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Dev Patel and the Rewarding Thorns of Coming-of-Age

From ‘Slumdog Millionaire’ to ‘Lion,’ the actor retraces the steps of human memory like no other.
Dev Patel Lion
By  · Published on August 21st, 2020

Welcome to Filmographies, a biweekly column for completists. Every edition brings a working actor’s resumé into focus as we learn about what makes them so compelling. In this entry, we spotlight the filmography of Dev Patel.

For over a decade, Dev Patel has been on a magnetic odyssey. In embarking on the difficult, admirable journey of actualizing bold and unabashed characters on screens big and small, the actor always has his audiences in a vice, taking a stand for South-Asian representation. For some time during Patel’s early career, it felt like the film industry continually underestimated him despite his superstar breakthrough in Slumdog Millionaire. However, the breadth of his work – in its entirety – speaks for itself.


The pressure was on Patel from the very beginning, considering how he was literally plucked from obscurity for both his film and television debuts. First came the television series Skins, a confronting, raunchy teen drama that follows the messy travails of several lovestruck, emotionally-volatile teenagers. Patel depicts the thoroughly excitable Anwar Kharral, a British Pakistani Muslim who primarily struggles with how race and religion intersect with his various interpersonal relationships.

Outwardly one of the more overzealous and unbridled kids within a ridiculous group of friends, Anwar has trouble taking many things seriously, preferring instead to live in the moment. His nonchalant attitude towards Islam highlights this most obviously, as Anwar would much rather partake in a hedonistic lifestyle full of sex, alcohol, and illicit substances.

However, Anwar’s tragic flaws — particularly his own prejudiced opinions informed by a closed-minded perception of his religion — continues to complicate viewers’ feelings towards him. This is arguably what makes the character so relatable in his rebellion. Patel exemplifies Anwar’s quieter moments of contemplation with plenty of internal heft, thus allowing this recognizable teen boy archetype to leap from the screen. Although lacking professional acting experience at the time, the actor distills the many facets of Anwar into someone fully-realized who is altogether annoying, endearing, frustrating, and forgiving.

Slumdog Millionaire

As a result of being so damn good in Skins, Patel then caught the eye of filmmaker Danny Boyle. Loosely based on Vikas Swarup’s novel Q & A, the ambitious 2008 rags-to-riches tale Slumdog Millionaire tracks the many trials and tribulations of young Jamal Malik. Not only does this eighteen-year-old from the slums of Mumbai find himself a contestant of the popular game show Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? He is incredibly well-equipped with the answers to every question thanks to the coincidental situations of his life.

Patel was specifically cast for the sensitivity he brought to Anwar. Of the process, Boyle stated the fact that “[he] didn’t look like a potential hero” helped this decision. Hilariously, this seems like a stereotypical train of thought that really doesn’t age well in light of Patel’s current success. Nevertheless, Boyle was right to initially seek out an actor who doesn’t simply supplement his own distinguished movie-making flair.

Patel transcends the highly stylized choices that Boyle and editor Chris Dickens made in slicing together Slumdog Millionaire’s coming-of-age story. Dynamic and intense flashbacks bolster the emotional impact of Jamal’s journey from boy to man.

At once both a vision of innocence and steely resolve, Patel plays the well-meaning Jamal with utmost fervor. There is mental and emotional urgency in all his scenes, which grounds the whimsy and escapism that the 2008 Best Picture winner indulges in. He holds his own even opposite household names like Irrfan Khan.

Importantly, Ayush Mahesh Khedekar and Tanay Chheda — the child actors who share the role of Jamal with Patel — work just as hard to flesh out each harrowing circumstance that shapes this character into the desperate, earnest young man on Millionaire?. However, Patel carries the weight of trauma inflicted upon him in the past and the present with so much precision that his approach is never overstated, and he is the clear multifaceted standout among the cast.

The Last Airbender

What a shame then that Patel’s possible blockbuster breakout moment had to fizzle out so quickly in M. Night Shyamalan’ The Last Airbender, a live-action adaptation of the animated series Avatar: The Last Airbender. Even as a Shyamalan fan, I refuse to claim a movie so devoid of, well, basic tenets of effective storytelling.

Sad inauthenticity permeates The Last Airbender. Audiences aren’t just expected to suspend their disbelief in the lore of the narrative; this responsibility irritatingly extends to the sluggishly paced script and unrefined action sequences. These criticisms don’t even cover the whitewashing and racist undertones found in the movie’s casting choices.

