Dev Patel, the young boy from Slumdog Millionaire, is all grown up as he plays the mathematics genius SS Ramanujan in The Man Who Knew Infinity. Excerpts from a chat with the affable, goofy actor
Shubha Shetty Saha
Q: Playing Ramanujan must be quite a challenge, considering the age in which he existed and his background, which is completely different from yours.
I spent about a month with my coach Raghuveer Joshi working on the accent and the pitch. We couldn’t refer to anything as there is no found footage of the great man, so there was no way I could mimic his voice. What I tried imitating is the resilience that he had, trying to capture the essence of his personality. I never knew this man existed, which is a travesty. When the script landed in my lap, I was blown away. The script has been floating around for 10 years and I am lucky to have finally gotten the role. It is a big challenge because people are quick to judge a book by its cover. It isn’t a documentary; it’s a movie and we are dramatising certain aspects.
Q: It is surprising that you are not on social media.
I am a technophobe. I am more of a face-to-face person. I don’t feel the need to document all that I do. I value my privacy very much because of the kind of work I do. As long as I can keep to myself, it is better for my family and for everyone.
Q: It is admirable in a way that you are not desperate to be part of the crowd.
(Laughs) The coolest thing is to be uncool.
Q: After Slumdog Millionaire, your life changed drastically. But after that, some of your films didn’t do well. Also, you maintained that you feel like an outsider.
It’s really interesting. Sometimes, box office success doesn’t mean critical success. After Slumdog, I kind of fell into a project that the critics didn’t like. Even though the films made a lot of money, I had no say in the matter. I don’t think success defines a human being, failures do. It is very humbling and also quite freeing in a way. Slumdog came with the baggage and I never felt I was worthy of the attention I got. In any other profession you get the time to practice. But, for us, it was all so soon. I would feel so unworthy when I walked those red carpets.
Q: That quick fame could have gone into your head; you didn’t let that happen.
I don’t know if it is because I am a grounded person or it is my natural propensity or low self-esteem.
Q: Or, maybe, because of the kind of upbringing you’ve had?
Yes. My parents are rockstars. They are such simple people. My father is an accountant. You stay normal when you live with your parents. I have never grown up around luxury and I am aware of how lucky I am. Luxury is a wonderful thing but too much of it is dangerous, especially for an actor. For an actor, his profession is to project humanity and if we lose touch with reality and our feet don’t touch the ground, how can we play roles to move the masses? It is a double edged sword. With success comes fame and with fame comes bigger need for privacy. You have got to stay where you came from. I am a small fry and I admire people like Shah Rukh Khan who manage to not let themselves get carried away. Fortunately, I have led a simple life. I have simple yet talented young men as friends. My best friend Simon Raghu inspires me with the clarity with which he leads his life. What’s that word in Hindi? Tehrav. I want to achieve that. I know my hyper-activeness and restlessness wouldn’t go. This ants-in-pants attitude helps me, but I would also want to achieve that tehrav at some point.
Q: Is it because of some hard lessons you have learnt along the way?
Yes. My natural energy is to be goofy and laugh at things. But then people take you for granted if you are a good guy. They don’t take you seriously if you know how to have a good laugh and are down to earth. I am slowly learning the art of putting my foot down. I now know how to communicate to people that I am actually an artiste and take my work seriously.
Q: Is your next film, Lion? The one where you play Nicole Kidman’s son?
Yes, and that’s been a nourishing experience for me. I had to go to the gym and get bigger and get the Australian accent. That’s really tough.
Q: Also, the big moment when you were part of The Second Best Exotic Marigold Hotel.
That was the time when I would look around, see all these huge stars and keep thinking I am so lucky. We were in Rajasthan and I was feeling proud of my Indian heritage, because they were enjoying it.
Q: Why don’t you do some Indian films then?
If I get offers, I will.
Q: After Freida Pinto, have you moved on? Are you seeing anybody?
No, no. I am just busy working.