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'Slumdog' Star Dev Patel Takes On Retirement Comedy

Dev Patel as Sonny and Judi Dench as Evelyn on the set of <em>The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel. </em>
Ishika Mohan
Fox Searchlight Pictures
Dev Patel as Sonny and Judi Dench as Evelyn on the set of The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel.

A new film takes a humorous look at retirement with an all-star lineup of veteran British actors. Opening in select U.S. cities Friday, The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel follows a group of British senior citizens who travel to Jaipur, India, hoping to spend their retirement years in an inexpensive but luxurious hotel. They quickly realize it's not quite the palace they saw in the brochure.

The brochure had been enhanced by the hotel's young and endlessly optimistic manager, Sonny Kapoor. He inherited the ramshackle real estate from his late father, and he dreams of transforming it into an elegant resort for "the elderly and beautiful," as he calls the retirees.

Dev Patel as Sonny and Tena Desae as Sunaina on the set of <em>The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel. </em>
Ishika Mohan / Fox Searchlight Pictures
Fox Searchlight Pictures
Dev Patel as Sonny and Tena Desae as Sunaina on the set of The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel.

Sonny is played by British-born actor Dev Patel, who starred in the Oscar-winning 2008 film Slumdog Millionaire and 2010's The Last Airbender.

In an interview with Tell Me More host Michel Martin, Patel explains that once he started reading the script, he knew he could have some fun as Sonny. Patel aimed to make the character "annoyingly adorable."

Sonny is "kind of a mad mess who is untamed," says Patel. And when the character gets into trouble, he responds with his motto: "Everything will be all right in the end, and if it's not all right, then it's not yet the end."

He feeds that line to the newly arrived retirees, particularly as they see incomplete paint jobs on hotel walls, missing doors on rooms, and phones and plumbing that do not work. He also says it to his beautiful girlfriend, Sunaina (played by Tena Desae), who is trying to win the approval of Sonny's very traditional mother. Patel has nothing but praise for Desae, saying, "I do not do a movie unless the woman is stupidly out of my league."

Patel says he also enjoyed working with Oscar-nominated director John Madden (Shakespeare in Love) and Oscar-winning actors Judi Dench and Maggie Smith, Oscar nominee Tom Wilkinson, Golden Globe winner Bill Nighy, as well as Penelope Wilton, Ronald Pickup and Celia Imrie.

"They've been acting since I was a fetus — I don't know, I mean, they've just been around for so long and they've seen it all," says Patel, who got his big break in the British television series Skins. "And I'm like, 'What have I got to offer?' "

But the nerves disappeared as soon as Patel flew to India and met the cast. "Literally, they're the coolest bunch of people I've ever met," he says.

The Success Of 'Slumdog'

In Slumdog Millionaire, Patel's first major film, a teen from the Mumbai slums competes on the Indian version of Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? and correctly answers questions by drawing upon his often tragic personal history.

In the wake of the film's phenomenal success, audiences questioned whether director Danny Boyle did enough to give back to the young Indian children who appeared in the movie.

"Obviously, when you're doing a movie that's so big," Patel says, "there's this massive magnification that's put on it, and everyone's trying to find a kind of chink in the armor, I guess, of this kind of big movie, you know, which is sad because, you know, in this case, they went to crazy extents to kind of do this."

The 'Coolest Role'

The Last Airbender follows Aang, a child tasked with stopping the Fire Nation from enslaving the Air, Earth and Water nations. The film is based on the animated series Avatar: The Last Airbender. The original story featured Asian characters, but the film adaptation featured only one Asian actor: Patel. He played Prince Zuko of the Fire Nation.

"It made me realize that when you're doing these big films, you become really small in the process of this, you know, this big mechanical machine — this studio movie," Patel says.

He says he was a big fan of the cartoon and had participated in martial arts for eight years. He points out that Prince Zuko is the villain at the beginning of the series, but he later becomes a hero and a fan favorite. So Patel was happy to take on the role — the "coolest role," he notes.

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