“Meet the Patels” opens Friday at Sundance Cinemas. PG, 1:28, three stars out of four.
To modern sensibilities, the idea of an arranged marriage seems arcane, arbitrary, if not downright silly. After all, the modern single person chooses to find a partner in a more modern and scientific way — say, by putting their picture on a stranger’s phone and hoping they swipe left.
In the documentary “Meet the Patels,” a first-generation Indian-American man unlucky in love flirts with the idea of handing the reins of his romantic life over to his doting parents, the way it’s done back in India. Rather than taking a firm position for or against arranged marriages, “Meet the Patels” is a big-hearted, poignant and truly funny documentary that shows people will try anything to find love — and sometimes “anything” works.
Ravi Patel is the man, a Los Angeles actor who has just broken up with his girlfriend of two years because of his inability to commit. His ex-girlfriend is white, and Ravi has never told his parents, mom Champ and dad Vasant, of her existence. They’d like him to settle down and marry a nice Indian woman, or a nice Indian-American woman. And not just any Indian woman, but a fellow Patel — turns out the caste is huge extended family extending across the United States. As Ravi puts it, “If I come to a town and I have to pay for dinner, it’s because I didn’t make the proper phone calls first.”
So, with his sister Geeta manning a camera (the siblings are listed as co-directors), Ravi dives into the world of arranged marriages, 21st-century style, as Champ and Vasant conspire with other parents to get their children matched up. It’s a sophisticated process that includes the use of “biodata” — basically romantic resumes that include everything from physical characteristics to educational background to what shade of brown you are. Armed with information on a few prospects, Ravi heads out on a cross-country dating spree to find The One.
Imagine your sister following you around with a camera as you go on a series of first dates, and you’ll get a sense of how uncomfortable the process is for Ravi (and entertaining for the audience). The title “Meet the Patels” isn’t just a playful riff on “Meet the Fockers” or whatever; you really do get the sense that you’ve met this family, hung out with them as they gently tease each other and support each other.
Early on I was a little concerned the film would have the depth of a reality show, and Ravi’s exploits are somewhat episodic, such as when he goes to a “Patel convention” of other Patel singles for a weekend of speed dating. But the film goes deeper than that, and Ravi’s search for a partner also mirrors a search for identity, as he weighs whether the traditional Indian or contemporary American path to love is right for him.
Geeta Patel keeps things lively, including some hand-drawn animated sequences, and the affection that the family members have for each other is infectious. Champa and Vasant may be old-world traditional Indians who hover over their children’s every romantic move, but in the end, it’s obvious they just want what’s best for their kids. Having met the Patels, it’s hard to leave them when the movie is over.