Interview With Slumdog Millionaire being tipped for Oscar nominations, its 18-year-old star, Dev Patel, talks about his first big-screen appearance and this week's award win.
A winning role
Such is the bizarre nature of award ceremonies that, despite not even being released at cinemas in the UK, Slumdog Millionaire won a clutch of awards at the British Independent Film Awards (Bifas) this week. Given the quality of the picture, it's no surprise that the Bifas have decided to jump on the bandwagon that began at the Toronto Film Festival when Danny Boyle's Mumbai set adventure scooped the coveted Audience Film Award. At the Bifas, it won Best Film and Best Director and the 18-year-old film debutant Dev Patel walked off with the Most Promising Newcomer Award.
The teenager gives a sensational performance as Jamal, a young uneducated chai-wallah who captivates the nation of one billion people when he wins the popular TV game show Who Wants to Be a Millionaire. The movie starts with Jamal being tortured by a police inspector who wonders how on earth a kid from the slums has performed so admirably on the show; surely he must have been cheating. In a series of flashbacks, we get to see how the hazards of being a poor Indian in the fast-developing metropolis have helped him learn the answers to some tricky questions posed by Anil Kapoor's dastardly quizmaster.
It is unlikely that most people - other than fans of the UK television drama Skins, in which Patel played "the coolest Muslim on the block" - have heard of the Harrow-based Londoner. But that will probably change quickly now that he has scooped up a sought-after acting gong for his first performance on a movie set. Slumdog Millionaire is also being heavily tipped to be in the Oscar running. Patel was sitting next to Boyle at the Bifas when his name was pulled from the envelope. He was frozen by the announcement.
"It really took me by surprise," he says. "I couldn't believe it. When they announced the award, I was literally stuck on my feet and Danny had to tell me to go up and get the award." It's typical of the affable young man that his response is humorous and humble. He doesn't see the prize affecting his everyday life as a youth whose mum has to remind him to make his bed and wash the dishes. Patel's parents were born in Kenya and have roots in the Indian state of Gujarat. He still doesn't seem to be able to believe his luck at obtaining the role in Boyle's Indian adventure. After all, the Trainspotting director hadn't even seen an episode of Skins.
"Originally Danny went to India because he wanted it to be an all-Indian cast," explains Patel. "I guess, no matter how good the actors turned out to be, most of them were training to get into Bollywood, which means that they're all masculine, muscle-bound and good looking and he wanted more of a loser, a bit of an underdog, I guess. That is where I enter the story. His daughter saw me in Skins, and when Danny came back to London she said to him 'Why don't you give this guy a go?'"
He auditioned and won the part, although he saw the honour as a double-edged sword. "It was daunting," he said. "All the time I was filming, right up until I finally saw the finished film, I was worried. Since it was my first feature film, my confidence wasn't sky high, and all I kept thinking was, being the lead in the film, if I'm bad in this role then the whole movie will be bad." The movie is based on Vikas Swarup's bestselling novel Q and A. "I hadn't read it before I started doing the film," admits the star. "Danny gave it to me to read before we started filming. We didn't pay too much attention to it because the script is a lot different to the book. The only thing that they have in common is the game show being the backbone that allows this kid to have flashbacks to his past. The screenwriter Simon Beaufoy invented the rest of it, especially the love story that drives my character to appear on the show."
The flashbacks reveal that Jamal is still in love with his childhood sweetheart, Latika. He decides to appear on the show in a last-ditch attempt to win her heart. He also has a terrific but troubled relationship with his artful dodger brother, Salim. In addition to the inherent drama, these flashbacks depict a fast-growing, dramatically divided, class-driven city. Boyle manages to capture the place without being beholden to its many charms or frightened by the bleak class-driven inequalities.
The attack on Mumbai last week deeply affected the actor. He candidly admits, "I didn't really expect it to affect me. Not that I'm numb or cold or anything like that, but you hear of atrocities every day in the newspaper and you just carry on with your life. But this really hit me. You're on a film set for four or five months of your life with a cast and crew and you get really friendly with them. I called the make-up artist and some of the cast and crew and, thankfully, they're all OK."
Going back to India has been something that Patel had feared ever since he went to a family wedding in Gujarat at the age of 10. "I was a kid and I didn't enjoy it in the slightest, to be honest," he says. "I tell everyone, I got bitten to death by mosquitoes and I had diarrhoea. I remember saying, 'I'm never coming back to this place again'. Then I landed the role in the film and found myself in Mumbai, a city I've never been to before. It's impossible not to fall in love with this place. It's got such vibrancy and there are so many people it's shocking. As soon as you step off the plane it's a shock to all your senses. The air smells different, the heat hits you like a brick wall and the noise is crazy."
His growing love for Mumbai and India has made him ravenous for information on them. Since he made Slumdog Millionaire, he has filled his bookshelves with books and novels about the country. Suketu Mehta's Maximum City, Gregory David Roberts' Shantaram and William Dean Howells's Indian Summer battle for space with his PlayStation and tae kwon do trophies. He is a black belt in the sport and won a bronze medal in a world championship. Although, now that his acting career has taken off at the speed of one of his kicks, he's not sure if he'll compete again.
He admits he's finding all of the attention being thrown in his direction a bit weird. "I was coming back on the Tube from Central London and there were three people on the carriage reading an evening paper," he says. "On the page was a picture of me with some blurb about winning the Bifa. I was shocked. It was such a surreal experience. They didn't recognise me and I didn't want to be recognised. I was looking over the dude's shoulder on my left and I was reading the article with him. It was great, so funny."
Patel has abandoned studying to concentrate on acting. He acknowledges that people always ask him whether it's wise not to have a backup plan but says, "I want to concentrate all my efforts on making this career work. I don't want to waste time on a plan B. You shouldn't pursue a backup, especially after an opportunity like this has landed on your doorstep. I'm just trying to grab it with two hands."
He says that he's waiting to land his next role and, surprisingly, offers have not come flooding in. He doesn't believe that winning the Bifa will change that. He wouldn't mind working in India again, although he doesn't see himself singing or dancing. "But then again, Bollywood is changing. It would be great to get back to India. If it's a good production I'd go and do it, especially if there are good actors and material. I've never been trained in acting school, so the only lessons I'm going to get are from my peers."
On that note, conversation has to end, as it's getting to be that time of day when he's commanded to do the dishes.