He won hearts and minds as a savvy street urchin in Slumdog Millionaire and endeared himself to millions as the dorky manager of The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel. Now a buff and bearded Dev Patel has come roaring back with a BAFTA win for Lion, a moving true story that mirrors the British actor’s own journey of self-discovery in India.
In 10 whirlwind years, Dev Patel has graduated from a TV teen star in a show his teachers disapproved of to a hot Hollywood actor who has worked with the best in the business, including two Dames – not bad going for a 27-year-old with no formal acting training.
In the home of Bollywood, he has hero status, one of a handful of Asian actors who have made it to the Oscars. But Dev grew up in London trying to distance himself from his culture to fit in at school, and hated India on first sight.
“I went as a child, for a family wedding but I didn’t understand it at all,” he remembers. “I got bitten to death by mosquitoes, I got the runs and I was like, ‘I hate this place, I don’t ever want to come back’.
That changed with Slumdog, directed by Danny Boyle of Trainspotting fame, which garnered eight Oscars and a BAFTA nomination for Patel. He was just 16 when he experienced Mumbai’s largest slum to prepare for his role as Jamal, the poor street kid who becomes a national hero when he reaches the final of India’s Who Wants to be a Millionaire?
“I thought the slums would be depressing places but there was a massive sense of community,” he says. “I saw Indian grandmothers making big chapatis and watching Bollywood movies on TV, just like my own gran. Experiencing this whole new side to my culture had a massive effect on me. For most of my childhood I was pushing my heritage away to avoid being bullied. When I began to embrace it I was completely enthralled.”
Back in India for five further films, each visit has brought him emotionally closer to his roots. He spent five months in Calcutta for Lion, which won him a BAFTA and an Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actor. He also met his ‘character’ in real life, Saroo Brierley, who was separated from his family in rural India aged five when he boarded the wrong train.
Adopted from an orphanage by an Australian family, the story of how he tracked his biological family down 20 years later, via Google Earth, could have been tailor-made for Patel.
“Saroo’s journey is very close to my own. I can relate a lot to that feeling of going back as an alien, but with connections to it,” says Patel, who retraced the frightened little boy’s rail trip across India and visited the orphanage that took him in but felt uncomfortable about being called ‘hero’ everywhere he went…
Words Belinda Beckett