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November 24, 2016

Dev Patel: “India feels like a great source of energy and inspiration…”

Text by Shraddha Jahagirdar-Saxena. Image Courtesy: Getty Images

The actor discusses his connection with India, the inevitable typecasting and his on- and off-screen personas

His journey has taken the London-born-and-based son of Kenyan-born Indian immigrants across different terrains in the eight years since he first captured our collective imagination in Danny Boyle’s Slumdog Millionaire. His rendition of the legendary mathematician, Srinivasa Ramanujan, in this year’s release The Man Who Knew Infinity reinforced the actor’s credibility. Patel who, post the 2008 film, was often referred to in the same breath as his co-star (and then girlfriend) Freida Pinto, earned accolades for his sensitive turn in the biopic. It underlined the 26-year-old’s maturing sensibility as a performer.

Patel took some time off for an interaction while in Mumbai recently for his new project, the Anthony Maras-directed Hotel Mumbai, based on Victoria Midwinter Pitt’s Surviving Mumbai, a documentary that shed light on the 2008 attacks on Mumbai’s Taj Mahal Palace Hotel. Since playing the ‘chai wallah’ in Slumdog, he says, “I have — and am learning — more about the craft. I have seen more of the world, and have understood myself more with each role. I think I have started to carve out my niche in my sphere. The one quality that I have acquired is confidence.”

From his choice of films, it seems as if the young man is developing a penchant for biopics. After being lauded for his performance as Ramanujan he will be seen as Saroo Brierley in Lion, due for release in India in January 2017. When I ask him about the amount of research needed to play a real person as compared to a fictional character, he says, “Each character throws up its own struggle. But there is far more pressure when you are playing a real person. You’re stepping into someone’s shoes and portraying their life; you feel that responsibility each time a director calls ‘Action!’ I was lucky that with Lion I got to meet Saroo Brierley, on whom the film is based. I am into capturing the real essence and soul of a character. Spending time with Saroo and his family was very enlightening. I spent months getting the Australian accent down pat, changing my walk and my physique. I travelled around India by train to try and create a real memory map of what it would have been like for him to be in that situation.”

The difficulties faced with the Ramanujan biopic were different. He recalls, “First of all, the challenge was getting the picture off the ground. Our director had spent 10 years with this script. No one would go near it. And its plot was different from a conventional potboiler. It had no real love story; it is about two men and their friendship, and mathematics. But when I read the script I wondered why no one had told this story before to a whole new generation that needed to know about him. Like with Lion, I started with the dialogue, getting the chemistry right and finally the physical aspects fell into place with the costumes. It was a wonderful journey for me.”

It would be safe to say that Patel’s India connect — however tenuous — has shaped his career. And he would be the first one to admit that. On his roles so far, he says, “It’s all by choice. Why would I be playing an African American or somebody else? If you look at me you’ll think ‘That’s an Indian man with an accent’ in England, and in India I am the guy from London. But, I’m not playing a type; I am just playing who I am. When Slumdog opened the doors to India with its eight Oscars, it kind of carved a bridge to this country from the West.”

Visiting the country to work on portions of the film significantly altered his perception of it. He candidly admits, “While growing up in London, and it says a lot when I state this, I was one of the many young people who shunned their heritage because I wanted to fit in and be like everyone else. So when I discovered Mumbai and parts of India while filming Slumdog Millionaire with Boyle, it opened my eyes and I really fell in love with the country. It was such an amazing canvas. I constantly find myself coming back, trying to breathe life into tales from India for an international audience. There are real untapped stories here, and that excites me. India feels like a great source of energy and inspiration, more than a thing or a place.”

Patel’s amour for acting began as a child in school productions — his first role was that of Sir Andrew Aguecheek in Twelfth Night. He was later recognised as a gifted student by his drama teachers in Whitmore High School. Professionally, he has also dabbled in television. Although he tasted success on the small screen with Skins and The Newsroom, he admits to veering a little bit more towards the silver screen. He points out, “What I do like about film-making is that you get a longer time to concentrate on your part. With television you have to explore the nuances of the character while you are shooting. But the stuff happening on television is great. So, I would never say never to the small screen.” A true-blue performer who likes to experiment, he is inspired by actors who have thought out of the box. Patel states, “I like Javier Bardem; he is someone who has transcended his culture in Hollywood. Another actor I deeply admire is Chiwetel Ejiofor who was brilliant in 12 Years A Slave.”

Life as an actor has brought him fame, and that is something that he loves even though it comes with a flipside — tremendous highs and equally drastic lows. Patel adds, “Sometimes there is an issue of privacy. You are just not able to go out and not be hassled or not have photographers chasing you. But, I think that is a pretty minor thing. I’ve been lucky that I have been able to live a low-key life; it’s been quite easy for me to travel under the radar. I don’t indulge in any form of social media; I let my films do the talking. I’m quite a private person and so far it has been okay, touch wood.” I ask Patel how he takes the brickbats with the bouquets, the comments on both his reel- and real-life developments — for example, his much-talked-about relationship with Pinto and the subsequent breakup. Patel says he finds solace in people close to him. “I have a very tight friends circle and at such times I turn to them. The idea is to distract yourself with work. I believe in doing what Andy Warhol said: ‘Don’t think about making art, just get it done. Let everyone else decide if it’s good or bad, whether they love it or hate it. While they are deciding, make even more art’. Once I have done that, I try to move on to the next challenge.”

Having worked with veteran performers like Richard Gere, Dame Judi Dench and Nicole Kidman, he affirms to having learnt a lot from them. “The one thing they all share is a level of graciousness. They also have a curiosity to know more, which is surprising especially since you know that they have been in front of the camera for almost their entire lives. That is what keeps them evergreen — and that is one quality that I hope I’ve picked from them.”

On his greatest strength as an actor, Patel has simply this to state: “I can’t speak about my talent. All I can say is that I work really hard because I care so much about my work.”

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