(August 14, 2021) Dancing to AR Rahman’s Jai Ho in a blue striped shirt and black denims at Mumbai‘s Victoria Terminus is how Dev Patel was introduced to the world. An 18-year-old from London took to the slums of Mumbai to play the perfect Jamal Malik in Danny Boyle‘s Slumdog Millionaire. His meticulous acting and innate charm won over the audience, and he soon found himself at the red carpet of the Academy Awards.
From being called ugly for his portrayal of Anwar Kharral in Skins to winning best supporting actor at BAFTA, Patel has come a long way. The British-Indian actor is known for his unconventional choice in roles and that’s what makes him an exceptionally talented actor.
Here’s the journey of this Global Indian who is putting South Asians on the world map.
Born in London to an IT consultant father and care worker mother, Patel was brought up in a Gujarati family. Described as a super enthusiastic kid who would often get into trouble, a young Patel joined the drama club at Whitmore High School to channelize his energy: that’s how he stumbled upon acting. A gifted actor, Patel stunned everyone with with his GCSE Drama performance, and that’s when he decided to pursue acting seriously.
At 16, when his mother dragged him to an audition for TV show Skins, little did he know that his life was about to change. He won over the makers with his natural performance and soon got the part of a randy Muslim teenager. Interestingly, the role was written specifically for him after he was cast in Skins. The series went on to win the Rose d’Or for Drama in 2008 and received a BAFTA Television Award nomination in Best Drama Series.
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Patel rose to fame with the English show, but back in school, his choice of work didn’t get a nod from his teachers and schoolmates. “The teachers didn’t approve of Skins and my drama teacher hated me after I got on to it,” he told The Guardian. Patel found it difficult to juggle between studies and show commitment, and he eventually left the school because of hostility.
“The reason I got into drama in the first place was because I was funny, and that was a way not to get beaten up and keep your head above the pack. But there was a lot of aggression from some kids, who didn’t like me not being a Muslim kid but playing one,” he added.
The film that changed his life
It was around this time that British filmmaker Danny Boyle, who was gearing up for Slumdog Millionaire, found his Jamal Malik in Patel after his daughter Caitlin showed him Skins. After five rounds of audition, Patel landed in India to scout for location with Boyle. To get into the skin of the character, he worked at a call center and washed dishes at a hotel.
Slumdog Millionaire was the story of an underdog and it struck a chord with audiences across the world: it eventually made its way to the Academy Awards with 10 nominations. At 18, Patel saw himself rub shoulders with the biggest names in Hollywood as he stepped on the stage to accept the Critic’s Choice Award for Best Young Performer.
The success of the film catapulted Patel’s career and the 18-year-old became an overnight global star.
“Slumdog Millionaire changed my life in many ways. There were not many roles for us in the West that time. I think what it did for me is what it also does for the industry. Winning several Oscars was a big thing. I think there was a tectonic plate that shifted, which was incredible. It gave me exposure to a big world out there and started my obsession with India.”
The British-born Patel revealed that Slumdog Millionaire helped him connect to his Indian roots, something he’d shied away from since his school days for the fear of being bullied and facing prejudice.
In a conversation with the Time, he said,
“I’m of Indian heritage but grew up in London, and I did suppress that so I could be like everyone else in school and not feel different, not expose myself to bullying or prejudice. It was only when I shot Slumdog that I really started to understand and appreciate India.”
Breaking away from stereotypes
Slumdog Millionaire helped Patel find his footing in Hollywood as everyone was after ‘the kid from Slumdog’. However, this also typecast him as he was offered Indian sidekick roles.
“For my second film I wanted a role that would stretch me, but all I was getting offered were stereotypical parts like the goofy Indian sidekick. I want to show that I have versatility,” he told DailyMail.
Cashing in on Patel’s overnight success, M Night Shyamalan cast the actor in his 2010 film The Last Airbender which turned out to be a commercial success. Patel moved from strength to strength with films like The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, The Road Within and Chappie. However, he was still looking to recreate the magic that Slumdog Millionaire cast on people.
When Lion roared at BAFTA
And he found the perfect opportunity with his 2016 film Lion. The 31-year-old transformed himself to step into the shoes of the character and prepared for almost a year to play Saroo Brierley on screen. For an actor who was hungry to show emotional range, Lion came in at an apt time. The film roared at the box office and Patel’s meticulous acting earned him a Best Supporting Actor trophy at the 70th BAFTA Awards. Never one to make run-of-the-mill choices, the actor is now returning with an epic fantasy adventure The Green Knight.
Having worked with the likes of Dame Judie Dench and Nicole Kidman, Patel has become a name to reckon with in Hollywood who is making it big with his unconventional body of work. The British-Indian actor, who rose to fame with Slumdog Millionaire, has put South Asians on the global map with his distinct body of work. For someone who didn’t bow to be stereotyped in Hollywood, Patel is a true inspiration for everyone who has plans of making it big in the West.