How does it feel to be cast for a role based on the fact you’re not as good looking as the competition? In Dev Patel’s case probably pretty good. He won his breakthrough role in Slumdog Millionaire (2008) when Danny Boyle found Bollywood’s actors too traditionally handsome. The former Skins actor’s incarnation as the film’s hero landed him a shelf full of awards and nominations, the film itself picking up 8 Oscars in 2008, and Patel narrowly missed out on the Screen Actors Guild award for Best Supporting Actor (the award was posthumously won by Heath Ledger for his performance in The Dark Knight). Starring in one of the greatest feel-good films of the decade thrusted the 18 year old into the spotlight and he hasn’t looked back since.
Unlike Jamal Malik, Patel’s character in Slumdog Millionaire who hails from the slums of Bombay, Patel was born in Harrow to Indian parents who emigrated from Nairobi. Yet like Jamal, Patel’s initial success could have been written off as nothing more than good luck. But since then, he’s featured in a string of acclaimed films such as Second Best Marigold Hotel (2015), The Man Who Knew Infinity (2015) and most recently Lion, released in February 2017 with a 93% approval rating on Rotten Tomatoes. The film has also landed Patel with another batch of nominations, including the same Best Supporting Actor award from the Screen Actors Guild. Yet the rising star remains humble, conceding that the true star of Lion is the 8 year old Sunny Pawar who plays the younger version of Patel’s character in Lion, the lost young Saroo, braving it alone on the streets of Calcutta. He modestly adds that he believes his face was on the posters purely for marketing reasons.
Like Slumdog Millionaire, Lion follows the life and times of a boy from the slums as he becomes separated from, and tries to find, his loved ones. Unlike Slumdog however, this story is actually true. It’s based on the incredible memoirs of Saroo Brierley; a five year old Hindu-speaking child who fell asleep on a train and woke up in Calcutta, suddenly forced to learn how to survive living on the streets in a Bengali-speaking province. Saroo found himself in an orphanage and was eventually adopted by the Australian Brierley family and was sent to Tasmania (Sue and John Brierley are played by Nicole Kidman and John Wenham in the film).
Patel plays Saroo 25 years on, now fully integrated into Australian society, yet grieving for his long lost family and dogged by a sense of misplaced identity. He starts trawling through Google Maps in search of a lost mother whose name and home village he can’t recall. It’s typical feel good, tear jerking stuff, but Patel treats the role with a level of calm and discipline that hasn’t previously been displayed in his other films. This was a refreshing and exciting opportunity for the 26 year old to show off the extent of his actings skills, describing in recent interviews how he relished the chance to “show some real gravitas and the pain of this journey” as opposed to other offers he receives for roles which call for a “comedic sidekick” type character.
For his second big-screen feature, The Man Who Knew Infinity, Dev Patel filled the shoes of autodidact genius Srinivasa Ramanujan, a poor young man whose outstanding mathematical skills finds him transplanted from menial labour in Madras to fighting prejudice and British weather at Cambridge University. A remarkable journey for a man whose work won him a fellowship at Cambridge before his early death at 32. The film itself was mildly well received by critics, but Patel and co-star Jeremy Irons were widely praised for a sober but touching portrayal of the relationship between Ramanujan and his mentor G.H. Hardy. All the while Patel admits he barely understood most of the mathematics his on-screen persona was working on!
Not bad for a someone who’s never had a formal acting lesson, yet who still managed to bring his GCSE drama examiner to tears with his portrayal of a child in the Beslan school siege. He landed the Skins role thanks to his mum, who dragged him up to London for the audition. Patel also credits his co-stars and the directors of his films for developing his talent. For Lion, he went through an 8 month intensive program to beef up his naturally skinny frame and develop a convincing Aussie accent. Dev also worked hard to make sure his portrayal of Saroo Brierley was as close as possible to that of the off-screen reality, a job which required much emotional deconstruction of a man surrounded by privilege but lacking a sense of identity.
He seems to have succeeded : the Brierley family apparently hired a theatre to watch the film together, but chose seats separated from one other. By the time the credits rolled, they had gravitated towards each other and embraced one another as a family. Patel tried to imbue his performance with the sense of disorientation he felt whilst traveling India in preparation for the role. It seems to have been a lonely but moving experience; for the month long trip Patel traveled by train, visiting the orphanage where Saroo was adopted and struggled with the language barrier. When touring India, Patel recounts that he was addressed as a hero on the street (a common manner of addressing Bollywood stars) but says he had never felt less like one.
Despite being born and raised in North London, Dev Patel stays close to his Indian roots in his films. His next film Hotel Mumbai will revisit the tragic events of 2008 in the West Indian metropolis, portraying the efforts that workers went through to protect the visitors to the city. According to a leaked still from the film that has gone viral, Dev appears to be playing a Sikh hotel employee. Describing India as a source of inspiration for all his work, Patel is also working on a new film that incorporates a passion of his; martial arts.
In an interview with The Guardian, Dev hinted at his frustration that his roles often fall under the umbrella of ‘Indian Guys’ by journalists, despite their actual diversity. He accepted the role in The Man Who Knew Infinity in part from a desire to show off the diversity of the roles he is capable of playing. In a world where only 3.9% of speaking roles in Hollywood are awarded to actors of Asian origin, Patel is breaking boundaries that go beyond his acting talents. As the third actor of Indian origin ever to receive an Oscar nomination, Patel is one of Hollywood’s most exciting young actors, fighting against ethnic stereotyping while celebrating an intriguing and diverse nation. Dev Patel may be modest, but maybe he’s a hero after all.