In this picaresque documentary, the lightly comic musings of a likeable, somewhat nerdy Indian-American actor go surprisingly deep, becoming an honest exploration of how a strong ethnic identity can be both a cradle and a trap, especially when it comes to picking a mate. The movie’s co-director, co-writer, and subject, Ravi Patel is in the market for a wife after dumping his girlfriend of two years. He’s very close to his parents, but he never told them about the girlfriend, certain that they would disapprove of his dating a white American. But at age 29, he’s ready to settle down, so he agrees to enter the Indian marriage market. His parents eagerly create his “biodata” sheet and start setting him up on dates with eligible women—ideally not just Indians or Indian Americans, but fellow Patels. As the film explains with its trademark mixture of simple black-and-white animation and home movie-ish video (awkward framing, a sometimes unintentionally shaky camera, frequent light flares and glare), all Patels come from one small state in India, and traditionally they marry only people from the same region, nearly all of whom are named Patel.
The amateurish look of the footage—which is, as Ravi obligingly explains, due to the fact that it was shot by Ravi’s sister and co-director, Geeta Patel—gives Meet the Patels an intimate, unassuming feel. That tone is echoed in the access the film grants us to Ravi and his parents, and to a series of other couples, some of them friends, but most members of his extended family, who talk with relaxed good humor about their own marriages. Geeta also contributes warmth from off screen, where she validates things Ravi says about their childhood, teases him affectionately, or asks him the kinds of questions only a family member could ask (“Do you have to have your hair be so wet and Guido-ish?” she asks as he slathers on product). That privileged access creates a visceral and sometimes quite moving awareness of the love, understanding, and humor that binds this family together, and of the ethnic traditions that are such an integral part of the Patels’ life that Ravi can’t imagine marrying someone who doesn’t come from the same background.
On the subject of arranged marriage, the film is less edifying, dancing around the question of what works best, arranged marriage or Western-style romance and dating, without ever seriously addressing it. Plenty of long-married people whose marriages were arranged—including Ravi’s parents and all those couples Geeta interviews—testify briefly about how happy they are together, but nobody talks about how they made the transition from strangers to life partners, or why they prefer arranged marriages to dating. But if Meet the Patels is (perhaps intentionally) fuzzy on the subject of how best to find a soul mate, it’s refreshingly blunt about how our ethnic loyalties can blind us to the possibility of love outside the tribe, even when that love is staring us right in the face.