An Indian Adoptee Reclaims His Voice in the Desi Diaspora
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‘Meet the Patels’ Dismissed India’s Complexion Shaming. That’s Unfortunate.

March 5, 2016

Sasmita and I watched the funny and sweet documentary, ‘Meet the Patels.’ But I did have one major issue with the film. It’s mockery of India’s complexion biases.

It’s a heart-warming tale about a 30-year-old Indian guy. His name is Ravi Patel and his quest (really his parents wish, but he acquiesces) to find an Indian wife. The events took place six to eight years ago. But the movie was released in 2015.

Without giving away too much, which I recommend if you are 1) Indian yourself and you want to laugh at the way your family or those you know pick spouses. 2) If you’ve always been curious about the Indian custom of arranged or semi-arranged marriages. Or 3) You’re a Patel because apparently, you all know one another as the film taught me.

It has a few funny scenes. Ravi and Geeta’s parents are hilarious on-screen.

Ravi recently broke up after dating a white girl for two years. His parents never knew the girl existed. The movie follows Ravi and his sister Geeta ( the filmmaker) crisscrossing the country and traveling internationally meeting Indian women.

Ravi lives in California but visits Toronto, New York, Chicago and a host of other places.

At each city, he goes on a couple dates with women he’s either met online or girls who receive his ‘biodata’ form.

A biodata form is a résumé of sorts that Ravi’s parents write about him to ‘market’ Ravi to daughters of friends and connections.

As far as I know, it’s a uniquely South Asian custom, and unimaginable for those who grew up in the West.

They include:

  • Name
  • Age
  • Education
  • Height
  • Caste
  • Skin complexion
  • Languages
  • Religion
  • Profession
  • Parent’s names and their occupations.

Single adult Indians do not make their own bio data forms. Most never see the ones about them. Usually, they are written by their own parents and passed around between families and informally throughout personal networks.

In addition to the biodata, Ravi joined dating sites both non-Indian, like e-Harmony, and exclusively desi like Shaadi.com (Hindi word for wedding), and Indian Matrimony.com

Ravi has a few non-Indian friends remarking on his journey and sharing thoughts about his search throughout the film. In one scene they lunch and discuss how ‘racist’ the bio data forms are. A few talk about how weird they find the question about skin complexion. They question why it’s a part of the process, and wonder why it matters if the two people like one another.

It’s a very Western way of looking at the issue because for Indians it’s a huge deal.

This is a topic that is personal for me and I’ve written about it before. The main reason is Sasmita is darker skinned. She’s suffered her entire life with the stigma and questions of self-worth so many Indian women endure. She’s told me tales about friends with darker skin still unmarried. Unfortunately, their parents were ashamed of their daughter’s skin color and couldn’t find a suitable partner for them.

Sasmita relayed a story to me about her friend who committed suicide because she believed her skin was too dark and unattractive.

That is appalling and heartbreaking.

At one point Ravi takes a comically thick Indian accent and riffs about dark-skinned girls. He talks about why they are least wanted by parents as daughters-in-law.

When this segment of the film began, I was glad the obsession with skin color was discussed. However, my satisfaction turned to disappointment because of the humor and dismissal that Ravi displayed talking about the subject.

Instead, he joins his non-Indian friends in mocking skin complexion’s importance. He begins joking and clearly has no idea how damaging the mindset is.

It is hard to overstate just how pernicious this ‘preference’ is. Indians call it ‘preference’, but it’s actually blatant racism. It’s rampant throughout India and as shown by the film, the diaspora community.

Look at Bollywood’s A-list stars, nary a one will be anything darker than a wheatish complexion. The only movies featuring darker skinned Indian girls or guys are from the Southern states.

Millions of Indian women and to a lesser degree men, spend untold amounts of money buying ‘skin lightening crème’s. These products are essentially skin bleaching agents. Advertisements for these lotions are everywhere. Indian commercials constantly tout their benefits.

In rare instances, a light-skinned actor will speak out against skin lightening cremes. Unfortunately, the majority hawk the products, making no mention of their inherent racist backgrounds and negative health effects.

1 Comment
Gareth m
March 7, 2016 at 2:58 am

Another interesting post. The inherent racism of skin tone preference is prevalent in many communities. I used to go to Jamaica a lot and stayed with friends in Kingston. At the top of JA society the skin tone racism is apparent but rarely mentioned. The two greatest JA politicians Seaga and Bustamente were both from Syrian not African backgrounds. Your post is a good reminder of what difficult and almost Orwellian problem this is. Well done for raising it and criticising the movie.

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