Dev Patel Sure Is Sick Of Being Stereotyped By The Media
"You can’t really compare 'Lion' and 'Slumdog Millionaire', just because some of it is partially set in India..."
Over the past few weeks Dev Patel’s been peppered with questions from journalists describing Lion as “the new Slumdog” and he’s over it. We’re sitting in the QT Hotel on Market Street, the venue for the Sydney leg of Patel’s Lion press tour, and Patel starts frowning and shaking his head as soon as I mention the ‘S’ word and ask him if he finds the comparisons shallow.
“Completely. You can’t really compare the two,” he says. “Just because some of it is partially set in India… This film [Lion] is a true story. We’re basing it off reality. The part that I play is of an Australian guy going back and trying to connect to a part of his history that has remained dormant, deep inside the crevices of his brain for a long time.”
For reference, Lion is a true story based on the life of Saroo Brierley, an adopted Indian-Australian man attempting to find his birth mother. Slumdog Millionaire is a romantic drama about a contestant on Who Wants To Be A Millionaire? with a Bollywood soundtrack.
“Those comparisons of it to Slumdog are very loosely thrown around,” he says. “But once you watch it you’ll understand it’s very different.”
On Playing “The Indian Guy”
Patel is often blunt when discussing diversity in the entertainment industry. He sees stereotyping as an issue that not only narrows the kind of roles he gets asked to audition for, but one that also limits serious criticism of his acting.
“I did a film called Marigold Hotel,” he says. “I did the press tour for that and everyone was finding a comparison to Slumdog. People might be trying to dispel a stereotype, but they’re actually adding to it by doing that.”
He’s frustrated by the fact that the media put his characters in the same category of ‘the Indian guy’ when the roles are so different.
“The scripts I normally get sent are me playing a man of Indian heritage, goofy, in a funny best friend sort of way. And then you look at [Lion] and you’re like, ‘Wow this is a real journey we’re going on’,” he says.
Lion is the most physical preparation Patel has ever done for a role, despite the fact a large portion of the film revolves around him sitting in front of a laptop using Google Earth. It’s about trying to physically distance himself from his previous roles, he tells me, and stop the kind of lazy stereotyping that doesn’t seem to ever go way.
“It’s about preparing your body physically so you can adopt a different mental space and different performance space. Garth [Garth Davis, Lion’s director] wanted me to move differently, and feel like an Aussie and not like the celery stick that I was when I walked into the audition. In the audition you can feel those energies… and then when I put the weight on I moved differently and had a different presence. It’s about transforming, so when they see me, the audience doesn’t automatically go Slumdog.”
Skins Was Better Than Slumdog Anyway
Once you watch Lion you’ll agree that it doesn’t have much in common with Slumdog. Patel’s character, Indian-born but Australian-raised, is trapped between two worlds. He’s made Australia his home, but he knows he has a much deeper heritage. However that heritage is inaccessible to him because of his move to Australia and subsequent experiences. Despite the specific circumstances of Saroo’s story, it’s a familiar migrant experience.
If anything, there’s probably more in common between Saroo’s character and Patel’s portrayal of Anwar on Skins (his breakthrough acting role). Anwar’s definitely English, but his Pakistani heritage is still a strong influence on his life, overshadowing his attempts to drink, party and score.
When I ask Patel about Skins his face lights up. It’s obviously not something he’s been asked about a lot on this press tour.
Patel agrees that there are similarities between his role on Skins and Lion, pointing out that both characters are struggling with their identity. But he’s keen to avoid any direct comparisons because of the fact Lion is based on a true story. “In this film I’m playing Saroo,” he puts simply.
That experience of contested identity and struggling to fit in is something Patel has first had experience with, and he draws on it for his roles.
“The only way I can make a character ring true is if I can somehow inject a lot of myself into it so it feels honest and truthful,” he says. “I could relate to that — a guy who goes to India, who physically might look like someone else, but feels like an alien in that land.
“A lot of my childhood, growing up in London, I was pushing [my] heritage away so I could fit in and not get bullied. And then I really began to embrace it once I went to India with Danny Boyle to shoot Slumdog. I really began to understand it and was completely enthralled.”
“Australia’s A Really Diverse Place”
Most of Patel’s scenes in Lion were shot in Melbourne and Tasmania, and it sounds like he had a great time. “This is a place I feel like I could really live in,” he says. “The people are so lovely, the crews are great, the food is to die for… the people… it’s a really diverse place. Our director, Garth, would take us out to his favourite Melbourne restaurants. It’s a very sociable place.”
There you go Melbourne, put that on your number plates: ‘The Sociable City’ – Dev Patel.
Patel is heading back to Australia soon to shoot Hotel Mumbai, another Indian-Australian joint production. He says he’s consciously trying to diversify his roles in terms of the kind of characters he plays.
“It’s a small pond I’m fishing in right now, so you try and vary it as much as you can. But with films like Lion that pool starts to get bigger.”
Lion is in cinemas now.