Nothing about Dev Patel is usual. He might be adored by millions, but he lived with his parents in a London suburb until just recently. His then lanky frame might have suggested otherwise, but he holds a black belt in taekwondo (he has competed in the World Championships). With his over-sized ears (“I was called ‘World Cup’ because my ears looked like the handles of the world cup”), he’s not exactly one of Hollywood’s best-looking actors.
But eight years after you first saw him in Slumdog Millionaire (2008), he is not the Dev Patel you remember. He has a beard for one, with tousled black curly hair, and looks broader. And he is no longer the 18-year-old who communicated largely via gushing superlatives (“Brilliant!” “Amazing!”).
Patel is now a charming 26-year-old, comfortable in his own skin, confident in his opinions, but still reluctant to consider himself a star. “My self-esteem is way too low to call myself a star yet. That’s a really big word which comes with a lot of baggage. You have to earn it.” He detests being called a celebrity too. “It feels like a celebrity is famous just for being famous, and I don’t like the sound of that. The idea of being labelled a good actor is more appealing to me than being a celebrity.”
Patel is playing Srinivasa Ramanujan Iyengar, the 19th century maths wizard, in The Man Who Knew Infinity. In 1913, Ramanujan, self-taught, but unemployed, wrote to mathematician GH Hardy (played by seasoned English actor Jeremy Irons), a lecturer at Trinity College, to have his work published. The movie traces Ramanujan’s five-year stay in Cambridge – battling racism, hardships resulting from World War I, as well as a bout of tuberculosis.
Patel always wanted to act, but it felt like an “unattainable distant dream.” A day before his science exam, Patel’s mother dragged him to a television audition: “She found an advertisement in the newspaper, tore it out and told me: ‘Son, I have to take you to this, I have this feeling...’ I thought she had gone insane! But it must have been some maternal sixth sense,” because the audition won him a part in his first television show, Skins, a British teen drama, in which he bagged the role of Anwar Kharral, the crude British Muslim kid indulging in drugs, booze and sex. Patel was 16.
Skins (2007) grabbed headlines for its depiction of teenagers obsessed with drugs and sex. “I didn’t really understand why on Earth I agreed on doing it. It was quite a raunchy show that none of us were prepared for,” says Patel as he remembers watching the first episode with his family on a Friday night.
At that time, he was still a pupil at Whitmore High School, Harrow, a suburb in north-west London. In an interview in The Guardian, UK, Patel mentioned that his teachers didn’t approve of Skins and that he eventually dropped out of school because of the hostility. “The reason I got into drama in the first place was because I was funny, and that was a way to not get beaten up and keep your head above the pack. But there was a lot of aggression from some kids who didn’t like that I was playing a Muslim kid, despite not being one.”
But he has no regrets for not having completed his education. “I don’t believe in preparing for Plan B and prefer focusing on Plan A. I had found what I had been looking for – I just wanted to immerse myself into that.”
He might have followed many of the cast of Skins into obscurity had it not been for celebrated director Danny Boyle’s teenage daughter Caitlin. Boyle had considered hundreds of teenage Indian actors for the lead role of Jamal Malik in Slumdog Millionaire. But they were either too good-looking or too muscular. What Boyle wanted was “a guy who didn’t look like a potential hero; I wanted him to earn that in the film,” he said in a 2008 interview with The Telegraph, UK. Boyle’s daughter, a fan of Skins, mentioned he might like to take a look at Patel. And that was that.
Slumdog Millionaire (2008) is the story of Jamal, a slum child who becomes a national hero after he manages to win India’s Who Wants to be a Millionaire?, but is arrested on suspicion of cheating because who can expect and accept that a boy from the slums is capable of winning the competition legitimately?
It went from being a small-budget film to challenging big Hollywood productions such as The Curious Case of Benjamin Button and Milk for the title of Best Picture. It was a sleeper hit: it was nominated for ten Academy Awards in 2009 and ended up winning eight, including Best Picture and Best Director. It won seven BAFTA Awards, including Best Film, and four Golden Globes.
At 18, Patel became an overnight sensation. “We used to travel in the train in London. I was on the front page of the free paper available on every chair in the Tube and I remember the moment when people turned and noticed that the person on the front page was sitting in that cabin,” he recalls.
There was part of him that didn’t feel worthy of the fame he told movie critic Rajeev Masand in a 2015 interview. “It was my first film, and you are just testing the waters. When you are walking the carpet next to great actors like Dustin Hoffman and Will Smith, part of you has to just sit there and be swept away along this wave, but part of you is like, ‘I don’t really deserve this!’”
Patel fondly remembers the times he would walk into screenings for Slumdog... to see people standing, clapping and crying. Patel thought to himself, he tells Masand, “‘This movie thing is pretty cool if this is what happens for every movie!’ And then you do one or two or so many movies. And no one’s standing and clapping, but everybody’s leaving. So you learn to appreciate that in hindsight even more.”
