Ravi Patel is an Indian-American actor, writer, director, and hybrid granola bar businessman-activist. In a home video while on a family vacation to India roughly seven years ago, he and his sister Geeta began exploring the unique challenges of simultaneously finding love and pleasing family as first-generation Indian-Americans. Back in the U.S., the home video turned into the full-fledged documentary Meet the Patels, as Geeta followed Ravi through a complex Patel dating system involving a résumé-like biography called a "biodata" that his parents would shuttle around the country in exchange for biodatas of potential female matches. It's a funny, painful, and honest look at the conflict between finding love, and continuing the values and culture your family has held onto for generations.
Ravi also appeared on the recent Netflix show Master of None alongside Aziz Ansari, has a recurring role on Fox's Grandfathered, and is a co-founder of This Bar Saves Lives, which, for every granola bar sold, sends a life-saving packet of food to children all around the world suffering from acute malnutrition. We had a chance to catch him on the way to what sounded like a much-needed three-day "cleansing and meditation" retreat after Thanksgiving to chat about the various projects he's working on.
This interview has been edited and condensed.
A Plus: Clearly you're a busy guy. You've got a lot going on. I figured we'd start with Meet the Patels, if that's OK with you.
Ravi Patel: Yeah, absolutely. By the way, speaking of busy, that's the reason why I'm heading to Palm Springs. I'm going to a cleansing and meditation resort for the weekend.
A+: A cleansing and meditation resort? That sounds delightful.
RP: I'm really excited about it, but it could not be more like L.A., New York, and it could not be more, like, a sign of the times, where we have to put all this money and effort into stillness and happiness.
A+: So what exactly does that mean? How long does this kind of cleansing take?
RP: Well, in my case it takes the three days that I was able to set aside. But like, you basically, you go and all you do is drink juices and you take, I guess, meditation classes and yoga, and then there's some massaging ... yeah, we're really excited.
A+: We're going to come back to that, because I actually have a lot more I want to ask. Anyway, I know Meet the Patels was kind of a long-brewing project and this all happened years ago by now, but if it started as a family vacation video, at what point did you decide with your sister, maybe let's turn this into a documentary?
RP: Yeah, so, as I'm sure you know, it started kind of accidentally as a home video on this family trip to India. And all these things are happening, like, I just broke up, mom and dad are freaking out because I'm almost 30, and Geeta had bought a new camera and wanted to learn how to use it. So what happened was, we're having these intimate conversations, and she was like, "Oh, in an effort to learn how to use this camera, I'm gonna do a documentary on our family trip and focus on the charity work in Dad's village." In the context of that, we would have these conversations about our culture and also about our lives and what was happening right then, and it all led back to us being unmarried, a complete disappointment. On the way back from India I think was when I actually pitched it, when I was like, "You know, this could be a really cool, fun documentary." And I was in a place as an actor where I was just uninspired and looking for something meaningful to do. I found it really appealing to do something that could be a more comedic version of Michael Moore and make this journalistic documentary.
A+: Just maybe not quite as political.
RP: [Laughs] Nope, nowhere near as political. But, you know, I thought that would be really cool and that we'd be really good at that. I definitely have a voice on the topic and think it's an important subject. I'd done a stand-up show when I first started acting about 10 years ago or so, and I was talking about all this stuff, the pressures of marriage [in Indian culture], and I killed it in a way that I've never killed before. There's 500 Indians in the room and a lot of them came up to me afterwards really grateful that I talked about it and shared their stories with me. Some were funny, some were really sad, so that was kind of the seed of me thinking this was really important. I remember pitching the name like, "Yeah we can call it 'One in a Billion,' and it's about the sheer statistical improbability of finding this perfect Indian girl."
We wanted to take the romantic comedy narrative and kind of lay it on top of this documentary, doing that in two ways. One in the stylistic elements, hopefully create a sort of subconscious nostalgia whether it's through the When Harry Met Sally-style interviews, or, well, we basically ripped off every romantic comedy we've ever loved. Wes Anderson, Arrested Development, there's Seinfeld stuff, there's Woody Allen stuff, This American Life, American Splendor, Notting Hill, Dirty Dancing ... anyway, the second part was putting the romantic comedy structure beat for beat into the documentary. We figured out, like four or five years into the making of this movie, that while it was funny and made a lot of sense, there was something about it that was off. Then we had this epiphany that in a romantic comedy, boy meets girl, and in this movie, the girl wasn't a girl, but it was my mom and dad. So we made a shift in structure and realized it's really about family.
