Directed by Garth Davis and based on the bestselling memoir by the real Saroo Brierley, the film recounts how a grown-up Saroo used Google Earth to track down his original family and rediscover his roots.
The performance not only earned Patel a BAFTA nomination for Best Leading Actor, but also his first Oscar nomination. This is the kind of recognition that gives the British actor a better chance to compete for bigger roles in the future, an especially onerous challenge for someone who doesn’t fit conventional stereotypes.
“There was something so special about this role—the kind of part that every young actor would die to play. When I first read the script, I was a ball of tears by the last page. I just knew I had to play Saroo.”
‘Great roles and films are difficult to come by for any actor. but, of course, when you’re a young Indian dude from London and you don’t fit into certain categories, it’s even more difficult’
Patel’s Slumdog recognition factor made the film’s director reluctant to hire him out of fear that the public would still see his as Jamal Malik. ”I wasn’t the obvious choice; in this instance, that role worked against me. People just pigeonhole you into a character; they think you have nothing else to offer. The director told me point-blank he was looking for an actor who will dissolve into the role and be utterly believable. That just made me salivate. I got more excited. I just had to go into the audition room fighting a preconceived notion of myself.”
“I needed to bulk up and develop the kind of imposing physical presence that Saroo has. Garth told me that he wanted to see a Dev Patel that no one had seen before, and I also felt duty-bound to do Saroo’s story justice, which made me work hard to try and portray him as authentically as possible.”
Relaxed and jovial as is his nature and looking very cool with longish hair and a Frank-Zappa-style goatee, 27-year-old Patel is the kind of man who lights up a room with his ebullient personality and warm smile. He readily admits that Lion has provided him with exactly the kind of character he was looking to play.
“When I first worked on Slumdog Millionaire I was only 17 and was so new to the filmmaking world that I didn’t feel worthy of all the attention that came with the success of the film,” says Patel. “I didn’t feel that I had earned my way into the business but I’ve been working ever since, and as soon as Lion came along I knew that this was my chance; I’d been waiting for precisely this kind of substantial and profound role.”
Ironically, Patel was born and raised in London and had never been to India prior to being cast in 2008’s Slumdog Millionaire. He has since visited his parents’ homeland many times and this helped him understand Saroo’s deep desire to rediscover his roots and reconnect with his birth parents.
Patel also understands how even a momentary separation from your parents can induce panic and terror in any young child: “I never went through anything like the incredible challenges he faced. But one thing about the way he got separated from his mother did remind me of something that happened to me. As a young boy, I went shopping with my mum and I wound up getting lost in the store. It was only for five minutes but it felt like five hours! Then I heard a voice on the PA system make an announcement: ‘Could Dev Patel please come to aisle number five?’, or whatever. When I got there, I saw my mum and I came running towards her with tears streaming down my face.”
In his post-Slumdog career, Patel has kept up his screen appearances as struggling hotelier Sonny Kapoor in The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel films and, most recently, as mathematical genius Srinivasa Ramanujan in The Man Who Knew Infinity. In the US, he is best known for having played social-media journalist and relentless blogger Neal Sampat on the Aaron Sorkin TV series The Newsroom.
Patel is being realistic when he says that major film roles “don’t come around very often for someone who looks like I do”, but most industry observers expect that Lion will be a critical turning point for the earnest young man whose indomitable will and positive energy should be an example for all rising Hollywood performers.
‘It’s a story of triumph over adversity and it’s extremely relevant to what’s going on in the world today’
In that vein, Patel has opted to return to India for his next major film appearance, playing the lead role in Hotel Mumbai, an independent film that co-stars Armie Hammer and Jason Isaacs. He plays a Sikh waiter who spent three days inside the Taj Mahal Palace Hotel in 2008 during the course of a harrowing terrorist attack that left scores dead and shocked the Indian nation.
“This story is very close to me and to everyone in India,” Patel explains. “It’s a truly beautiful story about human courage and how the staff behaved very selflessly and courageously under the most difficult circumstances imaginable during a three-day-long siege.
“I’ve been very passionate about wanting to breathe life into this story and reveal how the staff performed a staggering feat of humanity, saving the lives of many people. It’s another beautiful story to come out of India that I hope will connect with a big international audience… a story of triumph over adversity, and it’s extremely relevant to what’s going on
in the world today.”