Dev Patel Has Arrived (Again)
Looking through the recently revealed Oscar nominations, one of the categories that might jump out at you is Best Actor in a Supporting Role. Mahershala Ali has appeared to be the running favourite for his work in Moonlight and the rest of the category has been largely ignored. Aaron Taylor Johnson’s surprise Golden Globe win in the same category for Nocturnal Animals seems to have thrown everybody off, so that there wasn’t much chatter about who might be nominated aside from Ali (and curiously, Johnson did not receive a nomination).
We wound up with a pretty impressive and deserving batch of figures. Jeff Bridges was recognised for Hell Or High Water; Michael Shannon for Nocturnal Animals (the same film that earned Aaron Taylor Johnson the Globe) and newcomer Lucas Hedges scored a nomination for his star turn in Manchester By The Sea. But if there’s one figure in the category who seems poised to potentially challenge Ali for the hardware, it’s Dev Patel, the one-time boy darling who’s blossomed into one hell of an actor – and showed it in Lion.
In this film, Patel plays Saroo Brierley, the grown version of an Indian boy we first meet as a child when he’s lost in Calcutta and separated permanently from his family. As a grown man having been raised by adoptive parents from Australia, Saroo sets out to find his biological family in what becomes a powerful and emotional journey. It’s a powerhouse role that too few people seem to have seen, and it should solidify Patel, still just 26 years old, as one of the best young actors in Hollywood.
But really, none of us should be surprised that Patel thrived in this role. For one thing, he’s just good at what he does. For another, doesn’t the idea of this particular actor playing an emotive young man exploring his own past ring a bell?
Patel’s first experience with the Academy Awards was in 2009 when Slumdog Millionaire landed eight nominations. Patel was not up for any individual awards, but the film wound up winning Best Picture (and Danny Boyle landed a Best Director trophy). It was without a doubt the breakout role for the young actor. He played Jamal, an Indian teenager who appears on the country’s version of the game show Who Wants To Be A Millionaire and makes an improbable run to riches, simultaneously making a sort of public plea to the love of his life.
The interesting thing about Slumdog Millionaire in contrast to Lion is that it highly romanticised a concept that most of us want to look at as one grounded in logic and practicality. Most people watch game shows in part because they can play along and see what strategies they (and contestants) might use to win. And that wasn’t just the case for Millionaire. This is a universal part of the appeal of game shows in general. People have long loved to calculate the factually superior choices in Deal Or No Deal as far as when to “take the deal” and when to keep on guessing. There were established winning strategies (though still long shots) on Strike It Lucky for fans looking to find the right formula to bidding for Hot Spots. And naturally, plenty of shows over the years have, like Millionaire, relied primarily on trivia knowledge (and the
occasional “phone a friend”).
Patel’s character, on the other hand, was able to win Millionaire because the series of questions lines up almost magically with the things he’s learned over the course of a spectacular young life. It’s a dream run through a line of questioning that managed to take a ubiquitous television format and turn it into a spectacular adventure.
In Lion Patel taps into some similar emotions and attitudes as he seeks to sift through his past again. Only this time it’s less about picking out memories to help with his present, and more about using his present day resources to rediscover the past. In a way, it’s Slumdog Millionaire in reverse, with a little less magic and a little more realism. This time around, Patel’s character uses everything from his own memories to Google Earth to try to move back in time and locate his true home.
It may sound a little forced, but contrasting the two performances is perhaps the best way to see Patel’s growth. Lion’s vague similarities to Slumdog Millionaire likely represented a comfort zone of sorts for Patel, but they also help to emphasise his growth and talent level. Lion brought out a fine performance, and it seems that the young actor who burst onto the scene back in 2008 has arrived once again—undoubtedly to stay.