Vasant and Champa Patel flew to India in 2008 with their son, Ravi, and their daughter, Geeta. (As always, her video camera went, too.) They dreamed of an ideal Indian bride for Ravi and the prospect of grandchildren.
They returned to Charlotte with no bride and raw footage for a remarkably entertaining documentary about Indian kin and communities. Seven years later, the buzz around “Meet the Patels” suggests the prospect of an Oscar nomination.
The siblings’ project won the audience award at the Los Angeles Film Festival last year, caught fire on the festival circuit and gets a national release Friday. (It plays locally at Stonecrest and Concord Mills.)
But at the time, the co-directors didn’t even know they were making a movie.
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“We started shooting a vacation video that never ended,” says Geeta. “It’s like when you’re having a conversation, and you can’t stop having it because you’re so intrigued. It simply became a film.”
“OK, that’s the short answer,” says her brother. “The long answer is that I didn’t know that we as a family were particularly interesting. You don’t come to appreciate your family as documentary subjects until you have made the film and you’re editing it.
“We were on the 18-hour flight to India, and I had gone through this breakup (with a non-Indian girlfriend) and was getting heat from mom and dad. I didn’t know how I could finish the flight, let alone spend three more weeks with these people.
“I told Geeta about being the emcee at a conference for Indian lawyers, where I asked, ‘Who here is single?’ Everyone raised a hand. These lawyers had all come as another way to meet each other for marriage! I thought, ‘We have the responsibility to tell these stories. We’ll make a Michael Moore-Morgan Spurlock-type film, but not about me. We’ll knock it out in a year.’ ”
He was off by six years and one protagonist. But he was right that “a movie specifically about Patels ended up being universal. People relate to the search for love.”
“Meet the Patels” holds a double love story. It’s about his parents, themselves the happy outcome of an arranged marriage, trying to find Ravi a soul mate. And it’s about the internal love of a frank, uninhibited family that grew closer through disagreements and a quixotic quest. (You’ll have to see the movie to find out how that turned out.)
“We are very open-minded,” says Vasant. “We have no secrets from each other, so we had no reservations about what (footage) they used. We had no problem talking to the camera.”
“We have a problem shutting up,” adds Champa, laughing.
To understand the film, you have to understand the family.
The 22-year-old Vasant went to Michigan from Gujarat, origin spot for the world’s Patels, in 1967. (His village raised money to send him to college.) After graduating, he married Champa in India in 1972, then moved to Illinois. Geeta was born in 1975, Ravi in 1978, and the family moved to Charlotte a few weeks before Hurricane Hugo hit in 1989.
The kids lived out the traditional sibling pattern: elder one responsible and bookish, younger one a freewheeling entertainer. Both went to Myers Park High School, though Geeta left to graduate from N.C. School of Science and Math in Durham.
She went down the street to Duke University to major in comparative area studies and became a documentary filmmaker. Ravi went to UNC Chapel Hill, getting a degree in economics and international studies. He worked briefly as an investment banker and started the poker magazine All In before fulfilling his destiny: to crash on his sister’s floor in L.A. He was still there, taking small film and TV roles, as “Meet the Patels” accidentally got underway.
“When we went into the arts, we were kind of the black sheep of the community,” says Geeta. “We were unmarried; we left Charlotte; we did nontraditional jobs. We were like people who ran off to join the circus. Ravi’s always clowning around, and I’m always shooting stuff. So (our parents) saw this documentary as something that kept us from dating or getting real jobs. They didn’t take it very seriously.
“Imagine their surprise when we told them we’d finished a cut. We were nervous. We put the DVD in – their eyes were completely wide – and went into the kitchen and put our ears against the door. When we walked back in, they had their arms out and said, ‘We love it!’ ”
The parents say making the movie changed them. Champa, who argues through much of the picture that Ravi will be happiest with an Indian bride, accepted that “Life is not all about you. You owe your kids the best things they deserve, rather than the things you think they deserve.”
Says Vasant, “I realized I should give them more credit for being who they are. We should have a little more patience, let them make their own mistakes. They are very good at making their own decisions.”
The film has made celebrities of the couple, who have attended film festivals with their kids and sometimes without them. Vasant has dusted off a screenplay he began long ago, with his offspring offering advice.
Geeta has moved on to “Mouse,” a feature produced by Grant Hill (best known for working with the Wachowskis of “Matrix” fame). Ravi has landed a recurring role on “Grandfathered,” a new Fox network series starring John Stamos.
Yet “Meet the Patels” changed them, too.
Ravi learned to respect his sister: “We realized we couldn’t fire each other (as co-directors), and that became a lesson in working together. Making this movie was like a film school education: We made every kind of mistake you can make in the process.”
Says Geeta, “All four of us felt there were parts of ourselves the rest of the family would not understand. In some way, we had given up on each other. Making this film, we had to walk a step further when we didn’t think we could. We learned how to truly be a family and get over our egos.”