Published: December 6, 2008
A private members’ club in London’s Covent Garden, is Dev Patel, the star of Danny Boyle’s latest film, Slumdog Millionaire. Dressed in smart-casual attire, he is the embodiment of childlike effusiveness. ‘I love this room,’ he remarks, looking around at the floral wallpaper and velvet sofas as if he is sitting in the Queen of Sheba’s palace. An avalanche of superlatives tumbles out of his mouth during the interview. Working with Boyle was ‘Awesome!’ Filming in India, ‘Brilliant!’
Yet Patel has every right to such wide-eyed enthusiasm. At 18 years old he is starring in a film that looks likely to become Boyle’s most successful since Trainspotting (1996). A heartwarming picaresque set in Mumbai, it is based on the novel Q&A by Vikas Swarup and adapted by Simon Beaufoy (The Full Monty). Patel plays Jamal, a slum child who becomes a national hero after he reaches the final question on India’s Who Wants to be a Millionaire?, only to be arrested by policemen who cannot accept that a boy from the slums might have imbibed such knowledge legitimately.
Dickensian in its detail and sweeping narrative, the film is an exhilarating snapshot of India’s thriving, uncompromising 21st-century megalopolis. Jamal and his brother, Salim (Madhur Mittal), orphaned after their mother dies in a religious uprising, meet a slum girl, Latika (Freida Pinto). The three get kidnapped by a Fagin-like villain who maims his gang of children so they make more money when begging. They are separated when Jamal and Salim manage to escape, but Jamal never stops searching for Latika. Years later he finds her – married to a powerful Mumbai gangster, whom Salim is also working for: a situation Jamal does everything in his power (including appearing on the game show) to rectify. The film won the People’s Choice Award at the Toronto International Film Festival, and closed the London Film Festival in October to widespread acclaim.
Patel grew up in Harrow, north-west London, with his mother, a carer, his father, an IT consultant, and his sister, a business student. His parents are Hindus of Indian descent, but were born in Nairobi, Kenya. They both emigrated separately in their teens, and only met in London when it was arranged that they would marry.
Unlike most young actors, he has received no formal training. ‘I was hyper as a kid so my parents thought it might be good for me to try out for the school play.’ His first role was Sir Andrew Aguecheek in a production of Twelfth Night at Longfield Middle School. For years his biggest acting achievement was winning the Best Actor of the Year award at Longfield – ‘They gave me a little plaque’ – until he responded to an ad in a free London newspaper. ‘One day my mum saw an ad for this new teen drama on E4 called Skins. It said no acting experience was necessary and to come down on this date. I was doing my GCSEs at the time so I was like, “Mum, I can’t go, I’ve got a science exam tomorrow. I’m not going to get on TV; they probably don’t even need a brown guy in this teen drama.” She was stubborn, though. She dragged me down to the National Youth Theatre, where the auditions were held, and made me do my revision on the Tube.’ They called him back to a second audition, this time in Bristol where the series was filmed. ‘I was up against this dude who had been in Casualty. I was like, “God, I’m not going to get this – he’s from Casualty, I’m from school.” And then I did, I got it.’
The group of sixth-form protagonists in Skins was made up of a mix of unknown quantities such as Patel, and seasoned child actors including About a Boy’s Nicholas Hoult. ‘Out of everyone,
I was the youngest and the least experienced,’ Patel says. ‘When I went on set for the first day of shooting I didn’t really know what to do. Sometimes I watch myself and think, “What was I doing?” ‘
The show grabbed headlines in 2007, putting parents on red alert for its too-close-for-comfort depiction of the nation’s teenagers as drug-taking sex-obsessives. ‘With Skins I was lucky,’ Patel says, ‘because [his character] Anwar broke the mould. You don’t see a lot of Asians on TV, apart from that stereotypical family in EastEnders. He was having sex, doing drugs with everyone. He wasn’t just a good Asian kid at home eating chapattis.’
