(Satish Bate / HT Photo) Exclusive
(Satish Bate / HT Photo)

From Mumbai to the Marvel cineverse: The unusual journey of actor Harish Patel

How did he go from garment exports to Shyam Benegal films, Shakespeare at the Globe Theatre and now the MCU? Loads of luck, Patel says with a laugh. But it’s his talent that’s had filmmakers and viewers hooked for decades
UPDATED ON MAY 17, 2021 03:52 PM IST

This is a rare Mumbai success story, the tale of a man who never dreamed of being an actor but ended up on TV anyway, then in the movies, and is now part of the Marvel Cinematic Universe.

Harish Patel, 67, started out as an export manager at a garments company. Through his teens, that’s what he always assumed he would do, following in the cheery footsteps of his father and grandfather. Instead he ended up working with the likes of Shyam Benegal and appearing in iconic films and TV series such as Malgudi Days, Andaz Apna Apna and Bharat Ek Khoj, through the 1980s and ’90s.

After that he sort of dropped off the map, but he didn’t really. You’d have seen him if you stopped by the Globe Theatre in London in 2017, when he played Friar Laurence in Daniel Kramer’s production of Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet. Before that he played an eccentric landlord in the 2007 comedy Run Fatboy Run, directed by David Schwimmer. And most recently played a dad in the 2019 remake of Four Weddings and a Funeral, co-created for Hulu by Mindy Kaling.

Then, last week, the actor popped up in the teaser for the upcoming Marvel film, Eternals, directed by Oscar winner Chloe Zhao and due for release in November. It was a blink-and-you-miss-it sighting, but it began to trend online. Was that Harish Patel? Could it be him? Where had he been all these years?

He’s spent the last week telling everyone who calls, “Haan, woh main hi hoon (Yes, that’s me),” Patel says with a bellowing laugh. “I’m enjoying the attention,” he adds. “My 11-year-old grandson in the US is excited because his friends are amazed that is grandfather is in the MCU!”

Patel’s acting career began with small roles in village plays, during vacations to the family’s hometown of Almora in Uttarakhand. “I remember playing Sita in a Ram Leela. I loved singing, but never thought I would be a professional actor,” Patel says.

It was while studying for a degree in Commerce that he first took to the stage in Mumbai. A college mate suggested he sign up for a play, and Patel did. “We became good friends and started doing theatre together. Another friend introduced me to the legendary theatre director Satyadev Dubeyji and I started acting in his plays. That’s how Shyam Benegalji spotted me and cast me in his film Mandi (1983). There was no going back after that!” The college friend, incidentally, was Shankar Nag, who later directed Malgudi Days.

In a city of strugglers, this reads like a most unlikely film plot, and Patel takes it all with a pinch of salt. He doesn’t hanker after bigger roles; meanwhile, small ones in plum projects continue to fall in his lap. By his 30s and 40s, he was a familiar face on screen, known and loved for memorable character roles in films such as Mr India, Maine Pyar Kiya and Gupt.

If the makers of Eternals had watched him in any of these films, they would never have thought of casting him, ever, Patel says laughing. “After all these years, I’m still not comfortable in English. I think in Hindi, I dream in Hindi. I have done Hindi theatre, Hindi films. I studied at a Hindi-medium school,” he says.

But he’s never said no to an opportunity, and he’s never backed away from a challenge. Not even when it involved the Globe Theatre? Not even then, he nods. “When I first met Kramer, I told him ‘I’m bad in speaking English’, but he had faith in me.”

It helps that he has great teachers — all the best actors from decades of Hindi cinema. “Whenever I’m in the UK or US acting, I carry DVDs of films like Pyaasa, Mughal-e-Azam and Teesri Manzil because watching actors like Guru Dutt, Balraj Sahni and Shammi Kapoor and learning from them has led me to MCU. Whenever I’m stuck with any scene, I take out a DVD and start watching these old actors,” Patel says.

A big turning point, he adds, was 1992, when director Roger Michell cast him as Changez, an Indian immigrant to the UK, in his screen adaptation of Hanif Kureishi’s novel The Buddha of Suburbia. “After working in the Hindi film industry, I was so pleasantly surprised to work in the UK. They are so disciplined. People give you so much respect, make you feel wanted as an artist. You don’t have to think about whether you will be paid at the end; agents take care of that. I was amazed,” Patel says.

Another turning point came in 2007, when he played the lead character, the first-generation immigrant and patriarch Ishwar Dutt, in the play Rafta, Rafta, staged by the Royal National Theatre, London, and directed by Nicholas Hytner. It was the role that led to the Globe and eventually the MCU.

He was shooting for Run Fatboy Run when Hytner’s team reached out. “I almost said no to the audition. I had no idea who Nick Hytner was. Schwimmer and the crew, after pulling my leg incessantly, convinced me to let go of the small roles in the Hindi films I was supposed to do that year and give theatre a chance,” Patel says. “I think I was at the right time, right place and with the right people to guide me.”

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