Dev Patel - from Slumdog Millionaire to mathematics genius

In the biopic The Man Who Knew Infinity, actor Dev Patel plays a mathematics genius who travelled from Madras to Cambridge.
In the biopic The Man Who Knew Infinity, actor Dev Patel plays a mathematics genius who travelled from Madras to Cambridge.PHOTO: SHAW ORGANISATION

The Man Who Knew Infinity follows self-taught mathematician Srinivasa Ramanujan's journey from India to Cambridge and his relationship with Professor G.H. Hardy

Actor Dev Patel did not have to do much acting when he walked around Cambridge University playing a mathematics genius from Madras invited there to do research.

His character is awestruck by the majesty of the institution. Patel did not have to fake the feeling.

"Cambridge is crazy. I went to a school with metal detectors at the front door. I felt I was at Hogwarts. The fish-out-of-water feeling comes naturally when you are overwhelmed by the history and architecture," he says.

The 26-year-old gained worldwide attention and a Bafta nomination for his leading role in Slumdog Millionaire (2008), the drama which grabbed eight Oscars in 2009, including one for Best Picture. He was speaking to the press at the Singapore International Film Festival late last year, when he was here for the screening of the biopic The Man Who Knew Infinity.

Patel plays Srinivasa Ramanujan, a poor clerk largely self-taught in higher mathematics, who in 1914 travelled from Madras to Cambridge at the invitation of G.H. Hardy, a professor who spotted potential in the papers Srinivasa had sent, unsolicited.

Jeremy Irons plays Hardy in the film. Srinivasa's work, done alone and with Hardy, is still being used and studied today.

While the story tries to give an impression of the breakthroughs Srinivasa achieved, the field of study is difficult to portray on screen. A balance had to be struck.

"We had to do justice to the mathematics without it overwhelming the story. The story has to be about two humans," he says.

Writer-director Matthew Brown based his screenplay on a 1991 biography written by Robert Kanigel.

"Biopic is a 'four-letter word,'" says Brown, referring to how biographical films are often seen as dull and didactic.

He avoided that by fleshing out the most dramatic moments in Srinivasa's life, which included the shock from the racism he encountered at Cambridge, both from the staff and from the townspeople. In one telling scene, staff and students in the dining hall trivialise the devout Hindu's aversion to meat, treating it as if it were a minor inconvenience to which he could adapt.

To make the story come to life, Brown treated it as a "mathematical bromance" between Srinivasa and Hardy, two men who came from disparate backgrounds but who find kinship in the abstract world of numbers.

To stay true to the emotional tone of England before The Great War, Brown made sure that no one spoke directly about what they were feeling, even if they were suffering.

But that restraint can pay off in dramatic terms, says Brown.

"I like the bubbling tension. There is a scene in a classroom where Hardy and Srinivasa have a fight, in what I call the 'break-up'. It's beautiful how the men keep it all inside, then finally, you get some emotion out of them."

"It's powerful and it works because we do not have that in the rest of the film."

Brown adds that the culture clash between the two would not be grasped unless viewers understood Srinivasa's life before Cambridge. This is why the film spends much of its first act in Madras, showing the clerk's life with wife Janaki, played by Devika Bhise.

"You can't honour the story without spending time in India. We have to understand his culture and his journey, and what he had to give up when he went to England. He had to give up his faith, his wife and family, to go to this pretty brutal place."

•The Man Who Knew Infinity opens in Singapore tomorrow.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on May 18, 2016, with the headline 'Mathematical bromance'. Print Edition | Subscribe