The original title of “Meet the Patels” was “One in a Billion,” and it referred to the chance that Ravi Patel – the film’s main character, co-writer and co-director – would meet his ideal partner on this vast planet.
It could also have been a reference (with somewhat lower odds) to this unassuming film being released nationally and covering ground most of us have never seen in a documentary. Yet it’s in circulation, it covers that ground with insight and humor, and this story of a guy looking for love in many of the wrong places turns out to be one of the happiest surprises of the movie year.
A better description would be “having love looked for on his behalf.” Vasant and Champa Patel, who live in Charlotte’s Ballantyne area, realized in 2008 that their son was about to turn 30 with no prospect of a bride.
So they took him to Gujarat, the Indian state where most of the Patels in the world come from (not to mention Mohandas Gandhi), to see if a suitable spouse could be found. Geeta, their filmmaker daughter, accompanied them, shooting footage on a lark. She and Ravi realized a story was developing and planned this film, bringing Matthew Hamachek (“Gideon’s Army”) and Billy McMillin (“West of Memphis”) aboard as co-editors and co-writers.
A portrait emerged that’s both specific to its subject and universal in scope, as the best documentaries usually are.
Who among us doesn’t sympathize with parents who want to see children settled – and passing DNA on to grandchildren – or with offspring who want to find soul mates without help? But who among us, outside the Indian community, could imagine the wild search that ensues if your name is Patel?
Ravi attends family gatherings and Indian weddings, goes online to look for prospects and files a comprehensive self-description with the Indian marriage service Biodata.
His parents, products of a successfully arranged marriage themselves, urge him to let them find a bride through a traditional matchmaker. Meanwhile, the Americanized Ravi wants to pursue the awkwardly random path to romance more common in the land where he was born.
He and Geeta casually interview friends and family members in arranged marriages and unarranged marriages and mixed marriages (Indian and non-Indian). They give us insight into Indian preferences, preconceptions and prejudices: Many Indian families want as light-complected a groom or bride as possible for their kids, the way some African-Americans do.
Ravi and Geeta (who remains mostly unseen) love and exasperate their parents, who love and exasperate them in turn. But when Vasant and Champa eventually declare that what they want most for their children is happiness – even if they can’t determine it – they sound like kindly parents of every race, religion and generation since the dawn of time.
Meet the Patels
☆ ☆ ☆ 1/2
Cast: The Patel family (parents Vasant and Champa, children Ravi and Geeta).
Directors: Ravi and Geeta Patel.
Length: 88 minutes.
Rating: PG (thematic elements, brief suggestive images and incidental smoking).