Dev and girlfriend
Tuesday, 17 April 2012

How I caught Dame Judi playing with her poppadoms

He shot to fame in Slumdog Millionaire, but as Gill Pringle discovers, nothing could prepare Dev Patel for his colourful first meeting with Best Exotic Marigold Hotel co-star Judi Dench

Written by Gill Pringle

Cast alongside more or less the entire royal family of British drama, Dev Patel admits to being anxious as he strode into a restaurant in Udaipur, India, for what would be the first of many lively cast dinners with his illustrious co-stars in The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, including Dame Judi Dench, Dame Maggie Smith and Tom Wilkinson. ‘But when I got there, they were all making [maps of] the continents out of the poppadoms. Judi started it off and was getting the others to guess which ones they were. I instantly relaxed, it was so funny,’ he recalls.

Dev was cast in this adaptation of Deborah Moggach’s novel at the last minute, after producers deemed the original
actor too handsome. ‘The casting and flying out to India was the scariest time in my life. I don’t know how many
thousands of times I’ve seen all the actors on TV, so you feel like you know them but, you’re scared,’ he admits.

‘I didn’t know whether to call Judi “Dame” or just Judi. I was even contemplating buying shirts so I’d appear more formal. These people have worked with Laurence Olivier. How dare I stand next to them and say my crappy lines? And they’re troupers. I was suffering in the heat, so I don’t know how they kept on going, take after take. But they
never complained.’ But out in public, it was Dev who was recognised, and not his famous co-stars: ‘Slumdog Millionaire [the Danny Boyle Oscarwinning blockbuster that made his name] was so big in India – it was like their national anthem almost – and I’m sitting with the best actors in the world, and I’m the one being recognised.


‘It was utterly embarrassing because it’s undeserved. It wouldn’t happen anywhere else. Only
in India, little lanky me getting all the attention.’

Born to Indian parents in Harrow, northwest London, Dev had little experience of the country prior to being cast in Slumdog Millionaire. ‘I was about five when I first went to India for a family wedding. I never went again because I
hated it,’ reveals the actor, who suffered mosquito bites and diarrhoea. ‘By the time I went back for Slumdog, I was at an age to understand it, and actually register what it meant. India is like a slap in the face. You can’t have a light reaction to it. You either love it or you hate it.’

Since then, he’s returned on charitable visits, taking time out to understand his heritage. ‘I visited a rural school in a
village in India, and they were the most well-behaved kids. But I was stirring things up by saying “Who wants to be a doctor? Who wants to be a dentist?” The children were all yelling by the time I left. That is a true stereotype – the children shouldn’t have to do what their parents think they should do; they should have a choice to do something they’re good at and excel in.


‘My own parents are easy-going, so I had no experience of the stricter aspects of the culture, particularly the stereotypical Indian mother who wants to arrange her children’s marriages,’ he says, referring to his film character Sonny’s similar dilemma.

Certainly he has no marriage plans of his own in the immediate future, despite being in a three-year relationship
with Slumdog co-star Freida Pinto. ‘I’m incredibly lucky to have a family that allows me to be free. But in general, that isn’t true of Indian parents and it’s a trait that needs to loosen up. My parents couldn’t be more different. It was
they who pushed me into Skins, which was raunchy and crazy,’ he says referring to his career-making role in the popular British teen TV series.

With hindsight, he’s grateful to his co-stars for re-opening his eyes to India: ‘When I first went there I was so depressed by the poverty. It upset me deeply, but the more you go to a place, you become slightly numb, which I
feel ashamed to say, but you just get used to it,’ he says.

‘There are so many poor childrenand you’re just used to them, whereas when you first go it’s like, “There’s a five-year-old kid begging at the traffic lights, and if that was in London… it would never happen”. It’s just a sad thing, so it’s nice when people like that come fresh to it and remind you: “Look at this place. It needs improvement”.’

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Dev confesses to having spent most of the previous day furniture- shopping in Ikea for his new rented apartment in Los Angeles, where he’ll spend the next few months filming HBO TV drama The Newsroom. ‘I was in there nine hours! If you put me on Who Wants To Be A Millionaire?, Ikea Edition, I’d win.’

Portraying a hotel manager in The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, I ask what his favourite hotel is. Having recently visited Florence with Freida, he replies without hesitation: ‘Salvatore Ferragamo, the fashion label, has these wonderful boutique hotels in Italy. Freida and I have been so busy that it was nice to get away together. It’s tricky; there are two options [with a relationship]: you either make it work or let it slide away, so you’ve just got to make it work,’ he says.

‘We were such tourists in Italy, visiting the Colosseum and doing our gladiator poses,’ he enthuses. ‘We had a guide
because we wanted to learn everything about it. We’re both little geeks.’

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