Hence, Patel is given close to nothing to work with for his portrayal of the angsty Prince Zuko. There is only so much one can do to deliver thankless lines before they simply sound inconsequential. While Patel isn’t expressly bad in the movie — he employs the requisite indignant rage of this grumpy antagonist — it’s easy to forget why viewers should invest in his deep-seated identity crisis when it is propped up against an indecipherable plot.

The Commuter

The 2010 short film The Commuter is a worthier action venture for the actor. Despite being merely eight minutes long, this little flick — directed by Edward and Rory McHenry and shot entirely on a Nokia N8 — sees Patel chased through the streets of London, parkouring over rooftops and avoiding a whacky myriad of foes.

The Commuter is mostly a formal experiment, with filmmakers making full use of the phone camera and creating a hectic environment for its simple plot to pack a punch. Its short runtime justifies this style-over-substance method and the movie succeeds by being blatantly over-the-top. For his part as the eponymous lead, Patel considerably cranks up the sillier aspects of his Skins persona to fit the goofiness of the role — in a way, he only really needs to subsist on a shocked expression the entire time — and the results are legitimately entertaining.

The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel

There is hardly another role in Patel’s repertoire that uses a similarly humorous skill set than that of his appearances in The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel movies. In 2011, director John Madden and screenwriter Ol Parker made a charming feel-good romp out of Deborah Moggach’s novel These Foolish Things. The fluffy romantic comedy centers on several white British retirees seeking escapism and actualization in India during their twilight years. Despite the colonial baggage that threads through the movie’s basic premise, the film was a sleeper hit.

The 2015 sequel, The Second Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, catches up with the elderly group eight months after the events of the first movie. The film introduces brand-new obstacles, tensions, and foes — amorous or otherwise — into their ostensibly idyllic new lives.

The charming surprises and startling shenanigans that befall the series’ mature ensemble (including Judi Dench, Bill Nighy, and Maggie Smith) account for some of these movies’ agreeable successes. Comparatively, Patel has a noticeably tougher job playing Sonny Kapoor, the anxiously ambitious manager of the eponymous hotel who welcomes his aged guests with a fervent mixture of enthusiasm and desperation.

The sheer bombastic outrageousness of the role necessitates that Patel adopts a bubbly, infectious persona without falling into the pitfalls of caricature. Sonny, being the smooth-talker and expert bullshitter that he is, will do virtually anything to get his hospitality business off the ground.

Still, Patel puts his heart and soul into Sonny’s motormouth charisma. This is somewhat refreshing, as the actor doesn’t often undertake many cheerful cinematic outings. Patel digs deep into Sonny to find as many points of compassion as possible in this comic relief character. If anything, The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel series showcases a delightful inkling of his ability to play a dashing romantic lead.

About Cherry

Between the releases of the Marigold outings, Patel featured in a couple of indies that starkly recall the darker, raunchier side of his Skins era. Stephen Elliott’s About Cherry and Gren Wells’ The Road Within attempt to untangle concerning emotional topics beneath kitschy premises. The former deals with an eighteen-year-old woman’s induction into the porn industry while the latter depicts three troubled teenagers who run away from their secluded behavioral facility together.

In About Cherry, Patel is the sweet, loyal best friend. As the awkwardly adorable and unwaveringly genuine Andrew, he exists as one of the last bastions of innocence that the film’s provocative protagonist Angelina (Ashley Hinshaw) wishes to leave behind. The audience doesn’t discover very much about Andrew, except for the fact that he is treacherously, secretly in love with Angelina. As such, in almost every frame he is in, Patel arms himself with a gaze that’s full of wistful yearning. He implicitly embodies his character’s bottled-up fears, deepening viewers’ understanding of Andrew’s subdued choices without having to utter a word.

The Road Within

In contrast, Patel’s role in The Road Within is loud, to say the least. He portrays Alex, a young man diagnosed with obsessive-compulsive disorder whose strict day-to-day schedule is thrown into utter disarray after he befriends Robert Sheehan’s Tourette’s-afflicted Vince and Zoe Kravitz’s dangerously anorexic Marie. The three are rarely on the same page even as they set out on their explosive road trip together, forced to face the deeper issues lying beneath their illnesses.

