As I’ve often observed, sometimes the best movies out are documentaries. Sometimes that’s because the fictional movies that are out are trash, but other times it’s just because the documentaries tell the more compelling stories, have a deeper resonance, or have a humanity that is missing from the slicker Hollywood glitzathons that crowd the summer and winter marquees. Sometimes they’re just plain funnier, too.
But it’s rare to find a documentary that does all of the above: Deal with a serious issue in a serious way that resonates deeply and keeps you laughing the whole time. Meet The Patels is such a rara avis.
It is the story of Ravi Patel and his sister Geeta, who live together in L.A. trying to make their way in showbiz. You’ve probably seen Ravi as “generic Indian Dr. #2” in something or other, and his sister has worked behind the scenes on numerous projects as well. Ravi is nearly 30, however, and he is unmarried.
At the beginning of the film, we learn he has just broken up with his girlfriend of two years because she’s not an Indian. He’s been secretly dating her because he knows his parents wouldn’t approve. And more than just not an Indian, she’s not a Patel. And what we learn is that “Patel” is a very large group of people from a part of Indian, themselves divided and stratified into different levels of Patel, and his ideal mate should come from a particular strata of Patel.
Ravi and his sister are quintessentially American but like many first-generation Americans, their roots exert a strong pull over them. (It reminded me of 2006’s The Namesake in that regard.) Ravi wants his children to have the Patel experiences he had, of going to India, or of travelling in America and meeting other Patels on the road.
In the course of the movie, which takes place in the year 2008, we see him try to let the Patel network—and there is an extensive Patel network in North America, apparently—fix him up through “biodata sheets”. He tries online Indian dating. There’s even a Patel convention, where Patels all over North America congregate for the purpose of matrimony.
But he also misses his ex-girlfriend like crazy.
It’s really a very serious subject, on a number of levels. On one level, immigrants to the New World always want to preserve the Old. (This is generally a lost battle but every new group fights it.) On another level, Ravi and Geeta’s parents were an arranged marriage, of sorts, with women lining up to meet Mr. Patel on a trip from India, and Mrs. Patel (12th in line) being the one who caught his eye.
They’ve been married for 35 years at the time of the movie and are happy. Meanwhile Ravi and Geeta aren’t even married. And the lack of grandchildren seems to be the one thing missing from the elder Patels’ life.
Arranged marriages were unthinkable in my youth, and it still is common practice to mock the grandparent who desperately wants grandchildren—but we are talking about survival of a genetic line, something that’s becoming a more and more serious problem in the developed world. So perhaps it’s not so unusual to see other points-of-view being treated with a bit more respect (see also Learning To Drive).
As American as the Patel children are, there’s a deep respect and humility in the way they approach the topic. They come off as very likable and sympathetic. You want them to be happy; you want their parents to be happy.
But with all the seriousness of the subject, the movie is almost non-stop laughs. The Patel kids are funny. The Patel parents are funny, often unintentionally, as parents are—with their quaint notions of frugality and what is important in life. Things like having a family, or marrying someone with light skin. (This is a big deal in India: Dark skin is grossly unfashionable.)
It’s hard for me to think of a film I enjoyed more this year, and The Boy concurred that it was one of the best. At a breezy 88 minutes, it doesn’t drag on, and there are even some stingers in the credits that are funny (such as Ravi’s chance to turn the camera on Geeta after she comes home from a date).