It was a long and winding road for sibling filmmakers Geeta Patel and her brother Ravi in the making of their film Meet the Patels — including not just the initial family trip to India, but many air miles racked up to attend matrimonial conventions and basically looking for love in all the wrong places while capturing Ravi’s quest for a partner. The six-year journey to finish the film was worth it, for what ultimately became “home-movie-style filmmaking at its most boisterously entertaining” (Hollywood Reporter). The film makes its television premiere December 26 at 9pm on PBS’s Independent Lens [check local listings].
The film is “the unlikeliest of success stories,” wrote Kenneth Turan in the LA Times. “It’s a documentary that began as a home movie and ended up a warm and funny feature. It turned one man’s culturally specific journey into a lively and engaging universal story made with an unmistakable sense of fun. But Meet the Patels is more than just a hoot. Its candor and empathy allow it to make keen points about love, marriage, family and the unexpected complications that American freedoms can bring to immigrant lives.”
Mom and dad Champa and Vasant Patel steal the show with their good-humor and rib-nudging (and you can get more romantic advice and anecdotes from them in these exclusive videos), but Geeta (almost exclusively behind the camera in the film) and Ravi, an actor and producer, had their lives changed making the film, and certainly much has changed for them since. They checked in with us to give us a few updates on their careers (including a fictionalized feature), and how the making of Meet the Patels brought their family closer.
Why did you first want to make Meet the Patels?
We made this film to explore and document the societal pressures of marriage in our first-generation Indian American family, and because we wished we had a film examining interracial situations like this when we were growing up. We hope audiences will see our story and remember that the greatest relationships take more work than we feel we can bear, and yet they lead to the greatest experiences and love of our lives.
What were some of the biggest challenges you faced in making this film?
Meet the Patels took six years to make! The most challenging part of making this film was to allow the film to find its own voice and keep its authenticity. We tried to pay homage to the classics of the romantic comedy genre like When Harry Met Sally, but we also wanted to allow the film to become a romantic comedy unlike any we’ve ever seen before, as it was also documentary cinema vérité. It was important for us to reference romantic comedies throughout the film, but we were careful so that it didn’t feel contrived. Sherman’s March was a strong influence as funny vérité documentary.
How did making Meet the Patels (and its subsequent release) change your lives and careers?
Geeta: This film really changed our lives. Our love and appreciation for our parents has grown immensely. We understand how hard it must have been — and still would be — to see their culture and tradition fade. We see how much they love us, and how much they are willing to compromise so that we could be happy. We also see how brave and strong they are to try to understand us, and help us achieve our dreams and find love. We are really lucky. We want to be there for our parents, too. I also feel so much more aware of my emotions and actions. And I realize that love is more important than anything else. And that my family will always be there. And that I’m really lucky to have these three crazy people in my life!
Ravi: They know us better now, too. In the end, we all have a much deeper relationship because we are all much more honest with each other. While we often disagree about things, we are mostly respectful of letting everyone be themselves. Everyone in the family is pretty loud and opinionated, so it’s also good when we don’t talk at all.
Other than that, I think, in getting to see our entire family as characters in a movie, we both got a chance to be truly grateful for how lucky we are to have such a wonderful family. What an amazing, once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to do this, and make your family closer. Oh, and mom and dad are famous now. It’s exhausting. It’s insane. I get calls every day from people wanting to cast them in all kinds of things.
Do you have an especially favorite scene?
There was a point in the movie when there was a lot going on and we knew we needed to have a talk, so we thought, why don’t we go have this talk on a boat? One of our favorite documentaries is Ross McElwee’s Sherman’s March, and there’s this beautiful scene at the most pivotal point in the movie when McElwee is sitting on a boat and floating down a river. This same shot gets used again in another movie called Always a Bridesmaid made by McElwee’s protege, Nina Davenport. So we set out to create a scene like that in Meet the Patels, and it turned out to have that same type of resonance as it did in those movies it was inspired by, though it definitely wasn’t as picturesque!
Just a…few things have changed in your lives since the filming stopped. What updates can you share with us?
Geeta: Well… we don’t want to spoil the movie! But if you’re really curious, you might be able to find out some things by doing some snooping around on the internet.
Geeta, you’ve been busy directing for television. What did you learn while shooting a personal film like Meet the Patels that helped you with your approach to filming TV shows?
Geeta: Right before we started to film Meet the Patels, I had just bought this camera thinking, I’m going to learn how to be a good director by learning all the jobs — and one of those jobs is cinematography. So I’m just sitting here messing around with a camera in India and Ravi, mom, and dad and I are driving around a lot, and Ravi had just gone through this awful breakup that mom and dad didn’t know anything about, so he’s talking to me the whole time about it. As he’s going through this during our time in India it’s all on camera because I’m sitting there filming everything. I just kind of filmed Ravi as I filmed mom and dad.
