A cartoon drawing from "Meet the Patels." Photo Credit: Meet the. © Four in a Billion Pictures.

A cartoon drawing from “Meet the Patels.” Photo Credit: Meet the. © Four in a Billion Pictures.

Their original concept for the film was to be journalistic, following in the footsteps of Morgan Spurlock, best known for his documentary Super Size Me, but it soon evolved into something very different. “I got hired to be the master of ceremonies at a Jane lawyers’ convention in Los Angeles,” Ravi explains. “I’d done about 10 minutes of comedy, and they asked if I could do more. So I started ripping on how my mom was trying to set me up with all these Indian girls, explaining these matrimonial matchmakers…the audience laughed really hard. But there was another level — a ritual sense of shared tragedy. It doesn’t mean we went to the same war together, but everyone was coming up to me saying, ‘Oh my god! You should write a book about it. Or do a comedy tour.’ They were also sharing stories of their own that I could relate to — both funny and tragic.”

Ravi’s off-handed wit, coupled with self-deprecation, is charming and what ultimately paces the film’s more difficult scenes. It opens with an animated segment of Ravi describing his appearance. His “Gonzo” nose, as he refers to it, is the obstacle to his greatness. And then, as a quirky afterthought, he blandly declares, “My nose was perfect, but my head was too small.”

Animation becomes the palimpsest upon which the Patel family’s angst is written and revised. Difficult scenes between Ravi and his parents — arguments over what marriage means, discussions about familial duty and responsibility, the prescient moment when Ravi divulges his deepest secret — are thin, pencil-drawn caricatures on a “wheatish” colored background. (Ravi’s skin tone is described as “wheatish” on his Biodating résumé.)

It took more than a year of trying out different animators, Geeta discloses. “Everything felt too produced, too polished against our footage. We wanted to make the animation look as raw as our footage.” Enter Jim Richardson and Powerhouse Animation Studios. “We were in the middle of animating a piece, and we said, ‘Wait! Stop right there! Don’t finish! Just leave it undone!’” Geeta’s voice rises with the ecstatic excitement one can only imagine she felt at that moment when they’d finally captured the essence of their form. It took some convincing, but the animation team acquiesced — and has created a brilliant counterpart to Geeta’s raw cinematography.

From the onset, Geeta was not to be part of the project. She had just come off seven years of making a documentary and was burned out. Her camerawork in India is organic and grainy, coaxed with a jagged hand at times. Faded imagery, as if baked in the Indian sun, captures the spirit of foreignness — both for the viewer and for the Indian-American siblings — as we enter family homes, attend a traditional Indian wedding, and walk through the exploding markets. The family videos were to be nothing more than just that.

Fast-forward to a pitch to PBS executives…

“We were showing what they would see [in a Spurlock-esque documentary],” Geeta says with rapid-fire intensity, “but we weren’t going to use [our footage] necessarily. What they saw was the hilarious banter of our family and Ravi and me. And they kept responding to the wrong things. [And we were trying to tell them this wasn’t what we intended.] And they kept saying, ‘No! No! No! [This is it!]’ The next thing you know, six years later, we ended up using all that crappy footage, not hiring another director and cinematographer, and actually just keeping it in the family.”

“A decade-long family field trip,” Ravi quips. And the three of us laugh like old friends.

There’s some shuffling and murmurings in the background. And as if the camera is still rolling, in walk Champa and Vasant.

“I’m going upstairs,” Ravi declares, and I feel as though I’ve suddenly received a two-bit part of a scene not yet edited.

And then there is a bit of silence amongst us — an awkwardness of sorts. Is it because I seem to know so much about their family, and their parents’ entrance made the siblings uncomfortable?

At some point, Geeta interjects, “I wouldn’t say there weren’t moments when we thought: ‘Why are we making this film? It’s so miserable.’ So miserable, in fact, that you don’t want to make it. Don’t want to talk about it. No one wants to see their family in this light.”

I ask if there was ever a moment growing up when they realized that there would be a clash of cultures.

Ravi dives in. “I think the pivotal moment was exactly what you saw in the film — that was the first time I was presented with any degree of crisis: when I realized I love all these parts of my life, and I didn’t want to give up any of them. And to think: am I looking at a future which possibly does that?”

But Ravi is never serious for too long. Much like dating, it doesn’t seem to be in his genetic makeup. His voice shifts into a Jackie Gleason patois sans the Brooklyn accent, as he describes the first time he went to the home of a white friend. “They were wearing shoes inside! It blew my mind! And if we’re going to be honest, I still don’t get it. You are just getting it all over the carpet! What’s the point of having them on inside?”

Geeta is the more contemplative of the two. “I think we both realized that some things were inevitable. And we needed to let life move. Let things happen. At some point, it’s not about us, our kids, or our kids’ kids. Society is going to change. [In one of the scenes] Ravi says it in the car to our mom, ‘Every culture changes with every generation.’ When you tell somebody your own story — to say it out loud and share it with someone — it makes it a lot harder, because it is real. You’re forced to look in the mirror. I think all those moments started adding up, and we both started realizing there is an inevitability to what we fear, so why not stop being afraid?”

The film definitely incorporates elements of the Bildungsroman structure of the 19th century, but it is steeped in 20th century pop culture. For all the authentic family footage and the white space that Geeta achieves in Meet the Patels, there is also a highly stylized element to the film. As co-directors, Ravi and Geeta have successfully merged their differing approaches to life and the documentary into an artistic homage to the romantic comedy.

A not-so-secret fan of romantic comedy myself, I am eager to discuss the lighter side of the film. Anyone who has seen When Harry Met Sally even once (I won’t disclose how many times I’ve partaken of the peppered paprikash), will immediately identify with many references to one of Nora Ephron’s finest romcom gems. In this non-fiction film about a man in search of love, the traditional romantic comedy becomes a vehicle through which the audience can readily identify with the emotional bliss and turmoil of seeking a life-long partner.