Well after school hours on Monday evening, a group of students dressed in the uniform of a musical band fidgeted impatiently outside the Air India Modern School in Kalina. The suburban Mumbai school had organised a function for one of its most well-known students, and a quick performance and salute were to kick off the show.

At around 5.30 pm, a Maruti Wagon R rolled into the compound. The band shifted into a two-line formation.

Eight-year-old Sunny Pawar, the young star of the Academy Award-nominated film Lion, slipped out of the car, looking dapper in a suit – the same one he had worn to the Oscars in Los Angeles on February 27. Pawar was accompanied by his parents, grandfather and two younger siblings, along with members of his extended family.

The band played a welcome tune, and Pawar did a pleased double take. At the end, the band leader gave Pawar, who was a good foot shorter than she, a crisp salute. Pawar grinned.

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Sunny Pawar being welcomed by his school.

Pawar, now in the third standard at Air India Modern School, was selected by a casting team in 2014. Since then, the boy has travelled a world far removed from the slum in which he lives. He visited Australia, where Lion was partly set, and America for the Academy Awards, where Lion was nominated in six categories. Pawar plays Saroo Brierley in Garth Davis’s movie, which is based on the true story of an Indian boy from Madhya Pradesh who gets lost and is adopted by an Australian couple, only to return to India in adulthood to find his family.

On the red carpet at the Oscars, Pawar, in a suit and colourful sneakers, was an instant crowd favourite. Oscars host Jimmy Kimmel scripted him into one of his gags, and in a true sign of Pawar’s entry into the feverish liberal space of the United States, he became the topic of a minor heated debate about whether Kimmel had been racist to hoist him into the air to the background score of The Lion King.

Pawar was born and grew up in Kunchi Korave Nagar, a mid-sized slum in Kalina that is walking distance from his school, which caters both to children from the middle-class colony and from outside. Their house is the only one in a small compound that seems to have once belonged to Rizvi Builders.

At the time of the Lion shoot, Pawar did not know any English but only Hindi and Marathi, like other children in his neighbourhood. Nor had he ventured much outside his neighbourhood. Now with his father, who manages his career after he was fired from his job sweeping roads, Sunny has travelled the world.

Sunny Pawar with his family. Photo by Esha Paul.
Sunny Pawar with his family. Photo by Esha Paul.

Back home in Mumbai, Pawar’s school, along with residents of the adjoining Air India Housing Colony, has joined the long line of those who have already felicitated him. The throng of adults around Pawar shepherded him past the phalanx inside the building, where the school’s teachers were lined up. Pawar’s father Dilip, a sizeably built man, held the hand of his diminutive son. After a short ceremony, Pawar and his parents were ushered from one room to another.

In one, an Air India Housing Colony dignitary gave an impromptu speech about the pride Pawar had brought to the school and the colony.

“Stage keliye thoda reserve kijiye!” called a woman in a blue sari from outside the room. Keep some of the speech for the stage. There was laughter all around.

Students and adults alike were dazzled by the stardust sticking to the reserved but intelligent boy, who had snappy answers for every tedious question.

“Excuse me, can I take a selfie?” an impatient young woman with red highlights in her hair asked as she enveloped Sunny in a hug.

Soon after the children and other guests had settled down, a band member with a mobile phone concealed in her hand prodded at her teammate. “Arre jaldi jao. Photo nikalna hai!” Go inside quickly, I want to take a photo.

Followed by an array of screens on mobiles and video cameras, the amorphous mass of adults led the Pawars up the stairs to the school’s air-conditioned computer room for snacks. All but two of the computers were switched on and all had screensavers with Sunny’s face dissolving in and out, between images of flowers, Dev Patel, and zingy screen effects.

With Pawar seated between two men, the guests, mostly residents of the area, plied Pawar with snacks and questions. The boy replied in mostly good humour, despite occasional flashes of irritation when the questions became too pressing.

“Give us a dialogue from the film,” one asked.

This was an easy question. “Guddu, main kuch bhi utha sakta hun,” Pawar said without a pause. Guddu, I can lift anything. Asked for another line, he refused.

“Who is your favourite film star?”

“Rajinikanth.”

“Will you do a step from Lungi Dance for us?”

“No.”

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Sunny Pawar wants to be actor when he’s grown up.

In yet another room, more speeches, Powerpoint presentations on the school and on Pawar (called “The ‘Pawarful Journey’”). The resounding theme was pride both in Pawar and in another former student, Aishwarya Amin, who was a part of the casting team that found Pawar.

“We wish to welcome a unique and wonderful child Sunny Pawar, who has raised the flag of Air India Modern School, Air India company and Air India Housing Colony across the world,” said one speechmaker. Another congratulated Pawar’s parents for having given birth to such a wonder.

There was a pressing need among many present to make Pawar perform, in some way to transfer the aura of Hollywood and stardom to them all, just to be able to say later, “Yes, I know Sunny Pawar.”

After an hour and a few more speeches, a dance performance by 40 children from the secondary school followed. The dancers had practised for an entire month. The only other students apart from the performers who were permitted to attend were Sunny’s classmates.

“Are any of you Sunny’s friends?” we asked unfairly while they were waiting upstairs in a classroom for their classmate and now star to arrive. All hands shot up in unison.

Sunny Pawar at the function. Photo by Venkataraghavan Rajagopalan.
Sunny Pawar at the function. Photo by Venkataraghavan Rajagopalan.

What does Pawar himself make of all the frenzy? He has certainly endured larger crowds in Hollywood. At a private party hosted by Lion producer Harvey Weinstein in Los Angeles during the Academy Awards, Pawar outdanced some dance professionals, according to Tess Joseph, the film’s casting director.

“What struck me most about Sunny was his inner stillness,” Joseph said. “That quietness has not been lost even now.”

According to Pawar’s third standard class teacher Sakshi Bhosale, Pawar is still the quiet child she remembers from the first standard.

“He was quiet but not very naughty,” Bhosale said. “He is like that even now. But the media is disrupting us a little now.”

Pawar has perhaps learnt to perform for public consumption. When cameras are trained on him, he automatically lifts his head with a smile. The moment the cameras turn away, the facade drops.

Joseph was concerned about the media frenzy around Pawar. “We put a lot of stress on him, but can we remember that he is just a kid?” she said. “Let him go back to being a kid and then let him decide whether he wants to continue acting.”

“He is only a child,” echoed his uncle Raviraj. “He needs to study now and finish his exams.”

The relentless attention has not eased at home either. Soon after Sunny returned to India, two competing media crews turned up at his house one day. One camped in the family’s compound the entire night just to get the first byte. The other, after intense jockeying, had to give way.

Media teams continue to visit Kunchi Korave Naga, where everybody know exactly where Pawar stays and everyone has an opinion on what he is like.

Have the residents watched the film?

“We saw it on YouTube,” chorused a set of young men playing carrom.

“I did not see it,” said Marubai Pawar, an old woman and relative of Pawar. “How can I pay Rs 600 to go to a theatre?”

A Sunny Pawar banner at the entrance of the slum where he lives. Photo by Venkataraghavan Rajagopalan.
A Sunny Pawar banner at the entrance of the slum where he lives. Photo by Venkataraghavan Rajagopalan.