When we came back from India, we showed the footage to PBS. Ravi wanted to make something where it wasn’t about his personal life, it was more about what is happening in our community. Then PBS was like, “One, oh my god this is amazing. And two, the relationship between you and your brother is really strong.”
So then we found ourselves in an intimate documentary, which is not what either of us wanted. But we both thought about it, and even though it is quite a sacrifice and inconvenience to tell the story of your own family, especially being from a private, difficult culture to document, I wanted to make the film that I wish was around when I was going through this. So that feeling overpowered the sacrifice and inconvenience.
At the same time, we didn’t want to go too far with it. The reality television way of doing things would be that the moment someone is about to cry you bring the camera out. We love our parents and so there were times we didn’t feel comfortable doing that. We didn’t want to hurt the family. Very early on we had decided that the family comes before the film. We wrestled with it. Another thing is that we love radio and Ira Glass (and This American Life) is a huge inspiration. We actually met with him. We spent time recreating the story to Ravi’s storytelling and then we added the animation. Our goal was that the animation was not going to be gratuitous or boring. And I think the animation added a whole new dimension to the film. So I learned that putting your own restrictions like that can actually lead to something really great.
I also learned that if you are a director, learn the business side. This is freedom.
Ravi, you’ve had a very diverse career/background, too but had been in front of cameras for awhile before Meet the Patels was released. Did making that film change how you see the acting business? Did it change how others saw you?
Ravi: Yeah. My first role was in Transformers. I didn’t have a head shot. I didn’t know who Michael Bay was. And the only impression I could do was this Indian call-center guy, and so those were the sorts of roles I got cast in. But those roles really catapulted me. Before I had a career, I would have never been in a place to do a film that creates an important dialogue like Meet the Patels. After Meet the Patels, I think people started casting me in more roles because I was funny and not because I could do an accent.
I also got to be a director on Meet the Patels. As an actor, you are one part of telling a larger story. As a director, you get to put the whole thing together, influence every frame. I LOVED that.
Oh, and I learned that being an actor is not the toughest career out there — it’s documentary filmmaking.
Given all that, do you have any advice for aspiring filmmakers?
If you’re on the creative side, learn the business side. Talk to other filmmakers. Read interviews. Ask lots of questions. Learn as much as you can every step of the way, so you can understand the jobs of everyone you work with and when your agent, publicist, lawyers, etc. tell you what to do, you can have a better idea whether or not to act on their advice. Learning the business side is freedom.
After we finished the film, we tested it in front of various audiences to find out what they responded the most to about the film. We discovered that the audience responded best to the comedy aspects and the feel-good tone of the movie, and we studied similar films in the same vein to discover how they marketed and distributed their films to discover how to get our film out there.
Trust your gut. There’s no foolproof way to be successful in making and selling a film. Ultimately, this is your film and your story. Tell the story through your lens, your point of view. There are a ton of “experts” who will tell you how to sell your film, but you are the one who sets the bar for how people look at your film.
Can you tell us anything about the Meet the Patels feature film you’re working on? Is it surreal to fictionalize your own lives?
Ravi: Yes! It’s not going to be a direct remake, it’s just going to be a story based on the documentary. At this point, it might be entirely different. I’m beyond excited to work with Fox Searchlight. We want to do what we did with the documentary, which is just be super loose in how we shoot it, do all these experimental things. All we know for sure is we’re going to cast mom and dad.
Any other projects you’re working on or will be that you would love to share?
Ravi: I’m a founder and co-CEO of This Bar Saves Lives. For every bar sold, we give a packet of life-saving food to a child in need. Our bars are now in all Starbucks in California and we just gave away our millionth packet of life-saving food.
Lastly, any single bit of romantic advice you learned over the time Meet the Patels took place that you’d pass on to single folks? And to parents of single people for that matter?
Geeta: The film is really Ravi’s relationship with his parents. And we embraced that. I think when we talk about love, yes, we’re talking about what love is in the context of being single, but I think we realized that love is: 1) making a choice, and 2) love is trying. That’s the biggest thing that I learned.
I never thought I could be this close to my family in a way far above what I ever imagined. And I think that’s what love is — not stopping. You have to keep trying to get those knots to go away and keep believing. It is such a complicated process — spiritually speaking. That told me what love is. Also, we have learned that for us, sharing values is important, but sharing cultural backgrounds is not.
Ravi: What Geeta said.
Bonus! Ravi and Geeta’s favorite films:
Ravi: The Shawshank Redemption, Top Gun, Good Will Hunting.
Geeta: Bicycle Thief, Pretty Woman, The English Patient.
Listen to WNYC interview, “Patel Meet Patel”: