Dev Patel may be one of the most popular actors of Indian descent in Hollywood — known for his roles in such Indian-set films as Slumdog Millionaire and The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel and its sequel — but the British-born performer can still clearly remember when he was a stranger in the country with which he is so associated.
He recalls landing in Mumbai to work on Slumdog nearly a decade ago — it was his first visit to India since going with his parents as a very young child — and just being overwhelmed.
“It was eye-opening,” he said in a phone interview from Los Angeles. “You go there, and you have to give in to the tide of humanity and the chaos ... You end up finding yourself and end up meeting some incredible people along the way. It sounds like a really cliché thing [but] I really discovered a part of myself, and my culture, my roots.”
That experience ended up foreshadowing the story of his latest film, the Australian-American co-production Lion, opening Dec. 25 in North Texas. Based on A Long Way Home, the memoir by Saroo Brierley, it focuses on an orphaned 5-year-old Indian boy, who had been separated from his mother and older brother, who’s adopted by Australian parents and raised in Melbourne. The adult Saroo, played by Patel, becomes obsessed with what may have happened to his birth family and travels to India on a quest to find it.
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Also starring Nicole Kidman and David Wenham as Saroo’s adoptive parents and Rooney Mara as his girlfriend, Lion is an uplifting, crowd-charming tale of being lost and found. It’s reminiscent in some ways of another Australian film based on a true story, Rabbit-Proof Fence from 2002, about a group of Aboriginal children trying to find their way home.
Lion has been a festival favorite, picking up audience awards at the Toronto International Film Festival, Austin Film Festival, and the Chicago International Film Festival. It picked up four Golden Globe nominations, including one for Patel in the supporting actor category, and there’s talk of potential Oscar recognition.
Lion was something that Patel knew he wanted to be involved in immediately. “We heard about the story and my agent very excitedly got me to go meet up with [screenwriter] Luke Davies, not realizing that they hadn’t even finished the script,” said Patel. “I just expressed to them how much I really wanted to be a part of it. It was only when the script came in that I realized how incredibly profound it was going to be.”
Back to India
Patel, who lives in Los Angeles, traveled to Hobart, Tasmania, the Australian city where the real Saroo resides. “We spoke about his life and the guilt he faced,” Patel said. “Living this incredible life with this wonderful, loving family but knowing that there was also another loving mother on the other end of the world that was possibly still searching for him every day. That thought of coming home to them was also a driving force.”
Then Patel had to go India for filming, but now, at age 26, it’s no longer the mysterious, strange place that greeted him for Slumdog Millionaire.
“I love it now,” he exclaimed. “I’ve been to India five times. I’ve shot five films in India now. ... For the character, I went a couple of weeks early and traveling on the trains, writing diaries, visiting orphanages. It was really nourishing.”
Despite roles in a variety of TV series (Aaron Sorkin’s The Newsroom) and films (some well-received like The Man Who Knew Infinity and some — like The Last Airbender and Chappie — most definitely not), Patel says it can still be a rough road for actors of South Asian descent.
“You’re always getting offered roles, [but] getting offered good roles, there’s a vast difference between the two,” he said. “If you’re trying to avoid a stereotype, or trying to diversify the role you play, it’s difficult because there’s not much out there for someone who looks like me.”
But he’s heartened by the success of other actors of South Asian descent such as Riz Ahmed and Aziz Ansari. “I think we’re all in this struggle together. They’re both just incredible performers,” he said. “It is changing now...you see more diversity represented on TV and now in films.”
Started with ‘Skins’
Patel got his start in 2007 in the British coming-of-age series Skins and that was thanks to his mom who made him go to the audition after seeing an ad in a local paper. He hadn’t really thought about being an actor.
“From where I grew up in London, it’s a very indulgent dream. It’s kind of like saying you want to be like David Beckham,” he said.
Skins turned out to be a hit, even spawning an American version in 2011, and led to Patel landing Slumdog Millionaire and setting the path for his career.
“I was a kid that couldn’t sit still. School was never something that occupied my brain. The only subjects I did [like] were the physical ones. ... I was lucky that my teachers recognized that, and so did my mother,” he said. “That’s how I got pushed into drama.”