When Ravi Patel (Master of None, Grandfathered) was almost 30, he did what he thought he’d never do: He asked his parents to help arrange his marriage.
Fresh off a devastating breakup, Patel couldn’t have imagined the whirlwind that lay ahead; that his sister Geeta would document the journey to find a suitable Indian bride, that they would try to frame the story as a romantic comedy, that they’d be rejected from every major festival or that their resultant family documentary, Meet the Patels, would eventually be shown on five screens nationwide and then explode onto more than 100.
On Dec. 26, Meet the Patels, which is already streaming on Netflix, will launch the new season of the PBS show Independent Lens.
This isnt about a mans search for love. This is actually ‘boy meets family.’
“We wanted to make a broad film that could be accessible, and not just accessible but entertaining in a way that it could hopefully reach audiences who didnt care about documentaries or Indians,” Patel says. “‘Its Friday night, I want to watch something thats going to make me laugh, feel, cry a little bit.’ That was our way of saying Okay, if we do this well, then maybe theyll learn something along the way, whether its about themselves or about their family or about people around them who are going through similar things.”
Meet the Patels was shot between seven and nine years ago, and edited around two years after that. The documentary footage is raw, shaky, and often features Geeta’s boom microphone creeping into the frame. The sections where Ravi narrates his relationship views and history were harder to pin down. Conceptually, this evolved from Ravi hosting a Bill Maher-esque talk show to Seinfeld-esque interstitials to drawing and writing in an abstract white space.
“Ultimately I think the big shift in the film… was an epiphany of really loving the footage for what it was,” Patel recalls. Executives and distributors had been vocally against this (“This film looks like shit, you need to make it look less like shit” Patel remembers someone telling him), but Ravi and Geeta realized it could be charming, creating a “visceral connection” between the audience and characters through its home-movie quality.
Beyond that, there was a fundamental shift in the narrative: Meet the Patels was initially plotted as a romantic comedy called One in a Billion.
“We said ‘Hey, what if we took the romantic comedy narrative structure and threw it on top of our film?” Patel says. “And a big epiphany for this film was realizing Oh wait, this isnt actually about boy meets girl. This isnt about a mans search for love. This is actually boy meets family.”
With that, the interstitials became hand-drawn and unfinished-looking to match the style of the footage. When it did make it to festivals, they weren’t winning jury prizes but did take home the audience award at the Los Angeles Film Festival.
This is technically a spoiler, but Patel is now married with a baby girl born in November. He didnt meet his wife through an arranged marriage. In fact, she isnt even Indian. They met at a food expo where Patel was promoting This Bar Saves Lives, which he co-founded with other actors including Kristen Bell. For each bar purchased, the organization donates a life-saving meal packet to a child suffering from severe malnourishment.
“She was there with a friend who was writing an article on us,” Patel recalls of his wife. “And it was pretty close to love at first sight. I mean I proposed to her a year from the day we met.”
“Its ironic, in a sense, that the way I fell in love was so romantic,” he adds.
Even though the goal was always for Meet the Patels to resonate beyond the niche of its subjects, Patel is still staggered by the response.
“Ive had gay couples come up to me and say this is their coming out story, crying,” he says. “I had a girl who was suicidal from this kind of issue and said that our film gave her hope and brought her closer to her parents. Ive had a Syrian guy tell me that hes going through the exact same thing with his family; They argue about marriage and stuff all the time, and they have a system of arrangement that is similar to ours, and that this opened up the dialogue between him and his parents and allowed them to finally empathize with him in a way that he never knew they could.”
To this day, the filmmakers receive thousands of messages via email and Facebook, which Patel appreciates “as a filmmaker and just as a human being.”
And of course, he couldn’t help growing up himself.
“Experiencing what happened during this film it was almost like a grad school for introspection,” Patel says. “I got to see myself in this weird kind of removed, third-party perspective, in a way that I dont think I would have been able to had I not been making this movie. I was able to look at this character, who was me, for his strengths and for his weaknesses, for his flaws. And that helped me in my real life become a better character and to care more about searching for answers.”
Meet the Patels will air on PBS’ Independent Lens Dec. 26 at 9 P.M. EST.