“Next to all of you are wooden coffins. My hope is that you will contemplate what you leave behind and what you will take away after this experience.”
These were the last words that actor/documentarian Ravi Patel heard before he climbed into his coffin at South Korea’s death cafe, a profound experience that helps people re-examine their lives.
In his four-episode docuseries with HBO Max, Ravi Patel’s The Pursuit of Happiness, Patel provides an unabashedly honest look of his personal exploration of life’s biggest questions as he travels to Mexico, Japan, South Korea, and Denmark with friends and family.
Cold Tea Collective’s Co-Founder and Executive Producer, Natasha Jung, sat down with Patel to chat about his pursuit of happiness in his latest docuseries.
From therapy discussions to docuseries
“The number one thing that you need to care for in life, before you can care about anything else is your instrument: you,” says Patel.
An advocate of mental health, Patel’s docuseries was conceptualized through conversations he was having in therapy.
“It’s really about my own inner journey,” Patel explains, who admits that he has a “bit of an obsession” with wellness and self-help.
“I love trying to improve my relationships, whether it’s to be a better husband, father, son, or a better friend. To that end, I knew I wanted to travel in each episode with someone in my life.”
Tackling mental health in Indian culture
Growing up in a conservative Indian immigrant family, Patel discusses how difficult it was to talk about mental health.
“The shame,” says Patel, “is exacerbated by just being Indian.”
Culturally, there’s a lack of acknowledgement. The general perception is to “toughen up and ignore it” — something that Patel touches upon when he travels to Japan with his wife Mahaley.
The first year of being a parent was difficult; Patel became a workaholic while Mahaley suffered from postpartum depression. Realizing this, they decided to enter couples therapy.
“Therapy is a board meeting for yourself…it’s a way of checking in,” says Patel. “…I don’t understand why people would not want to spend an hour whether it’s every week, every two weeks, every three weeks… [with] the only purpose of that one hour to improve your own life.
While Patel doesn’t have all the answers, he’s actively navigating his journey of self-growth by learning from different cultural perspectives and applying it to his life.
Throughout the docuseries, Patel reflects on his darkest moments with raw honesty and introspection. He opens up about the struggles he experienced in his marriage, his insecurities about being a father, and tackling his workaholic tendencies.
“In the dark times, you slowly forget who you were before that,” Patel reflects in one episode. “You don’t necessarily love yourself during that time — I started to doubt whether or not I was a good father or a good husband.”
Exploring individuality between American and Indian Culture
During Patel’s travels, he often draws upon American culture as a point of comparison with his traditional Indian upbringing.
The concept of aging within families and the cultural expectations it creates is a topic that Patel explores in the first episode when he travels to Mexico with his parents.
In that particular episode, he explored the tradition of multi-generational homes with a Mexican family. Similar to Indian culture, families are expected to stay together. These cultural expectations are drastically different from the individualism promoted by American culture.
It’s a notion that Patel reflected upon for his own wedding: balancing what he felt was important — namely, that the wedding is about him — while honouring parental expectations of tradition.
“I think our parents kind of got screwed with this American culture and modernity, in the sense that it’s highly individualized.”
As Patel observes, American culture “has over-cultivated the idea that life is only about yourself.”
Despite the arguments that ensued, Patel figured out a way to make it special for everyone involved by compromising. In the end, he asked his parents to plan the entirety of their traditional Indian wedding.
The effectiveness of personal storytelling
What Patel didn’t realize when he entered the film industry was how introspective storytelling can be.
“It brings you closer to people and it can have social impact,” Patel says.
Being genuine and relatable are key ingredients that contributed to its success.
Combined with a typical romantic comedy premise (i.e. Patel’s quest for love at the expense of his nagging parents), the film uncannily portrayed the cultural idiosyncrasies of Patel and his sister’s Indian upbringing.
Their authentic storytelling and unapologetic honesty won the hearts of audiences. In addition to receiving an Emmy nomination in the Outstanding Arts and Culture Documentary, the film also took home Audience Awards at both the Los Angeles Film Festival and the Traverse City Film Festival.
“It’s in those nuances that people really connect to stories,” says Patel.
The ongoing journey to happiness
Throughout his four-episode docuseries, Patel embarks on a global quest to self-reflect on the meaning of happiness. This begs the question: what does the pursuit of happiness look like to him?
For Patel, it’s about “the pursuit itself.”
“There’s not really an end goal,” says Patel. “It’s the joy of trying to make every day better. I distill it down to fulfillment and fun — those are the two pillars I’m always chasing.”
You can now stream the series on HBO MAX.
Featured image provided by HBO MAX from Episode 4: Immigrants and the Border in Denmark
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