The next step for a Hollywood that is coming to see the true potential of Dev Patel’s abilities is to let him shine in his own right, and in his own race.
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In January 2017, Dev Patel was given a fake cover of People magazine by Ellen DeGeneres.1 In the clip, which can be found on YouTube, DeGeneres says, “because you look so good and people are saying you look buff and everything, I had this made for you, and if you print this out you can hand this out.” Patel embarrassedly yells, “No!” before being drowned out by cheers from the audience and DeGeneres announcing that it will help his career, and that if he actually gets the title of “Sexiest Man Alive,” his career will “catapult.” Patel jokingly says, “That’s never gonna happen.” This exchange, while surely an attempt at flattery by DeGeneres, is awkward in that both she and Patel are correct. Being named the “Sexiest Man Alive” in People magazine’s annual list of the sexiest male celebrities would be a huge career boost, and Dev Patel will most likely never win the title. However, DeGeneres is also right in that Patel is indeed now “buff and everything,” and has, as the subheading on the fake cover reads, gone “from Slumdog to Heartthrob.”
Patel’s role in 2017’s Lion, the reason he was on The Ellen Show in January, was the first film where he was offered a role that is typically masculine, as “masculine” is imagined in the American consciousness. The praise given to his performance in Lion is based more on the type of role he is playing than on his acting ability, a fate that has befallen numerous great actors before him, most famously, Marlon Brando. Patel’s role in Lion is reminiscent of Brando’s role in A Streetcar Named Desire, as is the reaction of the public after these films. Brando became associated with his character Stanley, who was more sensual and emotional than the 1951 general public was used to.2 In Patel’s 2017 performance in Lion, Patel and his character Saroo are interwoven into an imagined ideal masculinity that is sensitive, contemplative, and, of course, “buff and everything.” Since his first performance thirteen years ago, Patel has been in thirteen films and three TV series. Using his roles in both famous and lesser-known films, we can track how Patel has transformed from a skinny, energetic Indian kid into a modern symbol of masculinity, and why it took so long for him to do so.
Dev Patel’s career began when his mom cut out an ad for an audition for teenagers in London. She and her sixteen-year-old son took the train to the National Youth Theater, and Patel landed the role of Anwar in Skins. Skins premiered in 2007, with Patel playing a Muslim boy who battles with the hypocrisy between his religion and his habits. In Skins, each character gets their own episode, but Anwar has to share his episode with the character Maxxie. In it, Patel nails the portrayal of an awkward, confused teenager, who is faced with confusion when trying to accept his friend Maxxie’s sexuality. Anwar loses his virginity in the same episode, and the awkwardness that Patel brings to the funny and cringeworthy scene comes from an honest place – Patel later laughingly reminisced that it was his first kiss ever, and the first time he had to film a sex scene. He remembers the director telling him “more chihuahua” in regard to his performance, which is filled with heart as Patel tries to be excited and embarrassing at the same time.3 This probably painful, youthful awkwardness served Patel well, as it helped him land his first major film role.
Director Danny Boyle was trying to cast the lead for his film set in India in 2007 when his daughter told him about Patel, who she had seen in Skins. Patel was seventeen when he filmed Slumdog Millionaire, which would win the Academy Award for Best Picture in 2008. His character, Jamal, is epitomized as much by his physicality as by his personality. The film opens with Jamal being tortured, and his bony body hangs limply in the air, until it writhes in pain from the shocks of electricity he is given. Jamal is often visibly upset; however, there is rarely any subtlety to his emotions due to the fast-paced nature of the script. Jamal is not allowed a second of respite from his chaotic life – throughout the film he is careening through space and time, trying to find his friend and crush Latika. Patel’s best moments come during scenes when he is on Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? In these scenes, Patel has an opportunity to add some complexity to his portrayal, as Jamal is asked questions that remind him of difficult times in his life, and Patel shows his recollections on his face. Slumdog Millionaire got Patel’s name out there, and showed that he could carry a film, but it did not allow his true acting potential to emerge. He would have to wait ten years to find a script that would do justice to his abilities.
