Dev Patel's journey from Slumdog to Lion
- 12 October 2016
- From the section India
Dev Patel was 18 years old when I first interviewed him in 2008 for Danny Boyle's Slumdog Millionaire.
His acting ability and wavering accent in Boyle's soon-to-be-hit film would be debated in the months to come - especially in India - but with the press Patel was extremely charming. His favourite word at the time was "wicked".
But he has travelled a long way in the past eight years.
For one, he does not use "wicked" that often. I interviewed him at Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF) last year when he was promoting The Man Who Knew Infinity and his response to the use of his then favourite word was, "wicked! Did I say that a lot? That's what you get when you drop out of school really early. You have a very limited vocabulary. It starts and ends with 'wicked'."
Now 26, Patel was back last week at TIFF with his new film Lion, in which he plays the adult Saroo Brierley, an Indian child adopted by an Australian couple.
Oscar in the pipeline?
Even though Patel first appears only towards the middle of the film, he carries the burden of the narrative with charm, good looks and long hair (which has had several online articles dedicated to it), and a lot of emotional depth. The Hollywood Reporter review praised his "tremendously moving performance" and called him "the resilient soul of Lion".
There is already buzz of an Oscar nomination for Patel. Scott Feinberg, an influential commentator with the Reporter in his post-TIFF report, suggests that Patel's nomination in the supporting actor category is a sure bet.
I have to agree. Patel is exceptionally good in the film and Lion is being distributed in the US by The Weinstein Company. The company chief Harvey Weinstein's Oscar campaigns - and their success rate - is legendary.
Commenting on the film's tremendous reception at its TIFF premiere where the audience, reduced to tears, gave it a standing ovation, Variety wrote that "with Lion, Harvey Weinstein will once again try to claw his way back into the Oscar hunt".
Patel's post-Slumdog journey has not been as smooth as that of his co-stars Freida Pinto and Irrfan Khan.
While Pinto was immediately cast in films directed by a range of well-known directors like Woody Allen, Michael Winterbottom and Julian Schnabel, Patel was only offered cliched roles of terrorists and cab drivers.
The one big film that came his way was M Night Shyamalan's The Last Airbender, but that project was rejected by the audience and ripped apart by critics. He also largely went unnoticed in smaller films such as About Cherry and The Road Within.
Apart from not having enough engaging work, Patel often had to deal with being asked to speak in an Indian accent, an acting challenge he has never fully grasped.
Patel's professional struggle ended when he was cast in The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel and its sequel as Sonny Kapoor, a caricatured hotel owner, jumping up and down to please the elderly British guests staying at his dilapidated establishment.
In between there was an additional ray of hope. Patel was cast as Neal Sampat, a British member of the News Night show on HBO's popular serial, The Newsroom.
For once the casting agents and the show's producers saw Patel for what he is - a British actor of Indian descent. Without having to worry about speaking in an Indian accent, Patel finally got a chance to showcase his acting skills, including one moving moment during an episode when he told his colleagues about being in the London underground on the day of the 7 July 2005 bombings.
By then there was a realisation that Patel was the only bankable Indian actor of his age group in the West.
Last year Matt Brown, the director of The Man Who Knew Infinity, acknowledged that he struggled for years trying to raise money for the film. A few other Indian actors were considered for the role, but it was only when Patel's name was attached to the project that the film's producers were able to find financing. Patel was suddenly even more bankable than Jeremy Irons, the Oscar winning actor who played GH Hardy, Ramanujan's mentor, in the film.
It was clear that the British Patel had worked very hard to transform himself to become the Tamil Brahmin Ramanujan. But his performance - although earnest and sincere, looked too studied. You could often tell that Patel was trying to act in the film.
But Lion is a different animal. For one Patel had to lose his British accent and adopt a convincing Australian tone. That perhaps is the first skill British and Australian actors have to learn. And for another, he plays a character his own age, living in Melbourne.
When I asked Patel about Lion, he said, "Lion is probably the best script I have read. So to be a part of it is just astounding. It is a triumphant movie and that's why I relate to it.
"The director not only physically changed the way I look like, but he really forced me to go down the journey that was a different embodiment. The way I sounded. I was in the gym all the time since I had to get a bit bigger."
So this time - rather, for just about the first time - Patel has got it right. The early Oscar talk is not surprising at all.