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