Patel had gone through a 12-hour audition before she got the part.Set during the Indo-Pakistani War of 1947, it featured Patel as Sakeena, a Muslim girl who finds refuge in Deol's house during the riots, and subsequently falls for him.She was born in the Breach Candy Hospital in Mumbai and is a trained Bharatnatyam dancer since the age of five.
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She studied at the Cathedral and John Connon School in Mumbai and was head girl for the academic year 1992–93 before heading overseas to study Bio-genetic engineering, which she studied for two years, and eventually switching to Economics at Tufts University in Medford, Massachusetts. Patel's career began as an economic analyst at Khandwala Securities Limited after graduation.
Later on, she received an offer from Morgan Stanley but turned it down.
Patel has also modelled for well-known Indian brands like Bajaj Sevashram, Fair & Lovely, Cadburys Jai Lime, Fem, Lux and many more.
Patel's first opportunity for acting came in the form of an offer from her father's schoolmate, Rakesh Roshan, to star opposite his son, Hrithik Roshan, in Kaho Naa... The offer came immediately after she graduated from high school but she refused the project because she wanted to continue her education in USA. The role of an exuberant college girl in love, undergoing a tortuous time at losing her lover and rediscovering a more mature relationship gave Patel scope to perform.
Her performance in the 2002 film Humraaz received critical acclaim and it was one of the biggest hits of the year receiving her a nomination for Best Actress .