Ac­tor Dev Pa­tel on be­ing type­cast and why he is proud of his cul­tural her­itage. (But is he, re­ally?)

Hindustan Times - Brunch - - Front Page - by Atisha Jain

Noth­ing about Dev Pa­tel is usual. He is adored by mil­lions, but he lived with his par­ents in sub­ur­ban London un­til just re­cently. His once 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, he’s shared screen space with some of the A-lis­ters of the in­dus­try. He is also not the Dev Pa­tel you re­mem­ber. He has a beard, for one, and tou­sled curly hair. And he is no longer a teenager gush­ing via su­perla­tives. Pa­tel is now a charm­ing 26-yearold, 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 for just 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.”

Be­ing un­der the spot­light has made Pa­tel have greater aware­ness of his sur­round­ings, “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 than nor­mal.”

Pa­tel is play­ing Srini­vasa Ra- manu­jan Iyen­gar, the 19th cen­tury math­e­mati­cian in The Man Who

Knew In­fin­ity. In 1913, Ra­manu­jan, self-taught, but un­em­ployed in In­dia, wrote to math­e­mati­cian GH Hardy (played by sea­soned English ac­tor Jeremy Irons), a lec­turer at Trin­ity Col­lege, to get 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.

Dev Pa­tel al­ways wanted to act, but it felt like an “unattain­able dis­tant dream.” A day be­fore a science exam, Pa­tel’s mother dragged him to an 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 (2007). It was a Bri­tish teen drama, in which he played the role of An­war Khar­ral, a crude Bri­tish Mus­lim kid in­dulging in drugs, booze and sex. Pa­tel was 16.

Skins grabbed head­lines for its de­pic­tion of teenagers ob­sessed with drugs and sex. “I didn’t re­ally un­der­stand why 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.

Even­tu­ally he quit school to pur­sue his ca­reer in act­ing. But he doesn’t re­gret not com­plet­ing his ed­u­ca­tion. “I don’t be­lieve in

Par­ents are there to ground you, in­spire you. I’ll al­ways be their cheeky boy who needs to be told to do things In school, I was nick­named ‘World Cup’ be­cause my ears looked like the han­dles of the World Cup tro­phy

pre­par­ing for Plan B and fo­cus 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 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 he wanted was “a guy who didn’t look like a po­ten­tial hero; I wanted him to earn that in the film,” Boyle 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. S

lum­dog Mil­lion­aire 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 Mil

li­on­aire?, 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 mod­est bud­get film (five mil­lion dol­lars) 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 10 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 – from a no­body to hob­nob­bing with the Hol­ly­wood elite.

“There was part of me that didn’t feel wor­thy (of the fame),” says Pa­tel in a 2015 in­ter­view with film critic Ra­jeev Masand. “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’s next project, M Night Shya­malan’s fan­tasy film, The

Last Air­ben­der (2010) based on a Nick­elodeon se­ries, bombed. He was nom­i­nated at the 31st Golden Raspberry Awards for the Worst Sup­port­ing Ac­tor for his por­trayal of Prince Zuko, a vil­lain wag­ing war on land, water and air.

He went on to play In­dian char­ac­ters: he played the ov­er­en­thu­si­as­tic ho­tel man­ager Sonny Kapoor in The Best Ex­otic

Marigold Ho­tel films, with a crack- ing 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. P atel, who has played his fair share of In­dian stereo­types, has crit­i­cised Hol­ly­wood for the lack of roles for Asian ac­tors in an ear­lier in­ter­view, 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 was screened in In­dia in Novem­ber, a critic wrote that Pa­tel “comes off more as an Angli­cised ex­am­ple of one so es­sen­tially In­dian, nay Tamil.”

Pa­tel’s par­ents are Kenyan­born 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 fam­ily. “I’ll al­ways be their son – their cheeky boy who needs to be told to do things. Par­ents are there to ground you, to in­spire you.”

The only thing that he has to be care­ful about when he goes back home is his weight. “I am fed so much food.” His favourite is dal and roti with lots of but­ter on it.

Pa­tel’s first brush with In­dia wasn’t ex­actly a lot of fun. A child of six or seven then, he was dragged to a fam­ily wed­ding in Gu­jarat: “I couldn’t speak much Gu­jarati. None of 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. “There is so much to learn about a pop­u­la­tion and a cul­ture that is so vast and di­verse. And that’s why I keep go­ing back be­cause it’s so en­er­gis­ing and in­spir­ing.” A fter 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 did date ac­tress Freida Pinto for six years. But that’s one chap­ter Pa­tel re­fuses to talk about.

Both Pinto and Pa­tel are try­ing to make it big in Hol­ly­wood. Is it a tough place to be in?

“The thing is, 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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