What do actor Dev Patel and Indian mathematician Srinivasa Ramanujan have in common? Other than Dev playing the genius mathematician in his new movie The Man Who Knew Infinity, they have both been plucked out of obscurity and have achieved extraordinary feats thanks to their talent and resilience.
Based on the biography by Robert Kanigel, The Man Who Knew Infinity, directed by Matt Brown, delves into the life of mathematician Srinivasa Ramanujan. Having grown up in in poverty in Madras, India, with almost no formal training in pure mathematics, Ramanujan earns admittance to Cambridge University during WWI, where he becomes a pioneer in mathematical theories with the guidance of his professor, G.H. Hardy played by Jeremy Irons. The movie revolves around the relationship between Hardy and Ramanujan, who though are from completely different, backgrounds, cultures and worlds form an almost father/son relationship that is touching, unique and an integral theme that runs through the story.
Dev, who rose to fame in his amazing performance as Jamal in Slumdog Millionaire was here at the 12th edition of DIFF to promote the movie and the man he felt responsible to play. Although he is one of the most well known British Asian actors working in Hollywood today, Dev initially found it difficult to understand and accept his Indian heritage.
"I feel like when I was growing up in school, most of my early years I spent shunning my cultural heritage. I was always embarrassed you know, of fear of being bullied, fear of being a minority, you know not being cool," he says, "A real profound thing happened when Danny Boyle cast me in Slumdog (Millionaire). I really got to experience India for the first time with this wonderful director. And I feel in love with the city, with the stories, with the humanity. And I felt like a part of my personality had been nourished. So that really ignited passion in wanting to tell more stories, from my culture trying to, kind of, internationalize them."
The talented actor spoke about the importance of films and film making in the world where, more often or not, cultural divides are causing a lot of social and political strife. "There are no cultural divides in a dark room where you go to watch a movie right?" he says, "We all have to go into a cinema as equals and watch this experience and it's up to us as filmmakers to project something that can unite people."
Dev spoke to City Times about what he learnt from the character he plays in his new film, and his love for acting.
What initially drew you to the role?
It was pretty much a no-brainer for me. Looking like I do, you don't get many period films that land on your desk unless you're a slave or spice merchant. So to have the opportunity to play someone of legendary status in my opinion was amazing. I was ashamed that the story hadn't been told earlier. And that responsibility, when it landed on my desk was bestowed upon me. So I called Matt (Brown) and said 'we've got to do this, we've got to get the actors attached.' Together we worked on the script to tweak it and tune it to make it more about the relationship between these two men. And got it off the ground. So we are so lucky to be here.
Was it overwhelming for you to approach a character you had grown to admire so much?
There's a great responsibility and I think because there is no found footage, it's difficult because there is no element of mimicry and also it's very freeing for an actor. Because you're not running through the motions ... I just wanted to capture his nobility despite him coming from such humble backgrounds and absolute poverty.
Did you see any similarities between you and the character?
Yeah thrown in the deep end (laughs). I felt that in my career. I was plucked out of obscurity and now I'm put in front of camera, and like him living the dream in Cambridge, I'm doing that with my film career in a way. And there's a lot I can relate to and that's why I did the part.
What is it that you love about acting?
It's really freeing. For one moment, between action and cut, you're not yourself in the world and you don't have a worry about bills and responsibilities. Like great art and painting this stuff is going to live longer than I will, that's really exciting for me. To leave a legacy.
Are there any roles that you don't want to take because you feel they pertain to a cliché?
I used to think so when I first started. I was like 'I'm never going to play a taxi driver, I'm never going to play a terrorist' and that's absolute bull***t now. I swallow my words. Because we are exploring humanity and what's it's like to be human and probably those are the most fascinating people to really get under their skin and understand. And it's quite relevant now I guess. And I'm not afraid, because when I do a part, I do a part well. That's all that should matter. Right? No one is going to tell Robert De Niro 'oh, you're going to play a gangster?' That's not a cliché, that's just him playing a cool story. That's what it should be for us too. It shouldn't matter what our skin colour is and it shouldn't be second grade to be playing an Indian.
By Maan Jalal