The Slumdog Millionaire star has travelled a long way to play a troubled mathematical genius in The Man Who Knew Infinity
When director Matt Brown first came up with the idea of a biopic about the extraordinary mathematical genius Ramanujan, Dev Patel was still a slightly gawky 15-year-old in school uniform.
It was to the great fortune of both men that Brown took a decade to get the support and funding for his ambitious project – 10 years in which Patel not only grew up, but broke into Hollywood, making his name with blockbusters such as Slumdog Millionaire and The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel. Patel was, says Brown, a natural choice to play unschooled Indian accounts clerk Srinivasa Ramanujan, who baffles university professors in The Man Who Knew Infinity.
“Dev Patel was way too young when this began, and he was just right when it came to making our movie,” says Brown. “He had not even done Slumdog Millionaire when I started this whole thing. Ramanujan was a sort of portly fellow who was awkward and had an innocent quality to him. Dev is gangly, and while I think a lot of young ladies admire him, he has long arms and legs and is a little awkward also, and I thought that had the same essence of what I was trying to do.”
Patel and Brown spoke to Vision at the Dubai International Film Festival (DIFF) to promote the movie, which has just been released in cinemas worldwide. It is the 25-year-old British actor’s first visit to the city and he is in his element taking selfies with his fans, of which there are many, particularly among the Indian community.
“I am really eager to see what the reception will be out here in the Middle East,” he says. “It is really fun to be busy, but I want to see more of Dubai. We have been here a couple of days and it is pretty overwhelming, but we managed to visit a souk yesterday to buy a few things. The main thing is that the film is well received. We feel so lucky that our little movie made it all the way out here.”
“Little” might be a misnomer. The cast features a Who’s Who of British acting royalty, from Stephen Fry to Toby Jones, with Jeremy Irons playing GH Hardy, the Cambridge maths professor who first realised Ramanujan’s abilities.
With no formal training, Ramanujan discovered groundbreaking mathematical theorem that are still being used today. The film focuses on their five-year collaboration during Ramanujan’s time in England, before his death from tuberculosis at the age of 32.
The film was showcased at DIFF in Dubai in December last year, as well as at festivals in Toronto, Zurich and Singapore, and Patel and Irons were both tipped for Oscars. It marks a bold departure for Patel, whom we have become accustomed to seeing as a hapless, affable and often lovestruck young Indian man, the underdog we root for and cheer on despite his geekiness. In Ramanujan, however, we see a more thoughtful character, wrestling with his inner demons and the challenges of being a Brahmin Hindu in England during World War I, and fighting race and class battles in the lofty echelons of Cambridge University. His struggle is largely an internal one.
Patel himself has grown up from the awkward teenager he played in Slumdog, his 6ft 1in frame standing tall and broad-shouldered in a smart suit, curly hair artfully tousled, and sporting a neatly trimmed beard and moustache. Whether Hollywood has been the making of the man, or he has grown up despite its frivolities, he has left the gawky teenager behind.
He is eloquent and understated when he speaks. Debonair and supremely confident, he nevertheless has not lost the humility he showed in the early days of his career, when he walked the red carpet with the expression of one who could not quite believe where he had ended up.
Famously lambasted by the celebrity photographer Mario Testino for being too “normal-looking” – as they sat side by side at a Burberry fashion show, Testino leaned in and said: “Are you the one dating Freida Pinto? Why is she dating you? She’s so beautiful” – the joke is on Testino now; Patel has no end of fans, particularly female ones.
He creates a buzz on the red carpet as young women clamour to have their photos taken with him. Ever modest, he talks to everyone and oozes charisma, even as a twitchy henchman loiters nearby and tries in vain to intervene when any personal questions arise. Patel answers them all.
“I don’t really get to play a lot of period roles. I have never been sent a script [for one],” he says. “To play someone who is not a spice merchant or a slave, someone of such great ilk and calibre, is amazing. I was ashamed I did not know about him before. I want other kids my age to know who this man was. I hope they are really inspired by his resilience and struggle.
“He opened a lot of doors for a lot of people. He was one of the first Indian Fellows of the Royal Society, and I hope people find a great source of pride in that. If someone could break the mould like he did – if he could cross the seas from the south of India to Cambridge and break all the rules – then kids who are on the down side of luck and think there are not many opportunities, they can see that they can do something too.”
