In 1987, six-year-old Saroo fell asleep on a train and went hundreds of kilometres away from his home in Khandwa in Madhya Pradesh. Unable to identify his place of origin, Saroo drifted on the streets of Kolkata until a passerby took him to the local police station, which transferred him to an orphanage. Taking place as the story did, before the age of internet, the authorities were unable to locate his birth mother, and Saroo was eventually adopted by Australian parents. Twenty-six years later, aided by Google Earth, Saroo Brierly came back to his hometown.
This extraordinary tale, told by Brierly in his 2012 memoir A Long Way Home, forms the basis of Australian filmmaker Garth Davis’s feature debut. Lion stars Sunny Pawar as the young Saroo and Dev Patel as the adult character, Nicole Kidman as his adoptive mother, and Priyanka Bose as his mother. The supporting turns include Rooney Mara, Deepti Naval, Nawazuddin Siddiqui and Tanishtha Chaterjee. Lion has been nominated for six Oscars, including for Best Picture, and Patel and Kidman in the Supporting Actor categories.
Davis has previously directed episodes of Jane Campion’s mini-series Top of the Lake (2013). The Australian director spoke to Scroll.in about the challenges he faced in making Google Earth “cinematic”, putting Dev Patel “through hell”, and directing actors in a language foreign to him.
What drew you to the story?
That fact that it was a true story made it more compelling and even more amazing. The thing that really moved me was the love that each of the characters held for each other, and the spiritualism that they all had, which engineered a miracle of a story.
The true story itself is dramatic. Was there a particular reason for choosing a fictional treatment over documentary?
I suppose because with a film, you can be inside Saroo’s head, you can be in that experience. You can get lost in it. I don’t think a documentary can show the terror of being trapped on a train. I don’t think it can show the loneliness of being that invisible boy in Howrah and no one helps you. I don’t think a documentary can do that. It can describe it with words, but this is a visual experience, so the film makes the story more experiential.
What did your research involve?
I started with the story and the world it was set in. Before I even put pen to paper, I came to India and retraced all of Saroo’s steps. I met his family in India and Australia to immerse myself in their worlds and try and understand and feel what he’d been through.
Films don’t always show how metascreens have become all-pervasive because it is considered uncinematic. And you had to adapt a book in which a bulk of the story unfolds through Google Earth.
It was extremely challenging because looking at screens is not cinematic. I suppose for me, the older version of Google Earth and the maps not having the resolution worked like memory. Saroo was trying to look at these decaying images, so there was something haunting and powerful in the technology if you placed it correctly. Once I understood how to use the technology to help the story, then it became a powerful thing and I really embraced it.
Saroo also spoke about leaving his body every night and flying home to his mother in India, whispering in his ear that he was here, he was alright. So Google also, for me, became his spiritual journey to his mother.
Since ‘Lion’ has Dev Patel, there will be comparisons with Slumdog Millionaire. Was that at the back of your mind?
I would never do anything like Slumdog. We are totally different directors, so I wasn’t worried about that. And I was just focussed on making the best film that I could with the people that I had. So I was never really looking at Slumdog at all.
In ‘Slumdog Millionaire’, most of the characters spoke in English. ‘Lion’ uses Hindi and Bengali. Was it a conscious choice, or have the times changed?
When Saroo gets adopted, he learns English. So when he did hear Hindi again, it was like something from the past, so the language was an important part of the storytelling. It’s not usual to make a film that will reach so many people with subtitles in the first half of the movie, but we had to be truthful.
You were directing actors in a language you were not familiar with.
In many ways, the film is almost a silent movie. The translators that I chose have filmmaking experience. Devi Gupta, who was a translator for the little boy, was a film actor, so I knew that he would be translating in a language that was relatable. By listening, I could tell if the actors were being honest or not, no matter what the language.
Are the locations in the film the real ones from the story?
Yeah, pretty much. They are all the real locations, unless of course, it may impact somebody. I didn’t want to shoot where Saroo’s mother lives today because it would bring too much attention to her, but we shot in Khandwa, in Ganeshtalay, at Howrah station. Lots of locations were real.
Did being an outsider prove to be a challenge while shooting the film?
It’s great going to a new place you have never seen, because it is new and you can respond in a way that is very objective. But Australia was my biggest challenge. You can become very blind to your hometown, you don’t see it with fresh eyes. So it became really challenging for me to shoot my hometown in a really interesting way. That’s why we shot India first, so that it could help inform and inspire how we captured Australia.
How did you manage to find the young cast?
It was the classic needle in a haystack. We cast in three cities in India, we looked at thousands of thousands of children. We had to keep going until we found Sunny Pawar. I shortlisted all the children to about 100-200 and came over and did a big acting workshop and that’s how I found all the kids.
You said in an interview that while auditioning Dev Patel, you ‘put him through hell’.
I did. I needed to see if he could bring about a social realist performance and I needed to see if I could get him into a dark place as well as a light place. So I did some very, very extensive workshops with him opposite other actors and workshopped him to get a sense of how he worked as an actor and see the potential.
When he came on board on the film, he had to do a lot of rehearsals. I made him do all sorts of things, from going on large train trips, working at orphanages, keeping diaries. He did all sorts of experiential things to try and deepen his emotional understanding of the story. He also put on weight and did a lot of weight training and accent coaching.
What was the response of Saroo and his family to the film?
Saroo’s Australian family saw the film in Sydney, it was a very emotional experience for them. When I came in at the end, they were in an embrace. To relive their portrayal was hard, but they are happy with the film.
The film concludes with photographs of the real people and guides people to a charity that is involved with finding missing children in India. Many films based on true stories seem to be doing this. Does this detract from the fictional world you are creating?
It’s funny, because I have started to watch some films, I don’t watch a lot, and a lot of them do the same thing. We just felt like it was important that people could see that it was a real story. And when those images come up in the end, it really has an impact on people. So I think it was a device we used that was really important for the experience for the viewer. It is such an unbelievable story, you almost feel like people are not going to believe it. But when you show the photos is when people realise it is real. And those photos that we chose are so deeply emotional that you see the love that they had, it just does something. It helps in many ways.
In terms of the charities, that all came after we made the film. We didn’t quite realise how political it was and just how powerful that aspect of the children was. We felt that there were going to be people who wanted to do something after watching this movie, and we felt like we needed to make it as easy as possible for them.
Could you talk about your next project?
I have finished shooting in Italy. It’s a story of Mary Magdalene, told from her point of view. I can’t wait to get back into the editing room.