For using celebrity to place a spotlight on India’s poor
Garth Davis, the director of the award-winning 2016 film Lion, had a ready answer for why he cast Dev Patel as the main character. “[He] didn’t want to be typecast as the funny Indian,” Davis said. “He wanted to play a ‘real’ role.”
In less than a decade, the 27-year-old Patel has emerged as a full-blown movie star, delivering acclaimed performances in an impressive range of films and television shows. But his work has done more than just entertain. It has also built bridges of understanding between India, a country so frequently reduced to stereotype, and audiences in the West.
In Lion, based on a remarkable true story, Patel’s Saroo is a carefree young man who becomes consumed with finding his birth mother in India, from whom he had accidentally separated as a child before being adopted by an Australian family. The performance — which garnered Patel a BAFTA award for Best Supporting Actor and nominations from the Academy Awards and Golden Globes — was his most noteworthy since his star turn as Jamal Malik, a skinny teenager from the Mumbai slums on the cusp of striking it rich on a televised game show in 2008’s sensational Slumdog Millionaire.
Both roles challenge audiences to view India’s poor not as teeming, desperate masses but as individuals imbued with hopes, dreams, and opportunities.
“I want the world to embrace stories from India,” the British-born Patel has said. Indians, he has also noted, “are appreciative that we’re spreading stories from their culture to an international audience.”
In addition to his film work — to be continued next year with the release of Hotel Mumbai, a drama centered around the 2008 terror attacks in that city — Patel has also turned his attention and star power to philanthropy. His #lionheart campaign has raised over $250,000 in support of India’s homeless children. And so an actor who refers to himself as just a “guy from London” has established lasting ties with his ancestral homeland.
“They feel a strong ownership over me,” Patel said, referring to the people of India. “Which is more than welcome in a big way.”