I’m not a fan of how mental illness is presented in The Road Within. It comes across as reductive and exploitative, particularly during the first half of the film. Fortunately, the movie’s three leads turn in such committed performances that we aren’t left questioning their relatability. Moreover, though Alex is one of Patel’s most outwardly unhinged characters, his anxieties are far more fleshed out than those of his counterparts. Patel painfully appeals to us that Alex has so much to offer in spite of the impediments of his mental health and this is life-affirming to watch.

The Newsroom

Several early-career hiccups notwithstanding, Patel has never been a stranger to fascinating creative collaborations. His first substantial return to TV in The Newsroom acquaints him with the formidable Aaron Sorkin. Subsequently, a year after the three-season series concluded, Patel’s most thrilling big-screen team-up since Slumdog Millionaire would come in the form of Neill Blomkamp’s dystopian sci-fi film Chappie.

The Newsroom pulls back the curtain on news production. It follows a team at the helm of the fictional Atlantis Cable News (ACN) channel as it seeks to reclaim the honor of the fourth estate. Patel fills the shoes of Neal Sampat, ACN’s resident new media specialist who primarily works on building a strong reliable presence for the channel online.

Thankfully, Neal breaks through the cliché of “the Asian nerd” trope as his responsibilities evolve throughout The Newsroom. Patel taps into the emotional impetuses behind the character’s impassioned idealism, showcasing Neal’s good intentions alongside his dogged and complicated sense of justice.


Chappie introduces Patel’s next nerdy, science-oriented character, Deon Wilson, in a fairly analogous way. Like Neal, Deon is on the cusp of revolutionizing the industry he works in — except this time, the story trades the news for the machinations of weapons manufacturing. Deon is responsible for creating armored robots that have successfully reduced crime in South Africa since their implementation in the police force. That being said, his thirst for innovation produces a prototype artificial intelligence that his boss refuses to test. This leads Deon to steal a defective robot for his experiments and when he is successful, he names the creature Chappie.

Honestly, Blomkamp’s 2015 film has many competing narrative threads that dilute the impact of its story concerning the very concept of humanity. But the heart of Chappie lies in the relationship between Deon and his creation — that fact is unmistakable in Patel’s earnest contributions that implicitly inform Deon’s sound moral compass.

Sure, he can be pompous about the ideals he wishes to instill on Chappie. Yet, as diligently as Deon tries to “father” the robot, his benevolence doesn’t absolve him from the need to educate himself on what it means to be human. These two characters learn the most from one another and reach rewarding, earned conclusions through the power of performance.

The Man Who Knew Infinity

Chappie marks the start of a new era for Patel. His filmography began including a selection of biopics and films such as The Man Who Knew Infinity and Lion, which collectively assisted Patel’s metamorphosis into a brooding leading man.

Matthew Brown’s The Man Who Knew Infinity is a blatantly straightforward biographical drama based on a book of the same name. It retraces the steps of renowned mathematician Srinivasa Ramanujan (Patel) and his discovery of various theorems and formulas.

Unfortunately, the film too often trades its eponymous character and his brilliance for blocks of exposition touted by the white counterparts of the narrative. The film should have concretely banked on Patel’s quiet conviction instead, as he is a maelstrom of complexity. The actor has always been deeply astute in his craft, but The Man Who Knew Infinity examines his penchant for the abstract, cerebral, and otherworldly.


Those traits would prove extremely useful for Patel’s BAFTA-winning powerhouse performance in Garth Davis’ Lion. The film tells of the ardent, all-consuming crusade home that Saroo Brierley — an Indian-born Australian man — undergoes to locate his biological family twenty-five years after being separated from them. The role of Saroo is shared between Patel and an ethereal Sunny Pawar, and together, they paint a poignantly wounded, contemplative image that elevates the movie beyond a basic biopic.

What impresses me most about Patel’s Saroo is how lowkey he actually is. As though refining his knack for subtlety from his earlier films, the actor calibrates Saroo’s decades of unresolved trauma into pockets of believable, heartbreaking normalcy. Even his explosive moments feel deliberately restrained. Although viewers are not privy to every single stage of Saroo’s personal unraveling, each behavioral gesture and casual glance employed by Patel indicates the depths of his turmoil below the surface.

Hotel Mumbai

Patel’s ruminative acting qualities continue to serve more candidly exciting ventures — namely 2018’s Hotel Mumbai and The Wedding Guest. Now, these movies are certainly harrowing and often involve intense depictions of death. Furthermore, the former draws inspiration from the 2008 Mumbai attacks at the Taj Mahal Palace Hotel.

