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Wednesday, January 20, 2016

On Actor Ravi Patel's Cross-Cultural Dating Documentary, MEET THE PATELS

After years of watching the the trials and tribulations of white people on both the big and small screens, it's about time we get a chance to hear the romantic perspective of someone else. Aziz Ansari offered a peak into what it means to be an Indian American man navigating the challenging dating jungle in New York City on Master of None. And now Ravi Patel, who often guest starred on Ansari's award-winning show, shares his experiences in the engrossing documentary, MEET THE PATELS.

Awkwardly marketed as a romantic comedy, the non-fiction narrative is more like an exploration of social, cultural and dating nuances specifically seen through the eyes of an almost thirty-year-old Indian-American man (Patel) grappling with the choice between following in his parents' footsteps of a traditional arranged marriage to an Indian woman and his true love for a white American woman named Audrey. Critics of  Master of None and the 2006 drama The Namesake may immediately discard this film as yet another look at a non-white man using his bi-cultural background as an excuse to date a white woman. But it is so much more complex than that. Yes, there is the inception of an interracial romance, but MEET THE PATELS also looks at race as it plays a role in the ritual of dating in India as well the U.S.

For instance, Ravi and his sister Geeta (co-director and co-writer of the film, also single) discuss the "biodata system," essentially a resume written to attract potential suitors. It's the last hope to find someone, anyone, before a certain age. At this point, it becomes a family affair as the parents advertise their eligibility all across India--to the horror of the American-assimilated Ravi and Geeta. You'd think the idea of dating within their own race would be a more comforting concept, because as Ravi himself said "You don't have to explain anything," like family traditions, prejudice, and cultural misrepresentation that often eludes people from other cultures. But it brings to light deep-rooted issues of colorism, ageism, and weight and occupation discrimination within their own culture. As one woman interviewed said, "The lighter [your skin color], the more attractive you are."

The dating scene is an anomaly for both Ravi and Geeta, who were prohibited to date growing up. So once they became adults, the already difficult dating scene (in both the U.S. and India) was even more unattainable. Singles interviewed in the film admitted to not dating anyone at all. "I'm almost 30 years old and I almost feel like I'm bad at [dating]," Ravi said.

While MEET THE PATELS approaches the romantic scene using tonally broad strokes likely to attract a a variety of audiences, its commentary hits all the right notes that people of color will especially find familiar. The scenes featuring the parents are the most intriguing as not only do they provide tension but also a generational and cultural perspective that counters the frustrations of the main characters. When Ravi finally reveals to his parents that he was in a two-year relationship with a white woman, they are both (especially his mother) visibly disappointed. They consider dating a non-Indian woman to be turning his back on his own culture, to which Ravi responds "You're not losing the culture; the culture adapts to the times."

MEET THE PATELS is not perfect (it strangely goes in an out of sketch animation), but it's a film that sparks conversation--as it should. It's not a play-by-numbers romcom with a cookie-cutter ending. Rather, it's not a romcom and the ending is still in development as this is a true life account. It's an authentic look at the sociology of dating that we just don't talk about enough--especially among marginalized cultures. And that's something to champion in and of itself.

Rating: B (*** out of *****)

Watch the trailer:

MEET THE PATELS is currently streaming on Netflix. 


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