Patel clearly finds his own personal inspiration in Ramanujan’s story and says he sees parallels with his own. Born in Harrow, northwest London, to Kenyan parents of Gujarati Indian descent, he faced racism when he was growing up. “We were a minority, so you get called names like ‘fresh off the boat’,” he says. “You try to shun your culture to fit in. I think everyone does it because trying to be cool is being just like everyone else.”
Keen to channel their son’s excess energy, his parents signed him up for everything from taekwon-do to judo. He was 16 when his mother, a care worker, took him to an audition for the TV show Skins. Despite having no acting experience, he won the part of Anwar Kharral, a misbehaving Pakistani Muslim teenager.
That breakthrough role led to him being talent-spotted and cast in Danny Boyle’s Slumdog Millionaire at 17, a role he has described as being “like a kid in a candy shop”. It also led to his six-year romance with his onscreen Indian co-star, 31-year- old Freida Pinto. That relationship came to an end a year ago with the pair remaining friends, and Patel says romance is taking a back seat for the moment. “I am very work-driven right now. That is the last thing on my mind,” he says.
To play someone who is not a spice merchant or a slave, someone of such great ilk and calibre, is amazing. I want my kids to know who this man was
Slumdog Millionaire saw Patel play Jamal Malik, a slum dweller who wins the money and gets the girl. The movie was a phenomenal success, scooping eight Oscars in 2009 and launching Patel’s Hollywood career. But it was more of a slow burn than a springboard, and great roles did not immediately follow. A year after being feted by Hollywood, he complained he could not find work because the only roles he was offered were the “usual” ones for Asian actors, of terrorist, taxi driver or nerdy Indian sidekick.
He took parts in ill-fated and widely panned movies including The Last Airbender, which earned him a Golden Raspberry Award nomination for worst supporting actor. But it says much about how firm a hold he has on British affections that he was cast as Sonny Kapoor, a harried but high-spirited young hotelier, in The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, set in a rundown British retirement home in Rajasthan, which came out in 2012. Starring alongside Dame Judi Dench, Dame Maggie Smith, Bill Nighy, Celia Imrie, Ronald Pickup and Penelope Wilton was “intimidating”, he admits.
“It was an absolute dream to be surrounded by those titans of cinema, all in one frame in one film,” he says. “To begin with it was intimidating, but that went out the window very quickly because they are all so lovely. It was great because it was a form of escapism and a comedy role for me, which I love doing.”
Indeed, Dame Judi described Patel as a “born comedian” and director John Madden said he had “amazing physical presence and fantastic instincts”. A sequel followed, released last year, which topped the UK box office in its first week. Patel says a third film is unlikely. “I don’t think so. You can’t milk a good story dry, and there are no talks about doing another.”
He might not be revisiting his roles, but Slumdog and the Marigold films did initiate a lifelong love affair with India. Patel says he hated visiting as a youngster and avoided going for many years.
“I had been when I was really young to the middle of Gujarat – with my Game Boy – for a family wedding,” he says. “I don’t remember much except for the mosquitoes biting my eyelids, and not having my other video games.”
He went “consciously” as a 17-year-old to film Slumdog, which was an entirely different experience. “That was my first trip as an adult,” he says. “It was a completely different experience. All the cliches I had in my head were broken. [Mumbai] is such a metropolitan city, and so ahead of the game in so many ways. I loved being engulfed by the humans there. There were just so many people; it was a sensory overload and so stimulating. As a canvas, you can put a camera anywhere and life unfolds in front of it.
“I was really connected to India and fell in love with everything. I found a sense of pride in being Indian, and embracing that, and I am trying to represent that in my art now.”
It seems aptly circular that a decade after discovering a pride for his Indian heritage, Patel is now playing an Indian who travels to England but tries to hold on to his roots. And while his previous roles have been flamboyant and played on his skills for physical comedy and wit, his portrayal of Ramanujan is, by the nature of the film, far more nuanced and subtle.
“I wanted to do something more subdued, something in real life, and this was a great opportunity,” he says. “We go to the cinema to be inspired, so to watch a film about a great, intelligent man is as it should be.”
As for future plans, Patel has his sights set on buying a home in Mumbai and hasn’t ruled out doing a Bollywood film. This year, he will be lending his voice to the animation movie Only Yesterday and the film Lion, in which he plays Nicole Kidman’s adopted son, is in post-production.
Director Matt Brown is convinced Patel’s sensitive portrayal of Ramanujan is the beginning of a new chapter in his career.
“I said to Dev, this [role] is all interior and he signed up to that,” says the filmmaker. “He is an incredibly intuitive actor, so smart and such a lovely person too. He is just growing and I think you are going to see him really keep growing.”