Film Festival Hit ‘Meet the Patels’ Sheds Comedic Light on Cultural Courting

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CHICAGO – The words “film festival hit” can be synonymous with a good, unconventionally daring film that might even be great. Although the film may not make money or win mainstream attention, it could challenge traditional filmmaking without being constrained to fatigued formulas. That many scrutinizing eyes can see something special that Hollywood suits might nix.

Straightforwardly selling you its soul as “a real-life ‘My Big Fat Greek Wedding,’” the new documentary “Meet the Patels” sucks you in with self-deprecating humor. Ravi Patel’s directorial debut offers full disclosure that it’ll look low-budget. It’ll even break the fourth wall by accidentally showing an overhead mic. Although that’s shot unintentionally and then highlighted in post, unusually it never happens again after the film’s low-expectation setup.

Meet the Patels
Patel family selfie.
Image credit: Four in a Billion Pictures

Indeed, its cinematography does look low-budget, blurry, shaky and certainly not HD, but it’s not trying to be a found-footage film. “Meet the Patels” cares most about its story and one character who evolves it. Ravi teaches you about a culture you may know little or nothing about and the film focuses on him with his sister manning the camera. Audiences are naturally treated to what feels like an improvisational journey into unfamiliar territory.

Though the focus isn’t on his sister, Geeta Patel co-directs the film. The siblings pull it off in a very non-Morgan Spurlock or Michael Moore-esque documentary style that’s now unique to these Patels. They’re trying to be funny and educational, and instead of going for shock and awe, they’re targeting raw honesty. Without the traditional interviews that many documentarians use, the Patels give you a reality-television feel and you feel lucky to be welcomed into their living room. Despite your culture and views on marriage, truth is a universal we can all relate to.

Along with filming and co-directing with him, Geeta also plays the role of interviewer in two-person, animated sequences primarily designed in black and white. The animations show emotions so you feel like you’re getting to know two Ravi Patels: the real-life version and the animated character. Both people are a pleasure to get to know.

Meet the Patels
The animated Patel family in the airport en route to India.
Image credit: Four in a Billion Pictures

What’s odd, though, is it’s clearly not as low-budget as it sets up. Despite its graininess, I don’t know of many low-budget films that can afford sweeping landscape shots that were clearly accomplished from an expensive-to-rent helicopter. Nor would they be able to afford quality animations. In interviewing the Patels, they told me the animations took about 18 months alone to pull off amid on overall 6-year timeframe. “Meet the Patels” gives you the fly-on-the-wall look, but all the while you get the sense that this family has money.

The film raised $69,314 from Kickstarter (exceeding its $60,000 goal) and banked additional money from Chicago-based Tribeca Flashpoint. More important than what it looks like, though, is why this film was made. The best documentaries zero in on something specific that’s hopefully fascinating. Ideally they leave you knowing something new about something you knew little about before. They might make you happy or sad, purely serve as educational or even motivate you to act on something you previously cared nothing about.

“Meet the Patels” focuses on the always hot topic of love, dating and marriage, but in a very culturally specific way. Like many other cultures, India has long been known for its arranged marriages, but even they have changed the way they operate these days. So, the film sheds light on old-fashioned versus modern-day changes. The younger generation is more apt to adapt and the senior folks might see change as giving up their Gujarati Indian ancestry.

Meet the Patels
Dad explains which area of Gujarat he should find a girl.
Image credit: Four in a Billion Pictures

Although the comedy of the subject matter keeps you entertained for 88 minutes, the single question it sets out to answer – who will Ravi Patel end up with? – isn’t successfully suspenseful.

You’re immediately introduced to Ravi’s ex-girlfriend, Audrey. She’s a Caucasian American who he loves but can never even tell his Indian family about after dating for two years. Even though Ravi goes on a dad-financed “dating tour” across the U.S., it’s as if he’s just going through the motions. There’s a clear lack of emotion for anyone but Audrey.

The film does teach us quite a bit about an interesting culture. I already knew about the Indian groom riding up on a white horse, but I never knew how many Patels there are in India and throughout the world. The film compares Patel in India to Smith in America. I also didn’t know about the existence of this funny little piece of paper called a biodata.

It’s literally a “dating resume” that parents, friends and family create for an eligible Indian bachelor or bachelorette. The single man or lady often doesn’t get to approve it and may never even see it. Once created, the biodata gets around – via e-mail, snail mail, fax, you name it – in very “Fiddler on the Roof” and Jewish matchmaking style. Ravi’s mom, Champa – who is a successful matchmaker in her region of India – very much reminds us of the village Jewish matchmaker Yente.

Ravi’s father, Vasant, emerges as the film’s unsuspecting co-star. Short statured, understanding and to the point, Vasant is the wise Yoda figure who lends context to a story that would have otherwise been too narrowly focused. Although Ravi represents new school and Champa is old school, Vasant is the hybrid who wrangles between crossing over and staying with what he knows.

Meet the Patels
Speed dating at the Patel Matrimonial Convention.
Image credit: Four in a Billion Pictures

In its 88 minutes on Indian dating, “Meet the Patels” does leave some gaps wide open. Ravi apparently has lots of time for a family run documentary about him, but is his career as an actor paying his way? Despite the fact that he has 46 acting credits on IMDb, we never get a sense if he’s an aspiring actor or an established one many of us just haven’t heard about.

Ravi, who was born in 1978, also mentions being 29 in the film. He’s now 37, so the film took about six years after starting out as a home video. (Many documentaries take seven years, he says in our interview.) And with all of this talk about the difference between how his India-born parents (who are in a happily arranged marriage for 35 years) think he should court a woman versus how he wants to, Ravi was born in Freeport, Ill.

For those who discover this film, many of us may get to know Ravi for the first time and spend worthwhile time doing so. Thanks to winning Best Documentary at 2014’s Los Angeles Film Festival, Traverse City Film Festival and others like it, you now have the chance to find this otherwise hidden gem.

Though “Meet the Patels” shines a light inside the unique window of this culture, it starts out quite a shame that a man and a woman – who seem to love each other very much – can’t be together because of their disparate cultures. He’s never loved another woman and even admits he doesn’t really know what love is. So, why can’t he just tell his family?

Although you’ll have to watch the film to discover its ending, it does wrap up too quickly and the conclusion leaves itself vulnerable to one unanswered question. Whether the Patels ran out of time or money, it’s sure a shame the film didn’t spend enough time exploring its resolution as it spent setting up its question.

“Meet the Patels” stars Ravi Patel, Geeta Patel, Champa Patel and Vasant Patel from writers and directors Ravi and Geeta Patel. The film is also written by Matthew Hamachek (“Gideon’s Army”) and Billy McMillin (“West of Memphis”). It has a running time of 88 minutes and is rated “PG” for thematic elements, brief suggestive images and incidental smoking. “Meet the Patels” opened in Chicago on Sept. 11, 2015 at the Music Box Theatre. publisher Adam Fendelman


© 2015 Adam Fendelman, LLC

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