After breaking up with his American girlfriend, Audrey (who his parents know nothing about), Ravi Patel goes on a trip to India with his family, and decides to allow his parents to arrange his marriage. It sounds like a simple enough concept, but the documentary Meet the Patels shows us that nothing about marriage is ever simple.
This is a story, on one level, about the challenges of the children of immigrants as they try to bridge what is for them two competing cultures, both of which they belong to, both of which are important to them, both of which define who they are. The film highlights the contrasting views of the immigrant family and their children – for the Patel parents, the system by which they got married is still viewed as the more appropriate one for their culture, to ensure that their children end up with spouses who will be compatible with the *whole* -- and by whole, read extended – family. And there is a point to this notion, as Ravi contemplates during those moments he spends with his extended family. He sees the love and the care and the joy that they experience together, and on some level, he knows he wants this.
Perhaps he’s vulnerable because of the breakup with Audrey, but Ravi realizes that these things are important to him, too, and he decides to allow his parents to set the arrangement of his marriage in process. He has rules, though – he definitely wants the girl to be American born, like he is, thinking that in this way, she’ll share some of *his* values, too, and will understand both his love and need for his Indian family and culture, but will also fit in with his American side, with a range of friends of different ethnicities and experiences.
The film serves as an excellent explanation and analysis for those non-Indians who might not be familiar with the process of arranged marriages. It also serves to outline the frustration both of Ravi and his parents: Ravi, for going through this process, and not really finding anyone who could be “The One”, and then finding himself moving to reconnect with Audrey; his parents, because they see their children getting older, and other people’s children getting married and having children, and this is precisely what they want. And they feel that Ravi really isn’t invested in the process – a feeling that only ends up confirmed when Ravi finally confesses to them that he’d had the relationship with Audrey -- his mother, in particular, ends up feeling betrayed, not so much (she says) by the idea that he was seeing someone outside his culture, but more because she sees this omission on the part of Ravi as a lie, and she hates the thought that he could lie to her.
Meet the Patels reveals the Patel parents to be smart, loving, funny, and definitely a product of their culture, which they safeguard, and they still contribute to life back in their hometown in India, through a charitable foundation they run. So it’s important for them that their children have this kind of experience of family, one which involves placing importance on the value of that culture, and the value of family, in a way that they don’t see in American society, perhaps.
The film ties Ravi’s narration of the story to the footage shot by Geeta Patel (Ravi’s sister, and a writer/director in her own right) through the use of animation – the animated portions are just the storyboards for the animation, which they liked the rough finish of, and which suit the “home video” feel of the film – a quality that came about because, essentially, it was Geeta trying to learn to use a camera, and it shows -- but the film owns this, and it becomes just another of the film’s charms, and serves to emphasize the notion of the film being about family in the broader sense, and not just about this Indian family – we all know family vacations like these, and can relate to them, and that helps us relate to the things that are perhaps not as familiar and which are more culturally specific.
Ultimately, though, Meet the Patels reveals some broader truths about the nature of family, and the relationships we build both within and outside our families. Parents want their children to be happy. Children want to make their parents happy. How that happens, though, is often messy and complicated – and the happy endings we’re seeking are often not the ones we originally had in mind. And, as Ravi’s story reveals, sometimes we just have to let go and let our stories take us where they want to.