Ravi Patel distinctly remembers the day on the flight to India. But the drama that unfolded onboard had its roots in the past.
Los Angeles-based Patel, an investment banker-turned-actor and standup, was then 30, probably 31, and tired of his parents hunting for an Indian bride, although they were first generation American-Indians, having made the USA their home for over 30 years.
Vasant and Champa Patel
His parents, Champa and Vasant Patel, were, actually, desperate.
Inspired by vintage Bollywood happy-life blockbusters, like the 1977 Rajshri film, Dulhan Wahi Joh Piya Man Bhaye, they wanted a bride home. Sometimes, they would leave colour or black and white photographs of suitable girls on Patel’s bed or stick them across his study with Post-its that read, ‘Select Fast’, awaiting an answer. Patel would ignore them all.
Ravi as a participant at the Patel Matrimonial Convention
Finally, on the flight, when the family was returning to their village of Utraj in Gujarat, his parents pinned Patel down, demanding an immediate answer. Virtually exasperated, he agreed.
“The hunt started. My parents were over the moon, although I had not uttered the three letter word (Yes),” says Patel in a telephonic interview.
Witnessing the “real life drama” in the aircraft was Patel’s sister, Geeta, an aspiring filmmaker. When attempts make the parents see reason failed, she picked up her digicam and started filming. The story of a couple coercing their son into marrying just after he had split with his white girlfriend of two years was one she hoped to share with their Indian relatives.
Geeta, a filmmaker, decided she’d shoot Ravi’s arranged marriage journey.
“I laughed at her attempt. She was filming a family vacation video with our relatives arguing why it was important that I got married,” says Patel.
She went ahead and shared the footage with Public Broadcasting Service’s (PBS) arm that makes indie films for distribution to local PBS stations. Offered funding, it turned into a feature-length documentary about arranged marriage and culture-clashes across generations, called Meet the Patels.
The initial camerawork, expectedly, was shaky, but the brother-sister team didn’t feel the need to reshoot. They only shot the animated scenes of arguments and counter-arguments at their family home in Charlette, and across outdoor locations.
“We wanted to make it real, retain the flavour we had captured. Everything was very, very real,” Patel says. Interestingly, all characters, who are obviously non-actors, are far from camera conscious. “They may have looked into the camera once, but then they went back to arguing and reasoning with me,” he laughs.
The film was screened at Hot Docs, Toronto, last year and won the Audience Award at the 2014 Los Angeles Film Festival. Last week, it opened in New York City, Chicago and Los Angeles. Boston, Tampa, Detroit, Washington DC, Boston, New Jersey, Philadelphia and North Carolina saw it on September 18. Patel modestly says the response has been “decent” about the festival favourite.
The Indian diaspora across America and Canada have naturally connected to a reflection of their own lives, including what Patel says is a peculiar form of “bio-data dating”.
Despite its laugh-out loud quality, the film, Patel and his sister ensured, protected their parents’ respectability. “Arranged marriages or semi-arranged marriages are considered a joke in the West, but our parents were merely following a tradition. They were living by the belief that parents know what is best for their children. Breathing down our neck because we are single is their profound duty, they think,” says Patel.
The recognition, of course, has come after toil. Patel says he and Geeta filmed over six years and then realised there were no takers.
“But we kept at it, requesting distributors — several of them Indians — to take a serious look at it. Eventually, it worked,” he says.
Motel owners across the US, many of them Patels, put up posters to help garner buzz, thanks to Vasant’s painstaking marketing.
And why hasn’t it struck a chord with the Patels of India? “It’s probably because it is not Bollywood, it is about an Indian home minus glitz, without a hero and heroine.”
Probably, it’s because the Indian Patels have mutiny on their mind.