Patel faced criticism for his performance in Slumdog Millionaire and especially in The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel because his Indian accent was inauthentic, and was, in his own words when referencing the latter film, “a comedic creation . . . an amalgam of loads of weird uncles of mine.”4 Author Yiman Wang writes about the use of yellow yellow face, that is, of an Asian person acting out an unrealistic or exaggeratedly Asian identity on screen.5 Patel’s accent and mannerisms, especially when used for comedy, become part of this phenomenon, as his character enters the territory of stereotype. Patel tries to see this issue with typecasting and stereotyping from a different angle. His response to typecasting is, “Sometimes you’ve got to take on the mold in order to break it.”6 Patel recognizes his opportunity to take on a stereotypical role and give it depth, to create a real character out of a caricature. Inadvertently, Patel is a participant in a Hollywood system that thinks it only needs one or two Indian actors to star in all movies about Indian people.
The Road Within is an example of a film where Patel plays a character that has no ties to India nor reference to his ethnicity. Patel is not the main character, but he arguably steals the show as a teenager struggling with severe obsessive-compulsive disorder. He lives in a health facility for teenagers, and the main character, who has Tourette’s syndrome, becomes his roommate. In The Road Within, Patel gives a side character nuance and gravitas that goes beyond the written dialogue. His character Alex is upset throughout the film, usually because things are not clean enough for him. Patel manages to take this surface-level emotion of anger and give it deep underlying context. We can see Alex struggling with the results of his illness while he is upset about something not clean enough for him – he doesn’t want to be bothered by dirt or cigarette smoke, and it hurts him that he is. Patel’s talent makes this clear, but the film worries the viewer won’t catch it, so it gives Alex an expository speech about how his obsessive rituals take over everything in his life. Here Patel proves he can handle portraying internal and external issues that have nothing to do with his ethnic or cultural background, albeit in an independent film that garnered little attention.
In Lion, Patel further demonstrates his acting abilities by portraying a breakdown so raw and emotive it hurts to watch. Lion is based on a true story of a man who got lost on a train in India when he was five, got adopted by an Australian couple, and then found his Indian family as an adult after years of searching Google Earth. Throughout the film, Patel’s character Saroo is reserved, dealing internally with a lot of confusion and guilt about his childhood. We are invited into his head, sometimes purely through Patel’s expressions and body language, which delineate a man grappling with distant yet ever-present memories of regret. When his girlfriend tells him he needs to “face reality” after he walks away from her, he turns and gives her a devastatingly distraught look and asks, “What do you mean, reality?” Between frantic breaths he asks, “Do you have any idea what it’s like knowing that my real brother and mother spend every day of their lives looking for me?” Even though we are witnessing a Brando-esque eruption of emotional turmoil, Saroo never speaks down to his girlfriend. This is a departure from Brando’s performance in A Streetcar Named Desire, in which his anger is directed at his wife and her sister and spoken with a palpable disdain for women, which Saroo does not convey. Saroo’s respectful attitude toward women, even when yelling at his girlfriend, is a testament to Patel’s talent, or, as his fans would like to imagine, his own kindness. Speaking these words out loud seems to give them an intensity Saroo hasn’t fully understood until he has uttered them. He retreats into a softer voice, which, like the contents of his words, is filled with pain. It is no coincidence that this powerful scene showcasing his angry outburst was the one used during Patel’s promotional appearances for the film.
In Lion, finally, Patel had a character that he didn’t have to inject a soul into, because the character was already written with one. He had to fight to get the part, including making the promise that he would alter his physical appearance, as the real Saroo is broad and muscular. There is no doubt that Patel was cast for his acting ability; however, the public adoration for him after the release of Lion stems less from his acting skills and more from his good looks, which, unlike in his previous films, adhere to traditional expectations of masculinity. His muscular frame, his luscious hair, and his perfectly unkempt beard finally fit the description of “star” and of “man.” His character’s personality in Lion is also different from other characters he has played. The elements of masculinity that Patel brings forth through his character Saroo include quiet interior contemplation. In Skins, Slumdog Millionaire, and The Road Within, his characters are not allowed this internal complexity. Saroo’s manliness, though associated with inner pain and outward anger, is also tied to a modern sensitivity. Patel turns sympathy into likability thanks to his ability to inject kindness and softness into his portrayal. Viewers, hopefully, consider him the “Sexiest Man Alive” for these reasons as much as for his toned muscles and voluminous hair.
Marlon Brando rocketed to fame with his performance in the film version of A Streetcar Named Desire. The method acting technique and improvisational naturalism he brought to the character of Stanley was so influential that Brando and his style became the symbol for a new type of masculinity.7 This new masculinity was defined as younger, more emotional, and more turbulent than the typically older, stable masculinity that came before it.8 This new understanding of manhood, represented by Brando, has never truly left the American psyche, and modern ideas of masculinity still revolve around youth, physical fitness, and emotionality. Dev Patel’s character in Lion is modern masculinity on screen. His muscles, his youthful confusion, and his inner emotional turmoil are paramount to his character and are reminiscent of Brando’s method-inspired characters. Although Patel has never been to acting school, he spent eight months preparing for his part, and traveled around India on trains to try to understand the real-life Saroo’s experience. His performance and his preparation both resemble the method style that Brando helped define. Method acting is often associated with its result of producing highly emotional breakdowns, which Patel pulls of in Lion with utter believability, and is almost always associated with male actors.9
The exuberant reaction of audiences to Dev Patel’s “sexiness” in Lion is noteworthy when we consider the history of Asian men in Hollywood. Male Asian characters, whether South or East Asian, were traditionally depicted as sidekicks or servants.10 These men were devoid of any sort of heterosexual desire or appeal. Asian men in Hollywood films were not a threat to white men, as white female characters had no sexual desire for them. In Lion, Saroo has a white girlfriend, played by Rooney Mara. His girlfriend’s skin color can be read as a way to legitimize both Saroo’s and Patel’s masculinity. Patel’s hetero-sexualization in Lion has specific context within the Indian diaspora as well. Especially in Britain, Patel’s birthplace, with its long colonial history in India, Indian men have been treated like exotic playthings for white women to experiment with. Bollywood stars have long been idealized by audiences around the globe because of their masculine personas, which are centered around their toned bodies and hard-yet-caring personalities.11 Patel was an exception to this image until he starred in Lion. The transnational aspect of Patel’s career means that different and even contradictory histories – American, British, and Indian – surrounding Asian masculinity are placed on his shoulders.
Recently, Patel has benefitted from Hollywood’s newest trend: colorblind casting. Made famous by Lin Manuel Miranda’s Hamilton, colorblind casting ignores historical accuracy and lets casting directors choose whichever actor they feel is best fit to play the role, regardless of race. This creative choice has so far almost always been used for historical films or retellings of famous tales in which the characters were originally imagined as white, as is the case for Patel’s two latest roles. In 2019, he starred in the title role in The Personal History of David Copperfield, based on the novel by Charles Dickens. In this role Patel is free to show off his wide range. His David Copperfield is all at once charming, emotional, witty, whimsical, shy, and heroic. Through his quiet confidence and kind expressions Patel displays a modern sweetness while still capturing the timelessness of the character. Although he goes through many ups and downs, Patel keeps a firm handle on his emotions, with good-naturedness remaining the top priority. His famous floppy hair at first adds to his boyish charm, but he is able to pivot his portrayal into that of a subtly self-assured version of an adult David Copperfield – one that warrants no need for the excruciating inner turmoil that Patel (and Brando) had to emphasize in his breakout role. By the end of the movie, David knows himself, and his struggle to find his identity never resulted in a soul-baring outburst the way Saroo’s struggle did. David Copperfield is no Saroo, and that’s the point, though that also may be why the film went by so many moviegoers unnoticed. With roles like David Copperfield, it is clear that Patel isn’t valued solely for his personification of modern masculinity, and, like Brando, he clearly isn’t afraid to take parts that don’t offer guaranteed audience adoration.
Patel is also set to star as Sir Gawain in A24’s The Green Knight, based on the Arthurian legend of the same name. Here he appears to play a traditional, honorable, sword-wielding hero – with a fair share of psychological strife to modernize the film. In these new films, it seems that Patel has broken through the limits of typecasting and is demonstrating his ability to play well-rounded characters from all backgrounds. Yet, when he is cast in these “colorblind” roles of David Copperfield and Sir Gawain, he is essentially being asked to play a white character, and therefore to subscribe to white ideals of masculinity, if not in looks then still in action. Although Patel has been able to leverage his good looks and even better acting to overcome matters of historical accuracy and land such fully realized roles, it remains to be seen whether he can transfer his recent panache for historical adventure films into modern depictions of masculine men like the one he portrayed in Lion. The next step for a Hollywood that is coming to see the true potential of Dev Patel’s abilities is to let him shine in his own right, and in his own race.
Indian-American comedian Hasan Minhaj recently told Vanity Fair, “You gotta have the v-taper in your abs if you’re gonna be Asian [in Hollywood].” Dev Patel worked to get his own v-taper, which enabled him to get the part of Saroo in Lion, which led to audiences’ and Hollywood’s acknowledgment that he could be a leading man. Like Marlon Brando in A Streetcar Named Desire, Patel’s starring role in Lion involved a sexualized gaze. If Patel wants to continue a career in Hollywood, this is not necessarily a bad thing. Though his Indian ethnicity and the racist connotations projected onto it may impede him from ever being named People’s “Sexiest Man Alive,” the sexualization of actors on screen and in the press is often how they make their mark in the public consciousness. Patel, like Brando, is lucky enough to have the acting skills to back up his sculpted physique, and his future in Hollywood looks promising. The way his career pans out will tell us whether the appeal of typical heteronormative masculinity in Hollywood is stronger than the apathy toward actors of color. Patel has agency in how this turns out as well, and his indisputable talent will shine through in his parts, as it has already begun to, no matter what Hollywood has to say about it.
- Dev Patel Is 2017’s Sexiest Man Alive!” The Ellen Show, YouTube, January 6, 2017 https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4858gbJHXOk [↩]
- Wright Wexman, Virginia. “Masculinity in Crisis: Method Acting in Hollywood.” Princeton University Press, 1993. [↩]
- “Dev Patel Got a Makeover for the ‘Slumdog Millionaire’ Red Carpet.” W Magazine, YouTube, April 3, 2017. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4ykj8mm6bOg [↩]
- “Dev Patel Says He Struggled to Find Roles After ‘Slumdog Millionaire.’” Popcorn with Peter Travers, YouTube, December 2, 2016. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XFlTLyqfvzg [↩]
- Wang, Yiman. “The Art of Screen Passing: Anna May Wong’s Yellow Yellowface Performance in the Art Deco Era.” Camera Obscura. Duke University Press, 2005. https://pdfs.semanticscholar.org/0544/a55daf2689a1ac3f646e94f7b469b20427a3.pdf [↩]
- “Dev Patel Says He Struggled.” Popcorn with Peter Travers. [↩]
- Roth Pierpont, Claudia. “Method Man: How the Greatest American Actor Lost His Way.” The New Yorker, October 27, 2008 [↩]
- Wright Wexman. “Masculinity in Crisis.” [↩]
- Ibid. [↩]
- Shin Huey Chong, Sylvia. “What Was Asian American Cinema?” Cinema Journal v. 56 n. 3, Spring 2017. [↩]
- Balaji, Murali. “Indian Masculinity.” Hindu American Foundation and Technoculture v. 4, 2014. https://tcjournal.org/vol4/balaji [↩]