Regardless, they are categorically defined as action-thrillers, with a plethora of archetypal characters to boot. Hotel Mumbai particularly takes a no holds barred stance on egregiously bloody violence, including unrelenting gunfire and grenade explosions. From the get-go, we want Patel’s Arjun — a young father struggling to make ends meet for his growing family — to succeed. He is consistently characterized as brave and noble in the face of terror and confusion. It is ultimately Patel’s sincerity that gives the film a necessary weight.

The Wedding Guest

Meanwhile, The Wedding Guest is Patel’s answer to the masculinized lone wolf action flick and one of his most unusual films to date. The actor takes center stage as the apprehensive, gun-toting protagonist Jay, sporting a perpetually furrowed brow across his unsmiling visage. He is on a mission to kidnap a would-be bride on her wedding day and maintains a meticulous, calculating veneer to ensure the plan goes off without a hitch. Yet despite playing a gun for hire, Patel and his heartfulness still sneak up on us in The Wedding Guest, adding layers to his presumably stock-standard action hero.

Only Yesterday

Part of Patel’s conscious rebranding as a formidable actor is further reflected in his choices in voice-acting gigs. As opposed to chasing fresh projects, he has gained momentum performing the English vocal tracks for established foreign films. Isao Takahata and Studio Ghibli’s 1991 masterpiece Only Yesterday happens to be Patel’s first foray into dubbing. In it, he voices Toshio, a new friend and potential love interest to the film’s heroine, Taeko. Patel’s supporting role requires him to be more genial than anything else and he does a commendable job nonetheless.

I Lost My Body

The Academy Award-nominated French fantasy drama I Lost My Body provides Patel with a richer voice role by far. He is Naoufel, a man whose ardent love for a woman’s disembodied voice over an intercom implores him to confront the ghosts — and dismembered body parts — of his past. Through his voice alone, Patel establishes Naoufel’s profound loneliness, his saddening lack of confidence, and the deep threads of tragedy that underpin the character’s very being. He is the ideal choice to bring new life to this strange surrealist portrait of guilt and trauma.

Modern Love

Patel has such a gift for refining even the most recognizable stories. Aside from ones that provoke despair, he ensures that inventiveness thrives amid dependable, comforting narratives, too. In 2019, Patel joined Amazon’s rom-com anthology Modern Love. The show finds its basis in the New York Times column of the same name, portraying love however it manifests on the spectrum between romantic and platonic.

Patel, an online entrepreneur, is paired with an incisive journalist (Catherine Keener) during the press tour for his new dating app. A seemingly innocuous interview about his successful start-up evolves into a heart-to-heart recount of his one true love who got away. Patel infuses his character with appealing confidence and easygoing charm that befits the fluffy nature of Modern Love’s thesis. My only critique is that at thirty minutes an episode, these little anecdotes feel far too short.

The Personal History of David Copperfield

As for Armando Iannucci’s eccentric and thoroughly enchanting The Personal History of David Copperfield, Patel is the linchpin in this adaptation of Charles Dickens’ masterpiece. The film is a tour de force of coming-of-age that demonstrates the actor’s bracing command of his range, both dramatically and comedically. Patel perfectly epitomizes his eponymous lead’s admirable resolve when dealing with the bullies of his youth. He doesn’t shy away from Copperfield’s marked blind spots in assessing his friendships and romantic entanglements either. Most brilliantly, Patel employs sharp wit and perceptive intelligence to balance the film’s more absurd humor. He is simply so rewarding to watch in any main role.

The magic of Patel’s performances rests in the naturalism and empathy through which he navigates all of his ventures, whether said projects and their producers adequately utilized his talent or not. As discussed in the Awkwafina edition of Filmographies, the road to diversity can be bumpy, problematic, and most definitely uncertain and ever-changing. Yet, a study of the great, terrible, and downright complicated efforts in Patel’s résumé leaves us craving more of his artistry and ingenuity as he solidifies his status as one of the most captivating leading men in the business.

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Sheryl Oh often finds herself fascinated (and let's be real, a little obsessed) with actors and their onscreen accomplishments, developing Film School Rejects' Filmographies column as a passion project. She's not very good at Twitter but find her at @sherhorowitz anyway. (She/Her)