When I first watched Meet the Patels only recently, I came to the movie knowing virtually nothing about it. This is partly because I wanted to avoid spoilers, and largely because I’m usually late to the party as a general rule, if I ever get to the party at all. But as it happens, this was the perfect way to encounter this documentary—a “real-life” romantic comedy that, when I wasn’t wiping away a renegade tear that would occasionally spring up completely unbidden, had me laughing so hard I could barely breathe.
Meet the Patels is effortlessly comedic and refreshingly weird in the best way—it initially began as a family vacation video, but over time transformed into a much larger project. Geeta Patel, herself a filmmaker who stays behind the camera for most of the movie, follows her brother Ravi Patel, an almost-thirty-year-old television and film actor, as he travels overseas and across the U.S. trying to find a wife while his parents—who are never too far behind—offer commentary, encourage him, guide him, and roast him by turns as only family members can.
We begin in India, where Ravi and his family have returned to visit their relatives and friends, all of whom are named Patel. We learn that “Patel” is a highly common surname, though not for any familial connections—it simply shows that a family is from a particular region in India. And here is where Mr. and Mrs. Patel swoop into action: Ravi, still recovering from a painful breakup back in the States, decides that he’s got nothing to lose and agrees to let his parents try to set him up, the old-fashioned way. “You know that girl in Eat, Pray, Love?” Ravi asks the audience. “She goes through a break up, goes on the existential journey to India to get over depression, find out what she really wanted in life? I was that girl. Except, my family was with me the entire time.”
It’s a bit reductive, of course, to refer to this documentary as any one particular thing. While Meet the Patels is certainly a romantic comedy in a sense, it does take on a wider view of love than only that iteration of it. It’s as much about romantic love as it is about the love of a family, which can also be as messy, complicated, painful, and rewarding as any relationship. And in his observations of the cryptic and often confusing dating rituals in both the U.S. and India, Ravi opens up the documentary to a thoughtful and fascinating examination of life as a first-generation American—and the harrowing limbo that accompanies belonging to two worlds, but feeling fully at home in neither of them.
That’s where Meet the Patels really kicked me in the gut—it skillfully articulates, without ever saying it outright, that the social and cultural challenges of being a child of immigrants are profound in ways that are often invisible (and even dismissed, at times) by Western eyes. I’m the child of Nigerian immigrants, myself, and in watching this film I became all the more convinced that the only thing that really separated me from Ravi and Geeta were the oceans our families lived by. The anxieties were basically identical, and (in my case) the family dynamics were strikingly similar, and I left the movie thinking over and over: “Well thank God somebody out there gets it.”
But don’t get me wrong—Meet the Patels is for everyone, regardless of age or culture or background. Its core themes are familiar, but are by no means stale here: the old trope of a protagonist embarking on a quest for love is enlivened by this cast of complex, sharp-witted people who are unquestioningly devoted to one another. It’s probably safe to say that many of us are deeply fatigued by what we see on the news each day, and understandably so. And while dark humor will always have its spot, few things can really compete with the relief of giving oneself permission to laugh from a place joy. When you meet the Patels, you actually get to do just that. Why miss out?