Patel’s next project, M Night Shyamalan’s fantasy film, The Last Airbender (2010) based on the popular Nickelodeon series, bombed horribly. The movie received nominations at the 31st Golden Raspberry Awards, which recognises Hollywood’s worst. Patel was nominated for the Worst Supporting Actor for his portrayal of Prince Zuko, the villain waging war on land, water and air.
He went on to play Indian characters: he played the over-enthusiastic hotel manager Sonny Kapoor in The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel films, with a cracking ensemble cast of Judi Dench, Tom Wilkinson, Maggie Smith and Bill Nighy. He also played a nerd in Aaron Sorkin’s popular HBO drama series The Newsroom. His next role, which pits him opposite Nicole Kidman in Lion, is based on the Saroo Brierley’s book A Long Way Home, about an Indian boy adopted by an Australian couple who sets out to track down his long-lost family in his adult years.
Patel, who has played his fair share of Indian stereotypes, criticised Hollywood for the lack of roles for Asian actors in a 2010 interview with The Telegraph, UK, saying he struggled to find work beyond the stereotypical parts of “a terrorist, a cab driver or smart geek”.
In this interview however, Patel is more cautious: “We have to be careful when we talk about our roles and make sure we are not putting other people down in doing so.” While he praises Bollywood actors like Priyanka Chopra and Deepika Padukone (“I think they are doing a wonderful job of crossing over to Hollywood”) his stance has changed. He is no longer worried about being typecast: “I don’t think playing a man of Indian origin is second-rate. Embracing part of my culture and heritage is something I am proud of.”
But a British Asian taking the lead in Indian roles rather than an Indian actor has been a cause of much resentment. When The Man Who Knew Infinity opened the International Film Film Festival of India in Goa in November last year, a critic wrote that Patel “comes off more as an Anglicised example of one so essentially Indian, nay Tamil”.
Patel’s dialect coach, Raghuvir Joshi, started working on his accent and pitch months before the shoot for the movie started. Patel explains, “It’s a very delicate kind of balance when you are making an international film – you kind of want it to be understandable to a wider audience and you know that you are writing lines that possibly he [Ramanujan] wouldn’t have said. So you gotta find something that is palatable to the world, but also sounds authentic and natural, and not a loud caricature.”
Patel’s parents are Kenya-born Indian immigrants – his mother is a care worker and his father an accountant. It’s mostly English at home, “though I manage broken Gujarati with my grandparents,” says Patel.
His stardom hasn’t changed his relationship with his parents. Whenever he is not shooting or travelling, he prefers to spend time with his family. “Mum and Dad will always be Mum and Dad. I will always be their son – their cheeky boy that needs to be told to do things. Parents are there to ground you, to inspire you. They are my biggest driving force. And nothing’s changed on that front at all.”
The only thing that he has to be careful about when he goes back home is his weight. “I am fed with so much food.” His favourite is dal and roti with lots of butter.
Patel’s first brush with India wasn’t pleasant. A child of six or seven then, he was dragged to a family wedding in Gujarat: “I couldn’t speak much Gujarati. None of the my cousins would play with me. I didn’t have my GameBoy and I remember not enjoying myself at all,” recollects Patel.
Returning years later to shoot for Slumdog... – that’s when Patel understood the country better. “I feel as Indian as I do British or as I do American. There are times in India when I feel so connected, so part of the culture. And there are times when I feel very alien. There is so much to learn about a population and a culture that is so vast and diverse. That’s why I keep going back because there is a lot more to discover.”
In an interview with The Guardian last year, Patel had very candidly talked about the time he first moved to the United States for The Newsroom – he would frequent clubs every night and was surrounded by the wrong people. “I could easily have slipped into the wrong crowd. You’re bait on a string – you get to a club and all your so-called friends have disappeared, telling people they’re hanging with ‘the kid from Slumdog Millionaire’, so they’ll come over with all these people wanting to take pictures with you. You start to think, ‘Hang on, this isn’t a fair exchange. I came out for a good time and I’m being harassed.’”
Being under the spotlight has made Patel have greater awareness of his surroundings, “In a way it makes you more of a hermit. You get to understand who your true friends are and that you got to live a bit more carefully.”
After being bullied in school, Patel has grown up to be comfortable in his own skin. “An actor’s looks shouldn’t be important. I know of many great people with large ears like Barack Obama. So I am in good company.” After all, he is the same guy who dated actress Freida Pinto for six years. But that’s one chapter Patel refuses to talk about.
Kunal Nayyar, Suraj Sharma, Sendhil Ramamurthy, Deepika Padukone and Priyanka Chopra – are some of the other actors of Indian origin trying to create a niche in Hollywood. Is it a tough place to be in?
“I am not competitive,” he says. “My manager made me realise that you just got to run your own race. If you are gonna play someone else’s game, they are gonna beat you at it. My focus is furthering my own self, my own work and being me.”
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From HT Brunch, May 1, 2016
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