Dev Patel was born to be a leading man. Adept at comedy, drama, and everything in between, the British actor has taken on diverse roles in his career. While most audiences remember him for his leading role in the smash hit Slumdog Millionaire or crowd-pleaser The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, Patel has steadily built a resume that showcases his range. He has played assassins, goofy teenagers, mathematical prodigies, and more! While audiences are gearing up for his latest film The Green Knight, we wanted to take a look back at his most memorable performances as part of our Beyond series.
Warning: Spoilers ahead for the projects mentioned.
Skins is the project that started it all, and not just for Patel. Patel auditioned for the open casting call at his mother’s insistence at just 17. The show introduced a generation of British talent, including Nicholas Hoult (already a well known child actor), Kaya Scodelario, Hannah Murray, Daniel Kaluuya, and Joe Dempsie. The U.K. drama was groundbreaking in the way it cast actual teenagers to play the gawky (and raunchy) ensemble of characters.
Patel played Anwar Kharral, a less-than-devout Muslim teenager who struggles with reconciling his family’s expectations with his wild lifestyle. He is often the comic relief in the series, and the producers wrote the character specifically for Patel. But Anwar also has more difficult moments, such as reconciling his upbringing with his emotions when his best friend Maxxie comes out as gay. Skins was Patel’s first acting role, and his talent is evident despite his lack of experience. Fair warning: Skins does not hold back, so be sure to check content warnings before watching.
Directly off of the success of Skins, Patel found himself cast as the lead in Danny Boyle’s massive hit Slumdog Millionaire. Boyle cast Patel after the director’s teenage daughter pointed him out while watching Skins, and it’s as if the role was meant for him. Slumdog Millionaire revolves around an enticing premise. Jamal Malik is one question away from winning India’s Who Wants to Be A Millionaire?, which stuns the nation. How can a so-called “slumdog” with limited education know answers that have stumped doctors and lawyers? The police pull him in for questioning, certain he is a fraud. But as Jamal tells his story, we see exactly how he knows each answer as we take a look into his past. It all culminates in the reason for why Jamal went on the show: to find the love of his life. Will fate bring them together — or tear them apart?
Jamal is the beating heart of Slumdog Millionaire, and Patel gains the audience’s sympathy easily. You root for him throughout, especially in his quest to be reunited with his childhood love. The film itself is a beautiful masterpiece, crafting a swoon-worthy romance alongside piercing social commentary (not to mention an iconic dance sequence). It deservedly won Best Picture at the 2008 Academy Awards, and Patel’s career hit new heights on its release.
Lion earned Patel his first Oscar nomination and BAFTA win, and it’s easy to see why. Based on an incredible true story, Lion tells the story of Saroo, a man adopted from India into a white Australian family as a little boy. As an adult, Saroo begins getting flashes of memories that contradict what he knows of his childhood. He embarks on a quest to find his birth mother, which becomes an obsession that affects everyone in his life. We also see young Saroo and how he first became separated from his family. It’s a narrative device that is heartbreaking and has the audience hoping he can find his way home.
Patel’s performance is stunning. Saroo has complex feelings about his origins, not to mention his struggle to reconcile the Australian life he knows with the Indian life he’s remembering. In one wrenching scene, Saroo confronts his adoptive mother Sue (Nicole Kidman) about her decision to adopt him. Saroo searches for answers Sue can’t give him while her adoption narrative is upended. It’s a quiet conversation, but it has a massive impact on the story and both characters. But Patel’s best scene is when Saroo travels to India and finally reunites with his mother. He expresses joy and sadness and anger and fear within the span of moments and without dialogue for much of the scene. There’s not a dry eye in the house by the time it’s over, but Patel’s performance is never manipulative or melodramatic. You feel what he’s feeling because he plays the moment naturally. Lion is Patel’s best work, and it signals his growth as a performer.
The Personal History of David Copperfield
Anyone who is a fan of Armando Iannucci (Veep) knows that absurdist comedy is his wheelhouse. Casting Patel in his satirical take on Charles Dickens was the perfect move, and The Personal History of David Copperfield shows how well Patel works as a leading man. Rather than taking a typical period drama approach to the material, Iannucci plays up the farce as Dickens intended. The quick witted humor is laugh-out-loud funny, with room along the way for emotional moments as well.
Patel himself gets to show off his comedic chops, with great pratfalls and silly dialogue. An actor could easily get lost amid a talented ensemble that includes Hugh Laurie, Tilda Swinton, Peter Capaldi, Ben Whishaw, and many more. But Patel holds the center of the film, making sure David’s coming-of-age story is still the center of the audience’s attention.
The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel and The Second Best Exotic Marigold Hotel
The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel and its sequel are unexpected winners, and Patel’s joyful performance is a major reason why. The films center around a group of retirees who make their way to India intending to retire at a luxury villa only to find it’s not quite as advertised. Patel plays Sonny, the overeager hotel manager with a heart of gold whose only desire is to “create a home for the elderly that is so wonderful they will simply refuse to die.” Along the way, he finds time for a star-crossed romance and becomes the proprietor of not one, but two Best Exotic Marigold Hotels. He even gets another exuberant dance scene (someone write this man a Bollywood romantic comedy immediately).
If played by a less skilled actor, Sonny could quickly become an annoyance. But Patel embraces the character’s wide-eyed love of humanity and his innate kindness. The residents are charmed by him, as are audiences, and he never becomes too over-the-top or unbelievable. The role is a massive departure for Patel, whose other comedic roles are more understated, and it proves he can truly handle any genre.
The Man Who Knew Infinity
A biopic with two fantastic leads in Patel and Jeremy Irons, The Man Who Knew Infinity follows Srinivasa Ramanujan (Patel), a mathematical genius who moves from India to Cambridge University. Ramanujan must deal with racial prejudice, health struggles, and a massive culture shock as he rises through the ranks at Cambridge and revolutionizes modern mathematics.
The film’s strength is its focus on Ramanujan and mentor G. H. Hardy’s relationship, which illustrates class and racial barriers. Patel showcases Ramanujan’s sincerity of belief, a man of science through his religious faith. The Man Who Knew Infinity deserved to have a wider audience on its release. While the trailers may have implied a conventional, Hallmark-style approach, the film itself is surprisingly moving and contains hidden depths.
A network anchor tries to form his nightly news show with a motley crew of producers and writers. Aaron Sorkin wrote the series featuring Patel as Neal, the electronic media expert in charge of reaching a younger audience.
In this anthology series, Patel plays Joshua, the up and coming founder of a dating app. He still isn’t over his one great love. Will one meddling writer save the day?
Patel stars alongside Zoë Kravitz and Robert Sheehan in this dramedy about three teens living with mental illness. The trio take an impromptu road trip to help Vincent (Sheehan) spread his mother’s ashes in the ocean. While this film is excellent, mind the trigger warnings.
Patel will make his directorial debut starring in Monkey Man for Netflix, which he also co-wrote. It is described as “John Wick in Mumbai” and will also star Sharlto Copley, Sobhita Dhulipala, and Sikandar Kher. There is no release date set, but it wrapped filming earlier this year. The Green Knight is in theaters beginning July 30.