Dev Patel: I let down my accountant father with my math grades

But actor plays lead role as math genius in ‘ultimate fish-out-of-water story’ The Man Who Knew Infinity

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Photos: Zara Zhuang, 26th Singapore International Film Festival
Video: Vanessa Lim

Director Matthew Brown called his relationship with math growing up “pretty non-existent” — “I was terrible at math and dyslexic as well,” he said — while his lead actor Dev Patel, who explained he couldn’t sit still for long, said he had let down his accountant father with his math grades.

“But hey, I’m playing Ramanujan now,” he quipped.

Ramanu-who?

The subject of the The Man Who Knew Infinity, which premiered to a sold-out crowd at the 26th Singapore International Film Festival on Friday night, is the gifted Indian mathematician Srinivasa Ramanujan, likely little known beyond academic circles. He travelled to Cambridge University to study the subject with acclaimed professors but died at 32 in 1920.

“It’s the ultimate fish-out-of-water story,” said 25-year-old Dev, who described the relationship between Ramanujan and his English academic advisor G. H. Hardy (played by Jeremy Irons) as a mathematical bromance. “You don’t need to understand what they’re talking about to see how passionate they are about their art.”

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Battle of wits
Though abstract theoretical mathematics is central to the movie’s plot, it was the human story, derived from the 1991 biography on Ramanujan by Robert Kanigel, that grabbed the director’s attention. “This film for me is about the cost when people wait out of fear to connect in relationships,” Matthew said, “so I kept that mantra in my head the whole time.”

And with professional conflict but underlying concern forming the basis of Ramanujan and Hardy’s relationship, the dialog between Dev and Jeremy were as tense as battle scenes. “He’s the guy the planets sort of revolve around,” Dev said of Jeremy. “He has a gravitational pull as an actor, which is just astounding.” He recounted how he was reminded of Scar from The Lion King, an animated character Jeremy voiced, then the latter delivered an emotionally charged line of rebuke.

To ensure all the academic material appearing in the feature film was faultless — The Big Bang Theory–style — American mathematician and Ramanujan expert Ken Ono was brought onboard to work with the art crew, so all the math you see in the film, whether in the notebooks or on the blackboard, is accurate, Matthew added.

But don’t let the numerals and never-ending number series distract you from the storyline. “[The characters] are artists and they’re passionate about their work, and it carries the interest for the audience in seeing them trying to meet their goals,” Matthew explained.

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Culture clash
For the British-born Dev, his breakout role in 2008’s Slumdog Millionaire led to offers of Asian- and Indian-centric roles — the campy retirement hotel proprietor Sonny Kapoor in 2012’s The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel and its sequel, the lonely tech whiz Deon Wilson in Chappie, the blogger and electronic media expert Neal Sampat in HBO’s The Newsroom. But the actor didn’t agree he had been typecasted. “I think ‘stereotype’ is a word thrown around very loosely,” he said. “And unlike some actors I really embrace who I am.”

“I am a British agent … and I’m not ashamed of it.”

And being British didn’t help ease the feeling being out of his element when filming for The Man Who Knew Infinity took place (it was the first film allowed to shoot on location at Cambridge’s Trinity College too).

“I went to a school that was two steps away from having a metal detector at the front door, so to step into Cambridge for the first time, it was like, ‘Whoaaaa,’” Dev said, and added he got into trouble for walking on the lawns of the esteemed institution.

“I felt like I was at Hogwarts,” he said. “And that fish-out-of-water feeling comes naturally when you're in Cambridge.”

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More stories on the 26th Singapore International Film Festival, which
closes today:

Lawrence Wong films steamy love scene in nothing but a loincloth
Sonia Sui on baby no. 2: “Not so soon!”

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