A+: I wanted to call out a scene early in the movie that struck me. You're in India in the car with your family and your aunt says she wouldn't come to your house if you married "a white American girl." It's played for laughs, but how much truth was there to that statement and how did that kind of cultural divide affect you at the time?
RP: There's not truth to that statement. There's disapproval, but everyone in my family is really loving, and at the end of the day, they would all love me no matter what. That was never something that I genuinely feared. I didn't think anyone would, you know, disown me. That was her being an opinionated aunt, that's kind of how everyone in my family talks. But it still communicated a disapproval and that's kind of what we've always grown up with. It really reiterated in myself that, OK, I grew up really close to my family, Patel families are very tight-knit and involved, and I wanted to continue that. I asked myself, how badly do I want my future to be like my past? And if so, how much does a decision to bring someone in different from the past affect my ability to recreate what I want? What I've learned since then is that it's not really all about that stuff. It's more about the character and the kind of person you bring in — how committed they are to you and loving you and your family.
A+: Do you think your parents were aware of the inevitable depreciation or evolution that their culture would undergo when they immigrated to America?
RP: I think they were aware, sure, but I'm not sure they ever accepted it. The way I've described it recently, specifically when it comes to marriage, is that in my culture it's not about the dream a girl grows up having for herself as much as it is a dream that a mom ends up having for her daughter. Marriage is not just about two people coming together. In our culture it's about two families coming together. So specifically with my mom, she grew up with this dream, and it's almost like when you're a kid and you want this very specific Christmas present. You lobby for it from the month of June to October, and by the time November rolls around you think you've got the thing locked in. You're really confident. You put in the work, you know what you want, and it's been communicated back that this is plausible. Then Christmas Day comes around and you open the gift, and it's not what you wanted. That gift might be better than what you asked for, but there's still that initial shock that can last a day or a week because it's simply not what you anticipated and have been holding in your head for so long. Even knowing that they'd get over it and be happy with the other gift, I think this is kind of what it was like for mom and dad.
It was always about that conflict and how hard it would be to get through with them. I was scared of that. My gay friend would say it was like that when he came out of the closet. He said, "I knew I was gay for a long time, I knew I would have to tell my family, but it took me a while to build up the courage to do it because I knew how hard it would be."
A+: Do you see yourself as somewhat of a pivotal figure in your family? Have you ever thought what it would have been like if you were earlier down the line and back in India or later down the line and fourth, fifth, sixth-generation American?
RP: There's a moment in the movie where my dad talks about how natural this is, that cultures evolve over time, and I think assimilation, evolution, these are inevitable human qualities. I think it was going to happen one way or another. My sister and I are the first to kind of break away, and the rest of our family is pretty conservative and traditional. We're neither atypical Indians nor atypical Americans nor atypical Indian-Americans. We're just the first in our family to deal with what seemingly every other person here is doing, which is making broader choices.
A+: You and your sister debated this in the film a bit — what the challenges were for her, too, in terms of love and marriage and dating. What do you think Meet the Patels would have been like if you and Geeta had switched roles? Do you think it is actually more difficult for Indian-American women to find love in this context or is it easier?
RP: I would have loved to switch roles. I don't know if I would have had the work ethic to hold up a camera that often, but it certainly would have been a lot less invasive for me, which would have been nice. I think arguably it would have been a better story because I think it's harder when you're older and it's harder in our culture specifically if you're female, and Geeta's both of those things. There's a point in the movie where she says she's been on over 200 first dates. That's a pretty ... that's kind of crazy.
A+: Yeah. It's insane.
RP: Yeah, so I think, I'm not sure it would have been as funny, but it would have potentially been even more poignant.
A+: I read in another interview you did for Splitsider that you [and Geeta] are actually writing a new project based on Meet the Patels. What did you learn through the process of making the documentary that'll inform what you guys are doing for this new movie?
RP: I'm not sure there's a list of things I learned. Physically, it occupied a huge chunk of my life. I started making that movie like seven-and-a-half years ago. We spent a very long time making it, and so not only did I change a lot as a person during that time, but it was also like my film school. I learned how to edit, I learned how to write and direct a movie. I read every book on story and character development. I watched hundreds of docs and films to develop a palate and instincts, and over that course of time as an actor, I came along quite a bit.
