Why you should care
Because sometimes to play against type you have to play to type.
As Ravi Patel reviews the lines at the top of his curriculum vitae — actor, producer, writer, snack-bar entrepreneur — he sums them up in an unlikely, unassuming fashion: “I’m at the cusp of an existential crisis.”
We could say the same of Hollywood these days. It’s been a banner year for conversations in Tinseltown about actors like Patel: Asian-Americans, long underrepresented in both cinema and television, often mocked, and now seeing a rise in prominence in media thanks to comedians like Mindy Kaling and this year’s Netflix star Aziz Ansari. Patel, who appeared on Ansari’s hit Master of None, has come up through the ranks of a changing industry that was not always ready to receive him in full color. Today, the 37-year-old is gaining a higher profile thanks to a successful documentary project, Meet the Patels (2014), about his hunt for an arranged marriage, which pulled in more than $1.5 million at the box office.
Patel’s now trying dramatic roles, including a stint on Grey’s Anatomy. And he’s working on “This Bar Saves Lives,” a non-GMO snack bar that donates its proceeds to feeding children in the developing world. Patel’s next big vision: a journalistic-style comedy show (he’s mum on more details). He’s also writing a feature version of Meet the Patels with his sister, Geeta, hoping to go into production in 2017. Running through Patel’s work, past and future, is a reckoning with identity, and all that goes into playing beyond stereotypes.
Ten years ago, Patel had little room for nuance. While still working in finance, he landed a commercial that provided enough visibility for him to earn a Screen Actors Guild card, the holy grail most budding actors hope to achieve as they wait tables and tend bar. Then came a role as a hapless Indian call center operator in the first installment of Transformers. Patel’s friend, Los Angeles-based actor Sunkrish Bala, recounts the first time Patel took the stage while covering for former Daily Show correspondent Aasif Mandvi to host a South Asian arts night. It was Patel’s first time trying stand-up, but “he had people rolling in their seats.” His bits are familiar; he mimicked a fresh-off-the-boat Indian, but then called out the audience. “You guys have all done the Indian accent, I’m sure. I don’t want to hear it. I’m better at it than you are.”
Patel’s been critiqued for his choice to play stereotypically “Indian” roles.
Transformers would lead Patel to Bones and Hawaii Five-0, and eventually to funding for Meet the Patels, which recounts his own story of searching for an Indian bride with his parents, the eponymous Patels. It became a surprise hit. Journalist and editor Parimal Rohit, who has spent the past eight years covering the Indian-American film scene in Los Angeles, says it worked because “the story dovetailed nicely with what white Americans think of Indians, and it was done in a very comedic way that made it easy to relate to.”
Patel and his sister were raised in North Carolina by hardworking immigrants from the western state of Gujarat. While Geeta expressed an interest in filmmaking during college, her brother majored in economics and international studies (fittingly stable for the son of an engineer). Ravi might never have landed where he is today without his sister. While Patel’s parents weren’t thrilled at the idea of him being an actor versus an investment banker (his first career), he recalls that early success with roles assuaged some of his parents’ concerns.
Patel’s been critiqued — including publicly by Ansari, who didn’t reply to requests for comment — for his choice to play stereotypically “Indian” roles, from that call center employee to the doctor; in Master of None, Patel’s and Ansari’s characters engage in a debate about the pros and cons of such roles. Other actors are quick to decry the accusation: “In order to make inroads into the industry, you have to do roles you might not do otherwise,” says Bala. Another colleague, Raj Sharma, adds: “If you say no, there are 15 other actors who’ll say yes. I remember being at auditions, and some of them saying that this gig was their rent.”
Patel is unapologetic about the roles he takes. “I definitely play to my brand,” he says, “because I know it affects the opportunities I get.” But now he has those long-awaited opportunities, and he’s thinking of larger questions, of the bigger American society.
In one scene in Meet the Patels, very close to the end, Patel’s animated avatar is speaking on-screen, discussing how he lied to his mother about his white American girlfriend. He speaks plainly, simply, without hurt or wound. It’s an impactful moment that is juxtaposed by Patel’s jokester persona, and one that goes beyond stereotypes — it’s just good storytelling.