were born and raised in the United States, know this, which might be why they've become somewhat disengaged from the typical American style of dating.
Ravi Patel, the documentary's central subject, has had one girlfriend in his life, and as the story begins, the two of them have broken up after a two-year relationship. He was afraid to tell his parents, because he expected that they would disapprove of him dating a white woman from Connecticut. She took that as a sign that he wasn't ready to commit, and since he is 29 and has spent his life imagining that he would marry an Indian woman, that's probably true.
Ravi and his sister Geeta Patel, both of whom are credited as the movie's directors (Save for the final shot, she is responsible for the actual filming, and he seems to have justly earned his credit for organizing what follows), are torn between their devotion to the traditions of their cultural heritage and the allure of the culture of the land of their birth. At the insistence of his parents during a trip to visit family in India, Ravi agrees to let them start the process of finding him a bride (Geeta has been going through this for years, and it might have been informative to hear more about her experience than what we get here).
It's a fascinating look inside this practice, which has evolved with the social changes and technological advances of the filmmakers' generation. The parents still select potential grooms/brides for their children based on a selection of "biodatas," which essentially are résumés featuring the usual information (as well as height, weight, and skin color, with "wheatish brown" being the favored complexion), provided by family members, friends, and complete strangers.
The dates are more relaxed than we might expect, because it's basically a blind date without the necessity of going through the usual getting-to-know-you stuff. One imagines it's akin to online dating—albeit with a person's parents serving as whatever algorithm determines who should meet whom for a date. Ravi travels the country, goes to a "Patel Matrimonial Convention," and attends a few weddings to meet various women. The movie offers montage after montage to give us a sense of the hectic nature of this endeavor, while sacrificing our ability to get to know Ravi in any meaningful way. It's strangely appropriate that he appears in cartoon form throughout the movie in the interviews that provide the story's narration.
There's really not much here beyond the initial intrigue of the process. The siblings are perhaps too close for there to be much probing of what Ravi is really thinking, and there's also the eventual issue that he's covering up a reconnection to his ex-girlfriend. Interviews with married friends and family members—either through arrangement or just meeting someone—don't shed much light, either.
It is, though, still charming to an extent, and a good portion of that extent is on account of Mr. and Mrs. Patel. They are genuinely lovely and loving folks who are stereotypically eager grandparents-in-waiting (Vasant has already done the math of how many grandkids he'll have) and still fully aware that whatever choice their children make is legitimately the choice of their children. Their story of coming to accept that reality in more than mere words is the real heart of Meet the Patels. The rest doesn't measure up to it.
Copyright © 2015 by Mark Dujsik. All rights reserved.
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