meet the patels

“You know that girl in Eat, Pray, Love? She goes through a break up, goes on the existential journey to India to get over depression, find out what she really wanted in life? I was that girl. Except, my family was with me the entire time.”

This is the intriguing introduction that audiences are given to MEET THE PATELS, a documentary both directed by and starring brother and sister duo Ravi and Geeta Patel, as well as their incredibly charismatic parents. The dynamic of this colourful family of four is instantly on display, and it’s impossible not to be drawn in to their story.

Ravi is almost 30, and lives in Los Angeles with his sister Geeta. Geeta works behind the camera, writing and directing films. Ravi works as an actor and comedian, capitalizing on his Indian heritage and unique look to create a charming and honest persona not unlike that of superstar Canadian comic Russell Peters. The story follows him for 1 year, beginning and ending with his annual trip with his shockingly cool, and yet unflinchingly traditional, parents.

As they travel together to India, Ravi is hiding something from his mother and father. In fact, he has been hiding it for 2 years: he fell in love with a red head from Connecticut named Audrey.  Unsure that she would ever be accepted into his respected Indian family, he kept her a secret from everyone but his sister. 2 weeks before his family trip, they broke up. Ravi’s parents have no clue that he has been dating someone for so long, nor that he has dated anyone. In fact, they fear that their son is so clueless in matters of the heart that he will never get married. A source of great shame for them, his parents continue to nag him about allowing them to arrange a marriage for him like their parents did when they were young. For Mr. and Mrs. Patel, this was a rousing success. The mutual respect and love they have for each other has stood the test of time, despite only speaking 10 minutes before being married.

But this is a different time, and Ravi’s parents know this. They know and accept that Ravi will want to date and get to know whichever woman he decides to spend his life with. Still, for the first time, Ravi agrees to let them begin setting him up on dates. While the audience knows this is most likely a very ill-advised coping mechanism to help him deal with the loss of the love of his life, Ravi’s parents see it as a triumph. They spring into action, and that’s about the time that Ravi realizes exactly what he’s gotten himself into.

The resulting odyssey of Indian Matchmaking is both impressive and intimidating. As a WASP, I found myself staring wide-eyed as I was educated on the lengths which Indian parents will go to ensure the continuity of their heritage and bloodlines. One might consider the methods and theories under which the Patels match their son to be racist or elitist, but it’s difficult to argue with their motives. In the end, they only want their son to be happy. They want him to have a family of his own. On that point, Ravi and his parents agree.

The film is almost a real-life MY BIG FAT GREEK WEDDING, except with arranged marriages and oodles of Indian-Americans rather than Greeks. I thought I knew where it was going, and I thought I knew how Ravi’s parents would handle the impending revelations about Audrey that we all know must come out eventually. Not only do the Patels surprise their children, but they surprise the audience as well.

The film does occasionally drift from the narrative, but it’s incredibly easy to forget once you become invested in the wonderful characters and heartwarming family dynamic. Indian parents are so often portrayed as hard-nosed traditionalists who care more about status than their children’s happiness. The Patels prove this stereotype wrong again and again. They are rip-roaring hilarious, whether intentional or not, as well as loving, forgiving, and kind.

MEET THE PATELS plays Hot Docs 2014 once more at Isabel Bader Theatre on Thursday May 1st at 9:30pm (official website)

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