Five year old Saroo gets lost on a train which takes him thousands of miles across India, away from home and family. Saroo must learn to survive alone in Kolkata, before ultimately being adopted by an Australian couple. Twenty five years later, armed with only a handful of memories, his unwavering determination, and a revolutionary technology known as Google Earth, he sets out to find his lost family and finally return to his first home.
Adapted from the memoir “A Long Way Home” by Saroo Brierley, LION is directed by Emmy Award nominated Garth Davis (Top of the Lake) from a screenplay by Luke Davies (Candy, Life). Starring Dev Patel, Nicole Kidman, Rooney Mara and David Wenham, with Nawazuddin Siddiqui, Priyanka Bose, Tannishtha Chatterjee, Deepti Naval, and introducing Sunny Pawar.
When See-Saw Film’s Emile Sherman and Iain Canning first heard the true story of Saroo Brierley‘s journey to find his childhood home and birth mother, they immediately sensed that it could make an extraordinarily powerful feature film.
“It’s one of those stories where it is virtually impossible not to move people when you talk to them about it. It’s an incredible story that gives everyone tingles up their spine. It taps into something primal in us as human beings – the need to find home and the need to know who you are,” producer Sherman says.
Canning and Sherman approached Garth Davis to direct the film while at the Sundance Film Festival in 2013 for the world premiere of their television series Top of the Lake, co-directed by Garth, with Jane Campion, who also co-wrote the series.
“We followed our instincts. We felt Garth – although he hadn’t yet made a feature film – was exactly the right director for the film. He’s incredibly cinematic and can create real visual scope. At the same time he’s just brilliant with actors. He creates such intimacy in his work and we wanted to make sure this felt raw and real,” Sherman says.
“This is a film about family, about those deep bonds that never go away, that underpin our lives. Garth feels those bonds. He is a director who is not afraid of emotions. He embraces the emotion but does it in a way that is real and fresh and edgy. He also has a spiritual side – there is a sense of fate in this film. It’s about destiny and hope and we knew that Garth would bring out those resonances in a way that another director might not have been so finely tuned to do.”
Producer Angie Fielder from Aquarius Films was invited to join the producing team. She says: “You couldn’t make Saroo’s story up, it’s so extraordinary. It has all of the stuff of great cinema – it has adventure and peril, it traverses continents, it travels across time. And his journey is deeply, deeply emotional. What also makes it incredibly cinematic is that the story is so ultimately satisfying. After years of being without his biological family and years of searching he actually, amazingly, like a needle in a haystack, found his way home.”
Determined to honour the truth of the story, Davis travelled to India while developing the film where he spent time in Kolkata (Calcutta) and also in Saroo’s childhood home village. Davis was there in the village when Saroo’s birth mother Kamla and adoptive mother Sue met for the very first time. Some of the filming of LION took place in the village and Saroo’s family were welcome visitors to set on several occasions.
“It was important for me to just walk in Saroo’s reality as much as possible and so I literally retraced his steps as best as I could. I walked around his village by myself and imagined being a little boy growing up in that area. I sat on a bench at the Burhanpur train station where he woke up alone, and then on to Kolkata and the main train station, Howrah, where the full force of the story really hit me. I have my own kids and to imagine a five year old alone there, unable to speak the language – that’s when I knew this was going to be a really powerful film.”
Screenwriter Luke Davies made his own journey to India. Canning and Sherman had previously worked with him on Anton Corbijn’s Life and also on the filmed adaption of Davies’ novel Candy.
Davis and Davies collaborated closely and intensely, experimenting with ideas, including the film’s structure. Would it be told in flashback or as a linear narrative? How do you honour the truth of the story but tell it in a way that is satisfying for a cinematic audience?
Sherman says: “The more traditional structure would have been to start with Saroo in Australia, for it to be the story of a western man who suddenly has memories of the past, and to cut back and forth as he searches for home. We battled long and hard with the structure and ultimately decided to go for a more epic one – letting the audience fully experience young Saroo’s life in India upfront. Starting with his family life, through the moment he steps onto the wrong train, onto his life on the streets of Kolkata, we are with young Saroo as his story unfolds. The enormous power of this experience is then felt throughout the Australian section, and we can then fully appreciate his emotional pull back to his birth mother.
One of the great challenges of the film was to find an Indian boy to play Saroo as a five-year-old. Fielder says that the Indian production team worked closely with schools and parents in several large Indian cities in their search for the right boys for the roles. They screen tested thousands of children and each child who was considered to have acting potential was filmed and the tests sent back to Australia. Davis, Fielder, Australian casting director Kirsty McGregor and dramaturg Miranda Harcourt then travelled to India to work with the shortlisted children, including Sunny Pawar who was chosen to play Saroo.
“I just kept coming back to Sunny.” Says Davis. “ I would put a camera lens on him and he just felt like the boy I had been feeling. I needed a boy who in his natural state could give me 80% of the performance, someone with a look behind his eyes, a history, a quality that’s beautiful to look at…and Sunny had that in spades. He could just sit in a room with the cameras on him and those of us watching would get lost in his story, in his face. At the same time there was something darker, something interesting going on.”
Producer Angie Fielder says: “Sunny went from being a young boy who had no idea about acting to a total pro who understood everything about what he was doing and was completely in control of his performance.”
Production began in the eastern Indian city of Kolkata (previously known as Calcutta) in January 2015. Dev Patel, who plays the adult Saroo, arrived early in the shoot to film the scenes of reunion with Saroo’s birth mother. Dev campaigned hard to win the role, convincing Garth Davis and the producers that cinema audiences had yet to see the range he was capable of.
Sherman says: “We knew we had to cast a Western actor of Indian heritage rather than an actor from India, to ensure the accent was correct. Saroo himself is very much an Australian man. We always had Dev in mind. He just blew us away in his screen test. He’s a wonderful actor, but he’s also so likeable, so warm and so much fun. We knew we were in the hands of an actor who’d be able to take the audience on a very emotional journey. Dev really embraced that and exceeded all of our extremely high expectations.”
To better look like the real Saroo Brierley, who is tall and strong after a lifetime in the Australian outdoors, Patel embarked on a punishing weight and food regime, to add bulk and muscle. He also worked with a dialect coach to perfect the notoriously difficult Australian accent.
Patel confirms that he chased the role. He says he’d never read a script so enchanting: “It encapsulates triumph. It’s such a hopeful story about this kid’s will to survive and to find his family again. What particularly drew me to the role was that it is a very contemporary character, and also that the story has complex family dynamics – it’s a beautiful role.”
LION is in cinemas from Friday, 20th January, 2017.
Read the full feature in our Movie Time 2017 Preview Special: