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On November 26, 2008, Dev Patel was 18 and on the cusp of stardom with Slumdog Millionaire when he switched on a television at home in London.
And there in the overflowing Indian metropolis of Mumbai, where Patel had shot Slumdog a year earlier, “were these teenagers with rucksacks and AK-47s with a kind of dead look in their eyes killing, just senselessly killing people,” he recalled. “It was so distressing to watch, and that was just the beginning. There were attacks throughout the city and the siege at the Taj for three days. It shook me to my core.”
A decade later, Patel, 28, is both starring in and debuting as an executive producer in Hotel Mumbai, Anthony Maras re-creation of the attack on the Taj Mahal Palace Hotel, where members of the militant group Lashkar-e-Taiba killed 31 guests and workers.
Patel plays Arjun, a Sikh waiter who endures the horror to usher hostages to safety. In real life, the hotels staff members — some armed with kitchen utensils or baking trays taped to their chests to shield themselves from gunfire — were extolled for their heroism.
For his performance, Patel described the “tiny miracles” that inspired him. “Among all the senseless evil,” he said, “you see these moments of humanity at its most beautiful and its most selfless.”
These days, Patel — who returned to India for The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, The Man Who Knew Infinity and Lion, for which he earned an Oscar nomination — is moving into the realm of top hats and knights armor in coming movies about David Copperfield and Sir Gawain. He has also teamed up with Tilda Cobham-Hervey, his Hotel Mumbai co-star and girlfriend, on Roborovski, an animated short about a murderous mini-hamster.
In a phone interview during a break from the Dublin shoot of Green Knight, David Lowerys retelling of the Arthurian legend, Patel spoke about living a nightmare and the career moves that make him sweat.
Here are edited excerpts from the conversation.
Q: Hotel Mumbai is a very tough watch. Were you all in when Anthony first approached you?
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A: Yeah, I really wanted to be a part of telling this story once I understood that this wasnt going to be a Die Hard and he didnt want to shy away from the brutality. It was going to be unflinching, but it wasnt going to be this big action movie where youve got the Hollywood heroes that come in and save the day. It was going to be something that was told from the heart, and the characters were going to truly be propelled by a genuine fear for their lives. I thought, OK now, this is the way it should be told.
Q: Your character, Arjun, is an amalgam of several hotel staff members. Why did you decide to make him Sikh?
A: The script was so powerful it took my breath away. But the role that was being offered up to me — Anthony wont mind me saying this — didnt really have anything to say. He was utterly reactive, which I think a lot of people would have been in that situation. But I thought we could be more potent as filmmakers. I read this article after the September 11 attack about Sikh cabdrivers in New York being targeted and beaten up in racially motivated attacks. And what struck me was the cultural insensitivity, the naïveté of who they were and what they believed in. I thought it could be so interesting to tackle some of these uncultured stereotypes.
Q: Youre British but have returned to India repeatedly for movies. How do you make sure your portrayals are culturally correct?
A: Once I decided to make this character a young Sikh man, I went to Mumbai for a month and went to visit some Sikh communities out there and really get the culture under my skin. My first film, Slumdog, really exposed me to Mumbai, a city Id never experienced before. It took my breath away. At the end of that film, we have this dance sequence that ( director) Danny Boyle put in, which was kind of an ode to the city and culture and the escapism of Bollywood. And we closed down part of the (railway) station for three night shoots at a ridiculous hour in the morning. But still, I remember being struck by how many people were there — it was just teeming with humanity and life, and it was so exciting going there, even though I was a horrible dancer.