Farihah Zaman is a Brooklyn-based filmmaker, critic and programmer. Her diverse background in the film industry includes working as the Acquisitions Manager at Magnolia Pictures, as the Program Manager of The Flaherty Seminar, and writing for several publications including Huffington Post, AV Club, Reverse Shot and Filmmaker magazine. Remote Area Medical was her first feature film, which was followed by the short Kombit (2014 Sundance Film Festival) and second feature This Time Next Year (2014 Tribeca Film Festival).
From the age of 11, I’ve led a double life, and so, to some extent, has every single first-generation Bangladeshi-American that I know. While cagily hiding things like partying or recreational drug use from parents is a widespread adolescent practice, I’m talking about grown-ass adults who conceal their relationships, sexuality, certain things they eat or drink, or even the way they dress, from their family and/or wider ethnic community. I had a frousin (the friend/cousin portmanteau I use for basically any Bengali under 50, since we are figuratively like family and literally probably related via some yet-to-be-discovered pathway anyhow) whose conservative mother cracked the whip so hard about sleeveless tops, Frousin learned how to change her clothes in the car while pulling out of the driveway and putting cream cheese on a bagel. She is now well into her thirties and I still watch her do this every year while visiting her family for their annual Thanksgiving, which usually involves four turkeys, cranberry chutney and biriyani.
Most descriptions I’ve seen of the documentary Meet the Patels frame it as a movie about arranged marriage, a tale of first-generation values chafing against the constraint of home-country conservatism. The conceit of the film does hang around the expectation of marriage in Indian culture in particular; one of the filmmakers, Ravi V. Patel (the other is his sister, Geeta, who largely stays off camera), caves to his parents’ constant pressure to allow them to find a nice Indian girl for him, after breaking off a two-year relationship with a Caucasian-American woman that he had kept secret from them. On the verge of 30 and not quite on the path he imagined, Ravi agrees to fly all over the country to meet with potential spouses culled through a vast network of Patel family and friends.
However, despite its jokey tone and sometimes clunky editing, Meet the Patels captures something far more complex than just the battle between old and new, and not just because everyone’s family is distinct, an idiosyncratic blend of expectations, guilt, power dynamics, love, and inside jokes (the Patel family seems to be especially full of joie de vivre). It is a really honest meditation on the diaspora experience, which happens to be through the lens of marriage. Ravi doesn’t want to be married just because his parents expect him to, but because he sees how their values have brought them happiness and stability. As the film goes on, we learn that he doesn’t even want an Indian wife in particular because that is what is “right” to the family, but rather because marriages between people of the same background are the successful models that he has grown up with, and because he wants a partner who understands the cultural signifiers that matter to him, even after a lifetime growing up in America. Would his parents initially be upset or disappointed if he made choices in life other than those they think are best for him, and that preserve a culture they painfully left behind? Yes, but not to the extent that Ravi initially believes. Meet the Patels shows that sometimes us first-generation kids make decisions based on what we think our parents want, on what we assume is non-negotiable for them, because we struggle with how to honor traditions that we respect even if they differ from those of our peers, and have so internalized the sacrifice that is made by all immigrants. Sometimes our parents contemplate the lives their children might have led “back home,” and sometimes we feel the loss with them – all that wasn’t but might have been, good or bad – like a phantom limb.
Perhaps so many people focus so much on the exploration of changing Indian marriage customs in Meet the Patels because, in my experience anyway, multi-generation Americans are totally obsessed with marriage and courtship that might be considered “other.” Think of the wide swath of reality television devoted to the subject, most recently Love at First Sight, which brings the custom of arranged marriage to Western shores, with a dash of science. My whole life I felt I had to represent my culture in this regard, explain if my parents had an arranged marriage (only sort of), that just because they didn’t approve of pre-marital sex didn’t mean they were ultra-conservative (they are in the middle range for modern Bengali Muslims), and whether or not they expected me to have an arranged marriage (no). I just come from a culture in which, because there is a history of sight-unseen marriages, the contemporary update still supports a lot of community involvement in finding a partner. As a teenager, I found the whole thing totally embarrassing, but as I grew older and started to really engage (pun intended) with the still mind-blowing idea of building a life with another human, I thought, well, what’s so bad about working up from on-paper factors of education and background, if both parties are consenting to the experiment? Isn’t this the basis for a lot of Western online dating services? I was never exactly looking to bag a spouse (though incidentally, I did), but I think some friends would be surprised to learn that I’ve given a couple of these “Hey, your cousin’s school friend’s mother’s sister-in-law has just the guy for you” dates a whirl, or that I allowed my parents to keep a biodata for me on their desktop computer, ready, I imagined, to be deployed at a moment’s notice. I guess I’ve led a double life where they are concerned too.
I was once told (by my little sister, so this is completely unverified anecdotal evidence, but that is kind of in keeping with the spirit of Meet the Patels and anyhow I trust her because she’s an economist and that is serious) that the South Asian diaspora community of my generation in America had unusually high rates of support for legalizing gay marriage, because so many have had to “come out of the closet” regarding a romantic partner in some sense or another. The pressure to find someone of the “right” gender, nationality, religion and culture is palpable even when not being verbalized. Unlike one’s sexual preference, many of these are choices, yes, but in the moment giving up a way of dressing or living or loving that makes you feel like yourself and is thus intrinsically linked to your identity, because of the potential cost, feels like no choice at all. When I told my parents that my intended partner was a white, atheist divorcé, it took some time for them to accept that because, well, we weren’t a good fit on paper, and having compatible biodata was the best way they knew how to ensure my future happiness. My mom didn’t speak to me for months. Honestly, acknowledging my double life in writing, even vaguely, when I’m not even sure who gives a fraction of a shit anymore, still makes me deeply uncomfortable. It goes against the very nature of leading a double life. All of which highlights how exceptional and rare Meet the Patels is in capturing this moment of realization and acceptance, between Ravi and his parents, but also within himself.