In the film industry, there are numerous actors that you see all the time; you may not know them immediately by name, but they manage to leave a lasting impression with everything they do. Ravi Patel has been in the industry since the early 2000s appearing in TV and films including Transformers, Scrubs, Bones, Perception, Super Fun Night and too many more to name. Currently he is starring alongside John Stamos and Josh Peck in the hit FOX comedy Grandfathered, where he is constantly stealing the show! Now, he has shifted his focus to an all-new documentary titled Meet the Patels, directed by himself and his sister Geeta, which follows his search for love and the struggle of family and culture. I had the pleasure to sit down with Ravi to discuss the new documentary and how it came to be.
Bobby: How did Meet the Patels come about?
Ravi: It kind of happened by accident. It was pretty much a home video as you see in the beginning of the movie. I had just gotten out of this relationship with a white girl that I had never told my mom and dad about, and off we go on a family trip to India. My sister had brought with her this brand new camera that she wanted to learn how to use, which I like to say that she never did in the movie. She was going to make a documentary about our family trip and the charity that our mom and dad do there, all in an effort to learn to use this camera.
In the meanwhile, I am on this flight for eighteen hours going through this phase and mom and dad pressuring me to get married. But, they have no idea that I am depressed because of breaking up with this girl that I could never tell them about. By the time we were done with that India trip, we realized that we had something special and we sent it off to ITVS. At the time, we pitched something more like a ‘Michael Moore documentary’ that was more of a funny direction, but then over time, it turned into something way more personal than I would have signed up for.
Honestly it was the most important time in my life. I’m really grateful that we filmed it because not only did I go through what you saw, but because I was making the film with my sister I was able to be a little more intently introspective on it than I might have otherwise.
Bobby: There is a lot of home video footage throughout your life here. Was this just something that was normal in your family, to film a lot through-out your life, which in turn made you luck into having that footage for the film?
Ravi: I actually feel like we didn’t have much footage. There is an entire decade of my life where we didn’t film anything. We basically took everything that my mom and dad could find and combed through it. My dad was pretty good with the camera. Some of the shots we were yelling at him about how good they were. Some of his camera movements were just really cool to watch. Maybe that’s where we got it from.
Bobby: With you already being in the industry and this not originally meant to be a film, are there any moments where your parents are just annoyed with the camera in their face or is it just the norm for them now?
Ravi: They are shockingly not annoyed or effected. A lot of people wondered if they were acting because they were so comfortable in front of the camera. They just have that quality and that is probably the same reason I am an actor. My family is just very fun loving and kind of unaffected by that kind of thing. They don’t care about what people think. The camera didn’t have an effect on them, but the only thing is that all four Patel’s have really strong opinions so every time the camera was on we had four directors.
Bobby: While this film is obviously about your journey in the relationship situation you are in, the film also serves as a sort of history lesson of your culture and how it works for these relationships. Was this by design once you decided to make this film or just kind of happen organically?
Ravi: It’s all rooted in the latter. We as filmmakers ultimately decide on the best way to tell the story. We left in the nuances of my experience and tried really hard not to represent anyone else’s experience and just trust that the more deeply and truthfully we told my story the better it would be for people to relate. However, they chose to relate to it whether they are Indian or not.
That said, we definitely knew that the Indian immigration story (…would connect). We talk about how my dad came to America; we were both very fascinated by these things and they clearly have an organic place in my personal story. Most Indian Americans have the same immigrant story on how their parents got here through the different immigration waves.
There is one (…migration) in the late 60s and early 70s and another about 10-15 years later. And so the one, for example, with my dad came in the late 60s. That was an example of the cream of the crop coming from India to America because you were a student or some kind of professional in the medical field or engineering and that is why everyone was saying Indians were so smart. The ones you know are the kids of the ones that were at the top 1% of their class.
