It’s a well known piece of wisdom in today’s America that young people, especially men, have a congenital inability to commit. We are reminded of it in countless movies whose basic plot line centers around his need to find himself before he can settle down either with a romantic partner or with a fulfilling career choice. Part of any “coming of age” story is to identify what’s real and important to the protagonist, which may not be quite the same as what his parents and family had in mind. Every once in a while filmmakers give us the female version of this story (this year’s hit entry in that category is Diary of a Teenage Girl).
What started out as a little Patel family project by sister Geeta, behind the camera documenting her 29-year-old brother Ravi’s year-long quest to find the perfect wife (preferably also a Patel – the huge extended Patel family originates from the state of Gujarat in India), has turned into Meet the Patels, a major motion picture release riffing off of other similar tales of disconnect between children and parents (Meet the Fockers comes to mind). There is also an endless brood of My Big Fat[insert ethnicity here] Wedding pictures that explore similar territory.
Even at only 88 minutes, it feels like there’s too much of everything: driving around in cars, traveling to cities across the North American continent, and back to the Indian source, to meet available partners who are listed in widely distributed books of biodata, Patel family gatherings full of gossip and matchmaker advice, exuberant Indian parties, scenes of close-knit Indian family life, effusive Indian hospitality even from total strangers (but who share the name Patel!), Patel family matrimonial conventions with all the stupid “icebreakers” that make such speed-dating events so obnoxious in any community.
What takes up so much time could have been cut back while other questions could have been introduced. Parents lament how hard it is on them when it seems like their kids don’t even want to get married, and many these days are still living at home. But the deeper social issues for these phenomena go unexplored. What are prospects for marriage, family life and raising children today when for so many young people the future looks so unpromising? Even those with college degrees are looking at unpaid “internships,” precarious temporary work, maybe flipping burgers at minimum wage, fast disappearing job security, no pensions, heavy student debt, outrageous rents, and doubts about the political survival of Social Security and Medicare. With such prospects of insecurity about the future, it’s understandable why “commitment” may well be a rare-to-find commodity today (and I do mean “commodity” in its Marxian sense of something that has inherent value and can be exchanged for money).
In Ravi’s case, his class position would seem to insulate him somewhat from these challenges, as his immigrant parents came to America in their twenties and made out well, now inhabiting a million-dollar home and funding a charity back home. They gladly pay for all of Ravi’s trips so he can find a wife. But what is the story with all his friends and contemporaries who fill out the cast? Are they all so immune to the issues young people face today? Is romance truly the only thing they think about?
It’s not even so true that Ravi lacks commitment, but that his commitment is divided: He is the servant of two masters, the American identity into which he was born and his traditional Indian family loyalty. This is, of course, an old story in America, which needs retelling in each generation and within each ethnic enclave. He has to find his path toward being honest to both parts of himself. Sort of like what they tell us in yoga: “Find the effort and the ease in the pose.”
Barely touching on the issue of class, Meet the Patels strikes a single thematic note almost ad absurdam. Its unidirectional drive, without subplots or the twists and turns of a good story, makes it too predictable, although viewers will certainly laugh and enjoy themselves along the way and respond warmly to the strong but good-natured characters in Ravi’s family, who are ultimately far more open to adaptation than he suspects. The film feels like a writer’s first novel, overly autobiographical, something he needed to get out of his system before moving on to more serious work.
Viewers will enjoy the soundtrack, which is an appropriate combination of American popular and Indo-American beat music (think Bollywood disco), and little traditional Indian music. The animation, used to relate the back story to what Geeta is filming in real-time, is cute and clever (again, like Diary of a Teenage Girl), but there is a lot of it.
Meet the Patels
Directed by Ravi Patel and Geeta Patel, starring Ravi Patel
PG, 2015, 88 minutes