When Dev Patel first appeared at the Toronto International Film Festival or TIFF, he had yet to transition from his teens into his twenties. He was gawky and at that awkward age when the fuzz has yet to flower. Ten years later, facial hair isn’t his problem. He has sported a full beard since Lion (2016), which also had its world premiere at TIFF. The connection, though, between that 2008 Toronto bow as Jamal in Slumdog Millionaire, and his presence this year is that he returned to the city with Hotel Mumbai.
Since he made his film debut, after appearing in the British television drama Skins, Patel has had quite a journey. For a while he seemed to be headed nowhere, what with earning a Razzie (the Golden Raspberry award) for worst supporting actor for his role in M. Night Shyamalan’s 2010 clunker The Last Airbender. A year later though, he returned to prominence as the wide-eyed hotelier Sonny Kapoor catering to a bunch of British retirees in The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, and its sequel, The Second Best Exotic Marigold Hotel. That comic turn did much to revive his appeal, and he flourished with a flurry of performances in acclaimed films like The Man Who Knew Infinity, in which he played genius mathematician Srinivasa Ramanujan, and Lion, as Saroo Brierley, based on the amazing autobiographical story of an Indian child adopted by a family in Australia and in adulthood, his incredible quest for his birth mother. Lion brought Patel an Academy Awards nomination in the Best Supporting Actor category, making for quite the shift from those times when he was getting raspberries.
Patel in Hotel Mumbai
In Hotel Mumbai, Patel plays a member of the staff of the Taj Mahal Hotel during the dreadful hours of 26/11.
But what usually linked these disparate characters was their Indian background. That trend has repeated itself this year. Patel has two films premiering at TIFF and in both of them, he plays a character with subcontinent origins. In Hotel Mumbai, by the Australian director Anthony Maras, Patel is Arjun, a member of the staff of the Taj Mahal Hotel where terrorists laid siege during the dark and dreadful hours of 26/11. In British director Michael Winterbottom’s The Wedding Guest, he may be travelling from England, but his heritage is desi. This phase of being typecast doesn’t faze Patel. “I just approach my roles like any other actor, learn the lines, do the research, and you do the work...,” he said, at a roundtable interview.
But, just as his career has witnessed multiple pivots so far, Patel could be headed for yet another metamorphosis. Director Armando Iannucci has cast him as David Copperfield in a project scheduled for release next year. When Patel was first approached, his reaction was, “Wait, first I thought, is it the magician?” Not really. Ianucci, who has helmed the hilarious serial Veep and the scathing satire Death of Stalin (2017), wanted Patel to play the quintessential character created by Charles Dickens, for that classic originally titled ‘The Personal History, Adventures, Experience and Observation of David Copperfield the Younger of Blunderstone Rookery (Which He Never Meant to Publish on Any Account)’. Fortunately, this film will have a shorter title in The Personal History of David Copperfield. Ianucci and Patel had a conversation that the actor related thus: “I need someone to tell this story with this emotion correctly and I think this is you,’ and I was like, ‘You’re crazy!’”
Patel had read neither the Dickens magnum opus nor the script when he agreed to the offer. The forthcoming film, he believes, “is a perfect example of colourblind casting.” How he is pigmented “doesn’t matter,” he stressed because, “when you’re watching the film you’re seeing these people totally in their characters. You just believe in this world. Dickens is talking about old London, its about class struggle, the rich and the poor—there would have been black-skinned and brown men and women walking around those streets inhabiting the roles of all sorts of people up and down the scale. So, I actually think it makes it a richer experience.”
Still from The Wedding Guest
When Patel was offered the role of Dickens’s David Copperfield he first thought: “Is it the magician?”
In a sense, it’s another return to roots for Patel, as the film is set, like the novel, in his native London. Removed from Victorian England by time, 21st century London is a multicultural metropolis and such casting could help the film and possibly even Dickens “access a whole new audience.” As Patel mused, “Kids like me that grew up where I grew up are going to be able to watch it and finally be able to relate to it and not turn out like the doofus that I was and go, ‘Copperfield…what, the magician?’”
As Patel makes that move, he has already earned appreciation for embodying increasingly complicated personas on screen. Winterbottom, who directs him in The Wedding Guest as Jay, a mysterious stranger carrying many forged identities, said: “Obviously he’s done great work, and the more work he does, the richer, more complex his performance will get. There’s a star quality in him rather than specifically an actor’s quality...You want to go on his journey…He is this kind of person—you want to be on their side. And there’s also an everyman quality about him, you identify with him.”
There was also a curious symmetry to Patel’s TIFF return. Just months after Slumdog Millionaire premiered at the festival, Patel went back to London to watch the horror that beset Mumbai. As he recalled during a press conference for Hotel Mumbai, “He (Slumdog director Danny Boyle) added this dance sequence at the end of the film as a kind of an ode to India and its cinema, and as much as I hated doing it, it kind of encapsulated this movie. And then to come back after this amazing journey and to enter my house in London and see my parents watching the screen, watching the city essentially burn, you know, it was very difficult.” And it isn’t only that. As with Jamal, he will enact the role of an orphan in David Copperfield. Just as he became an item with his Slumdog co-star Freida Pinto, a relationship that later lapsed, he appears to have discovered another partner while filming parts of Hotel Mumbai in Adelaide, in Tilda Cobham-Hervey, who plays a nanny in that movie, and served as his guide in the Australian city, or at least that’s the buzz as far as outlets like The Advertiser put it.
Wherever those personal ties may head, Patel, still shy of 30, has the potential to inhabit many more avatars as the changeling undergoes yet another makeover, just as in going from being a skinny lad to a man who had added muscle not just to his physique but to his performances.
By Anirudh Bhattacharyya in Toronto