Bobby: There is a moment during one of the car conversations where you tell Geeta to turn the camera off, but she keeps recording. Are there any of those moments like that, where you realized she was still recording, that are difficult for you because you now have to deal with whether or not put it in the film? Or are you glad she did so you had more direction for the story?
Ravi: It’s an interesting conflict as the guy who is in a documentary about his personal life which was not or is something I am excited about. The general instinct was to say “let’s turn the camera off”. But as a director who is pretty cautious about the story that were are trying to communicate, not just a filmmaker trying to make a good movie, but from a social impact perspective, I recognized the need for me to be as truthful and vulnerable as possible. I would say there is a physiological ‘push-pull’ in generally thinking in those moments.
I think my thought was, ‘well Geet and I are directing it so if I can just not get annoyed and just be myself in front of the camera as much as possible; if I really end up hating it at the end of the day, for whatever reason, I can take it out’. I think first and foremost I recognized that in order for the film to be the best version of itself there had to be some integrity of how honest and vulnerable a subject I was on camera.
Bobby: Being someone who is into animation and as an artist myself, I loved the decision to animate a lot of the interview aspects of the film, as it made it stand out as something different. Where did that decision come from?
Ravi: Thanks! It was something that evolved over years. We spent six years making this movie. We wanted to make the movie broad, fun and funny for people that may not usually watch documentaries. Even if you hated watching documentaries you could still watch it and enjoy it.
To do that we had to do a couple of things. We wanted to take the romantic comedy narrative and throw it on top of the traditional documentary. That meant the way we structured the film we tried to structure it like a romantic comedy and throw in those elements so subconsciously there is a nostalgia there like the music, the When Harry Met Sally interviews, clips from romantic comedies and even the pacing and the way it was edited was all meant to invoke a sense that it was a fun family romantic comedy.
The animated part that you love originally was going to be done as a “Woody Allen” kind of thing. We did this big shoot on a big white background where I was hosting a talk show in it and it would go into different stations in the white abyss that was meant to resemble my imagination. Ultimately we are both big fans of radio and big fans of the film American Splendor and we talked about how visual radio can be when a story is told well and I had seen an animated version of a Miss America life story and that was the seed.
What if we did animation? What if we did such a good job telling these little moments that are already kind of visual and then we use the animation to either force people to listen more to the audio or to add another layer to the audio, whether it be a joke or some other visceral element. That is how we ended up with that and we went through five or six animators and ultimately the people that did it were not far from you in Austin.
Bobby: You really should take that aspect into a cartoon series.
Ravi: You know I would if I didn’t already know how much work it was. (laughs)
Bobby: In the film there are also some other recognizable Indian actors and you guys are obviously friends. Were these people that you already knew prior to your career and the film? Or were they friendships that built over time from being in the same auditions or communities?
Ravi: It’s more of the latter. We are all friends and came up together. All of the working Indian actors, we are all friends. There are some famous ones that didn’t even make the final cut, but everyone was really helpful and wanted to be a part of it. Russell Peters and I have the same manager; Sunkrish Bala, he is on Castle; Pej Vahdat from Bones is in there, and a lot more. It was just a bunch of actors from the community that live here in LA and that is just who your friends are.
Bobby: Is there anywhere that fans can reach out to you like a website or anything?
Ravi: You know the concept of people being my fan is very new to me. I’m really flattered and hope the trend continues and I can stay humble and accessible because I would love to interact with them. Right now I think I know all of my fans personally. The best place right now is on my Twitter and Instagram @showmetheravi where people can follow me there. I’m on Grandfathered and also an episode of the Netflix series Master of None.
Bobby: I think you are one of the best parts of Grandfathered and am a big fan. Congrats on your continued success.
Ravi: That means a lot man, thank you so much.
Bobby: I appreciate you taking the time to speak with me sir.
Ravi: Likewise, be well.
Be sure to check out Meet the Patels available on DVD January 26th as well as On Demand, EST, and SVOD available now.
Also be sure to check out Grandfathered on FOX.