So I think all of that is going into this film that we just started writing last week and what we know is that we want it to be just as fun as the documentary. We want it to be as creative and open-minded about the stylistic techniques we infuse into it. We just want to be super creative in the storytelling and like the documentary, we want it all to be rooted in a real, emotionally intellectual dialogue. We want the characters to be really grounded, and we want people to come out of the movie laughing, and we also want them to cry at some point, and feel. We want them to be thinking. It's scary, I personally have never written a movie, but I'm super stoked and [Fox] Searchlight is kind of a dream destination to make a movie. They're the one place I've always wanted to do something.
A+: OK, just one more question about Meet the Patels. What you think has been more exaggerated in the past: the information on your biodata or on your résumé?
RP: [Laughs] What's been more exaggerated in the past? Oh, shit dude.
A+: Or is there even any difference?
RP: No, I would say it's my résumé. Because there was a point after college where I would just make up everything on my résumé to get jobs. And forget exaggerating, there were things that just didn't exist. I was an investment banker after college — I lied my way into that job. Then I got laid off and spent a year off doing random stuff, and anytime I wanted to get a job, I would get it by just lying altogether. I was really a corrupt young mind. I changed my transcript, too. I can't get arrested for that now, can I?
A+: Eh, I think you're in the clear. It's been like a decade. You're good.
RP: For what it's worth, I think I'm doing really good with it.
A+: Right, yeah. That's awesome. So switching over to This Bar Saves Lives. It's really all in the name. Can you talk a little about how the company came about and what its mission means to you?
RP: So my two buddies, Ryan and Todd, also actors, they were in Liberia and witnessed mothers with their starving children firsthand. They learned about severe acute malnutrition, how a child dies from it in the world every 10 seconds. That's 20 million kids under the age of 6 every year. And they also learned firsthand about this incredible, revolutionary solution that exists called Plumpy'Nut that's prescribed to kids with malnutrition who are days away from dying. It takes just this packet for eight to 10 weeks and they're healthy. [Ryan and Todd] were really affected, as anyone would be, and they came back from that trip and were like, "Well we gotta do something about this." They thought to use their entertainment connections to raise money, but they wanted to do something substantial and sustainable. So one day Ryan sends Todd an email — and I've seen it — and the subject heading says, "Just a little idea to save the world." And in the body it just says, "Call me."
Ryan just had this idea that why not create something that addresses the malnutrition crisis abroad while moderately addressing the nutrition prices domestically. The problem we have here is not that people are starving, it's that people are eating the wrong food. People are dying of obesity, and these all these other diseases, which partially come out of snacking poorly. It's a real one-for-one. Not just because for every bar you buy we donate a life-saving meal packet, but also in terms of the ideals themselves.
A+: So what would you say is the ultimate goal? Are there other causes in the world you guys hope to be fighting for on an even wider scale as you grow?
RP: We didn't start this company because we wanted to start something. We're all pretty successful actors and I can tell you none of us wanted to become granola bar moguls. It's exhausting, it's the toughest thing I've ever done. But the reason why we did it is genuinely because we thought we could start something that really matters and impacts lives. There's over 5,000 kids right now that are alive because we started this company. That's pretty damn motivating.
I think our goal is just to have this thing continue to grow, to save more and more lives. Ideally it would be great from a business perspective that we grow to a point where the company is more stable. There's a lot of big things and exciting things that are happening. We launched a kid line at Target called This Kid Saves Lives, we just came out with a fourth flavor. In the long run, we want to help address hunger and we want to address other things, but for us it's always going to be about what we can do to make the most impact. It's always going to be about impact as opposed to granola bars. We want to hang our hat on the fact that we started this company because we wanted to do good.
A+: So we've got This Bar Saves Lives, Meet the Patels, Master of None, Grandfathered, guest spots on various shows, what else is going on? Are you busy enough yet?
RP: Honestly man, where I'm headed right now, me going to this resort, is kind of indicative of the next step for me. Look, I'm really grateful that I have all these great things happening in my life, work wise, but I just got married — spoiler alert, I won't say to who — but I want to have a family, I want to have more relax time, and I want to seek more stillness. Get less output and a little more input.
Cover image: www.meetthepatels.com