When Danny Boyle was struggling to find the right lead for Slumdog, Patel’s name was mentioned by his 17-year-old daughter, Caitlin, an avid Skins fan. ‘I had been looking at all these guys in Bollywood, where we had found the rest of the cast,’ Boyle says. ‘There were some really good lads for the part, but they all had the wrong look for me. Bodybuilding is such a big thing for young men getting into the industry there. They have got to look like they can rip their shirts off and get under the waterfall in the Swiss Alps or wherever they are filming. I wanted a guy who didn’t look like a potential hero; I wanted him to earn that in the film.’ Watching Skins, Boyle thought Patel was good. ‘He played a small part, but was funny and had good presence. I met him, and he was serious, committed. You could tell he wasn’t just a personality; there was an actor there.’
Patel travelled with Boyle and the crew to Mumbai to research his character on location the day after the wrap party for the last series of Skins. Joining him on the trip was his mother, Anita. ‘She is a lovely woman,’ Boyle says. ‘But she was very worried about him coping in the business at 17.’
After a brief trip back to England, Patel returned to start filming proper. ‘In total I was in India for about five months.’ Patel had visited India once before, for a family wedding in Gujarat when he was 10, but it wasn’t the happiest of introductions. ‘I got eaten to death by mosquitoes. I got bitten everywhere, even on my eyelids. And I got the runs. I remember, I was like, “I hate this place, I don’t ever want to come back.” ‘ This time round, though, the trip felt like a homecoming. ‘I’m an Asian guy growing up in London so I see myself as British, but India is part of my culture. They were making the food that my gran makes. The real big chapattis, you know.’
To gain a deeper understanding of the city, Boyle urged Patel to read Suketu Mehta’s unparalleled account – part memoir, part travelogue – of modern Mumbai, Maximum City. ‘When you walk out of the airport you are hit by all these people, and this heat,’ Patel says. ‘There’s this smell in Mumbai – Mehta calls it the smell of sweat and dreams. Hard work and people pursuing their dream.’
Much of the film was shot in Dhavari, the largest slum in India, as well as Juhu, another shantytown. Though Patel did not have any scenes in the slums (the younger Jamal and Salim, played by the local child actors Ayush Mahesh Khedekar and Azharuddin Mohammed Ismail respectively, do the majority of scenes there), he visited them with the rest of the crew in order to research his part. ‘Before I went I thought that they were going to be depressing places, but I was proved wrong. There was a massive sense of community.’
Bollywood is the universal passion for slum dwellers. ‘Bollywood movies are in the blood of people in Mumbai,’ Patel says. ‘They help them to escape the harsh realities of everyday life, watching heroes and heroines dancing up a mountain, madly in love. In Slumdog, we tried to embrace that feel of escapism.’ Patel grew up around the films in London. ‘Whenever I used to go round to my grandma’s there was always a Bollywood film on TV, probably with Anil Kapoor in it. I used to love it as a kid, the big fight scenes.’
Kapoor plays the condescending host of Who Wants to be a Millionaire?, Prem Kumar. ‘He’s brilliant,’ Patel says. ‘He’s not just a superstar over there, he’s a megastar. The assistant directors on set couldn’t get the audience to be quiet. But as soon as Anil clapped his hands and said, “Come on guys”, they would all listen, like little kids listening to their idol.’ One of the biggest nods to Bollywood is the lavish dance sequence shot at Victoria Terminus train station, that closes the film. ‘That was hard. I don’t dance much, and to make things worse, I had just twisted my foot doing a scene. They had to cut my shoe open to get my foot to fit because it had really swelled up. But it’s all about selling it with your face, smiling, convincing everybody you are really enjoying it.’
Boyle believes Patel has a bright future. ‘He has great application. There’s a particular head nod from side to side in Mumbai. The wonderful thing about it is that it can mean yes, it can mean no and it can mean a hundred different things in between. As an actor, you have to be able to use that nod to convince anybody that you were born and brought up there, and he spent a lot of time perfecting it.’
Patel puts this disciplined attitude down to his study of the martial art, tae kwon do, for the past eight years; he has competed in the World Championships, and is a black belt. ‘It has kept me driven and motivated.
When you win a gold you have that small taste of success – it means you have achieved something. You worked hard and it paid off.’ He pauses momentarily. ‘I want to be successful. This film has been a great start. I feel blessed.’
‘Slumdog Millionaire’ is released on January 9