Dev Patel has become used to appearing in films speaking in an accent other than his own. In Slumdog Millionaire and the two Best Exotic Marigold Hotel movies he adopted an Indian accent, but in Lion the 26-year-old was finally able to ditch sing-song Indian for an Australian accent. “I’ve been yearning for a role like this where I can play a young, modern guy, he says. “It was such a beautiful, profound script, and the fact that it is all based on a real story makes it even more incredible.”
The plot of Lion, which also stars Nicole Kidman, Rooney Mara and an extraordinary performance from newcomer Sunny Pawar, would be dismissed as utterly implausible but for the fact that it actually happened.
Patel plays Saroo Brierley, who was born in a tiny village in India but became separated from his older brother in a railway station. The five-year-old Saroo fell asleep while waiting for his brother, but when he awoke, his brother had not returned and Saroo ended up thousands of miles from his home and family.
Rooney Mara and Dev Patel in Lion
The little boy was placed in an orphanage, where he was adopted by an Australian couple. He was brought up in Australia, but the past would not release its grip, and Saroo set about using Google Earth to try to locate the village that had been his home.
All this is depicted in Lion (in cinemas from Friday 20 January), a beautifully made and incredibly moving film that has earned five Bafta nominations, including a supporting actor nod for Patel. “As soon as I got the role,” says Patel, “I called my manager and said for the next eight months I don’t want to do anything else but commit every fibre of my being to getting the journey right.”
Patel visited the gym every day to bulk up for the role, he worked on an Australian accent and he visited India to retrace Saroo’s journey. “I was travelling the trains and seeing the landscape change and getting a taste of the isolation he would have felt. I also visited orphanages and wrote a diary – all of that went into trying to make the character feel truthful.”
Saroo is a man of Indian extraction who had tried to forget his heritage. “I could relate to that duality,” Patel says. “I didn’t fully embrace my culture when I was at school because I wanted to fit in and not get bullied.” Patel grew up in Harrow in west London, where he went to his local comprehensive. His acting break came thanks to his mum, who saw an ad for an audition for C4 youth drama Skins. “Her tearing out that little piece at the back of the Metro and dragging me to the open casting changed my life,” says Patel. What would you be doing had she not done that? “I don’t know – working the tills at Budgens?” he says laughing.
His portrayal of Muslim teenager Anwar in Skins turned him into a TV star, but it was being cast at the age of 17 in Danny Boyle’s Slumdog Millionaire that transformed both Patel’s career and his relationship with India. “It was only when I went to India with Slumdog that I started to appreciate the country,” he says. “I was educated out of all those preconceived stereotypes about my culture.” Slumdog went on to win eight Oscars, but success also brought frustrations as casting agents assume he is Indian rather than British Indian.
Dev Patel in Slumdog Millionaire
“After Slumdog I found it hard to find substantial follow-ups,” he admits. “It’s hard when there is nothing good out there that is not your usual goofy best friend/funny sidekick/techie roles, so when a script like this comes by, it’s very rare.”
The first hour of Lion is set in India with characters only speaking in Hindi and Bengali. The fact mainstream audiences will accept this in a film is in part thanks to Slumdog Millionaire. “That film broke the mould,” says Patel. “A lot of the film was in subtitles, there were no real known actors and yet it was a success, so that created a new narrative in the industry.”
Nicole Kidman as Sue Brierley and Sunny Pawar as a young Saroo Brierley
Patel, who now lives in LA, has in the past expressed frustration at the limited opportunities available to actors from diverse backgrounds. “You can only go as far as the scripts that are landing on your agent’s desk,” he says. “So I am trying to be the person who isn’t waiting for the phone to ring but can generate their own material.”
The success of shows like The Night Of with Riz Ahmed and Quantico with Priyanka Chopra suggest, I say, that things are improving. “Those guys are complete inspirations,” he agrees. “And we are getting access to more varied roles. There is still a long way to go, but I am really confident in the way it’s moving right now.”
Lion hits UK cinemas today