In a scene from the new documentary "Meet the Patels," Champa Patel tells her son, Ravi, "I will just love whoever you fall in love with. I will be happy with the one you find." She wipes away a tear — the words she has spoken seem to be a revelation even to herself.
It's a particularly tender moment in this mostly comic film about Los Angeles actor and stand-up comic Ravi Patel's search for traditional love in his family's homeland of India. "Meet the Patels" started out as a home video, became a favorite on the festival circuit and is opening in theaters on Friday with strong critical and audience buzz.
Patel, who has appeared in such sitcoms as "The New Normal" and has a regular role in the upcoming Fox comedy "Grandfathered," went to India with his parents and his filmmaker sister Geeta. He had just broken up with his Caucasian girlfriend — a two-year relationship he didn't tell his Indian parents about, fearing their disapproval.
He was heartbroken, confused and felt a need to reconnect with his roots. The family journeyed to Utraj, a village in the state of Gujarat, where his family is from. At the raucous family reunions with the extended Patel clan, the subject inevitably turned to the siblings' singledom: Ravi was 29, and Geeta was 32 — a fact that constituted "an international code red," Ravi said.
His sister filmed these off-the-cuff and candid conversations against a vibrant local landscape, and in intimate detail. She had just completed work on the PBS documentary "Project Kashmir." She wanted to practice her camera skills, and figured making a homespun video documenting her brother's emotional and spiritual journey to India might be a good way to do it.
"When we saw the footage, in this raw style, we decided to do something with it," Geeta said. The footage was sent to her contacts at ITVS, a production arm of PBS that supports independent filmmakers, and received funding to turn it into a feature-length documentary.
Using that trip to India as a jumping-off point, the Patels extended the narrative, which initially centered around Ravi's quest for a parentally approved bride and then unspools into a wider story about family, culture and finding one's way in the world.
Ravi determines that he wants to marry an American-born Patel like him — the last name indicates that they were one time all from the same region of India. The camera follows him as he surveys "biodatas" from prospective brides, goes on dates arranged by his mother and even attends a "Patel Convention" — a gathering of hundreds of single people from his community.
Along the way, brother and sister spend time with their parents at the family home in Charlotte, N.C., having earnest and often riotous chats about compatibility and romance. Geeta's footage is interwoven with animation and vintage movie clips that seamlessly connect the story, which her father, Vasant, describes as "about love, family, culture, disagreeing, but then how to reconcile."
"What was wonderful about this project was the humor throughout," said Lois Vossen, executive producer of Independent Lens, the award-winning showcase for documentary films on PBS. "There is something so relevant about this film — the idea of culture and marriage, who we are, how do we make our parents happy. It was really clear that Geeta was not going to sugarcoat things and that she and her family would participate fully."
That level of participation was evident one recent Sunday morning at Ravi's Venice home, where the family had gathered, serving hot chai and homemade samosas, and good-naturedly poking fun at one another. The parents and children display a singular and genuine warmth; everyone who comes in is embraced and fed. Like many families, they talk over one another; ask one question of them, and a response comes in four different parts, and often includes a reference to some unconnected childhood memory.
What unites them is their refreshing candor about one another.
"Honestly, at that time, we had given up on their careers," said Champa Patel, when asked what her reaction was to the idea behind the film, adding that both children gave up jobs in finance to take their chances in Hollywood. "We were just happy that brother and sister were working together." Her husband is, according to their son, "the alert to Google alert," waking the family up at 6 a.m. to read new online posts about the film.
"He's going through his 'Entourage' phase," said Ravi. "People come to the house, and he's holding up the movie poster and giving them an update." When the film screened at Hot Docs in Toronto last year, the senior Patels were the ones to get a standing ovation. Vasant has even ordered 1,000 lawn signs brandishing the name of the movie.
"It's like the Obama campaign all over again," Ravi said. "Our slogan should be 'Hope and Chai.' "
"We loved the honesty and transparency of the movie," said Stephanie Allain, a writer-producer and director of the Los Angeles Film Festival, which screened the film last year. "It was both an honest look at [Ravi] himself and his culture … and the father was so funny. The movie worked, not just as a documentary but as a narrative.