BY BILLY SUTER
AMID the hullabaloo of the Oscars race, where La La Land and Moonlight attracted most of the attention, was a film which, also among those nominated for the Best Picture statuette, really touched me.
It is wonderful, moving drama that I only got to see last night (February 28), some weeks after it reached the local circuit. I am so glad I did not miss it on the big screen.
It is the Aussie production, Lion, whose title is explained in its closing credits, and which received Oscar nominations for Dev Patel (Slumdog Millionaire, The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel) as best supporting actor and Nicole Kidman as best supporting actress. Its other Oscar nominations were for score, cinematography and adapted screenplay.
If it were up to me, I would have also given a supporting actor Oscar nomination to five-year-old Sunny Pawar, who plays the younger version of Patel’s character, is on screen every bit as long, and is even more extraordinary than Patel.
Based on a true story, adapted from the memoir A Long Way Home by Saroo Brierley, the drama is directed by Emmy Award-nominated Garth Davis (Top of the Lake) from a screenplay by Luke Davies.
It also features Academy Award-nominee Rooney Mara (Carol, The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo), as well as David Wenham, Nawazuddin Siddiqui, Priyanka Bose, Tannishtha Chatterjee and Deepti Naval.
Developed and produced by London and Sydney-based See-Saw Films (The King’s Speech, Shame, Top Of The Lake) in association with Aquarius Films and Sunstar Entertainment, the film tells the story of a five-year-old boy, Saroo Brierley.
The child gets lost and ends up falling asleep on a train that takes him to a city many hundreds of kilometres away, where he cannot speak the local language. Eventually he is adopted by an Aussie family and, more than two decades later, starts a journey to find his childhood home and birth mother.
“It’s one of those stories where it is virtually impossible not to move people when you talk to them about it. It is 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,” says producer Emile Sherman in production notes.
Producer Iain Canning adds: “As soon as we heard it, we felt that we had to go after it. Emile and I read an early manuscript of Saroo’s memoir and it has, without question, one of the most incredible endings.”
Iain and Emile 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. Both directors were nominated for an Emmy Award for their work on Top of the Lake.
Impressed by Garth’s work on the series, Emile and Iain didn’t hesitate to offer him the opportunity to direct Lion.
“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 is incredibly cinematic and can create real visual scope.
“At the same time he is just brilliant with actors. He creates such intimacy in his work and we wanted to make sure this felt raw and real,” says Emile.
“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.”
Producer Angie Fielder from Aquarius Films, whose previous credits include Wish You Were Here, starring Joel Edgerton and Teresa Palmer, and filmed on location in Cambodia, was invited to join the producing team.
She and Emile had been looking for a project to work on together. Before Emile had even spoken to her about the film, Angie had discovered Saroo’s story in a press article and had been captivated by it.
“When Emile told me he had secured the rights to Saroo’s book, it took me about two seconds to decide that I wanted to do it. And then he told me that Garth Davis was attached to direct. I had long been an admirer of Garth’s work so the idea of the film was very exciting,” Angie says in production notes.
“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.”
Determined to honor the truth of the story, Garth travelled to India while developing the film where he spent time in Kolkata (Calcutta) and also in Saroo’s childhood home village.
Garth 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.”
One of the great challenges of the film was to find an Indian boy to play Saroo as a five-year-old.
Angie 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.
Garth, Angie 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 had an emotional template for this character and, through the story, I could feel the spirit of this kid. So I knew who I was looking for… but it was very sobering to think about what we had to achieve.
“Children generally can be good actors from about the age of eight but it is difficult to find a five-year-old capable of acting. But I knew it was important to have a small boy – it is visually very powerful having a tiny boy lost in the world – and a boy who had the resilience and the patience to cope with the demands of the lead role in a film.,” Garth says.
“I just kept coming back to Sunny. 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 is 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,” Garth continues.
“He was one of those special kids. So then the question was ‘can we do a scene with him? Can he take direction? Can he cry? Can he scream? Does he have strength? Can he withstand direction?’ He did all of that and more.
“There was a certain point, maybe a week into the shoot, where he became an actor… where it was clear he was putting together different emotional ideas. It was absolutely extraordinary recognising that he was bringing something to his performance that we weren’t asking him to do.”
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.
“And I think you can see on screen that he is not wandering around looking at things, he is feeling things. I remember one important scene where Saroo’s older brother is arrested and Sunny started crying as we were shooting – they are real tears, there was no make up involved. He was genuinely crying because he was so emotionally involved in the scene.”
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.
Emile 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. H is 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.”
The film’s closing credits mention that some 80 000 children go missing in India each year.
See-Saw Films have been exploring opportunities to work with reputable organisations to support children in India and around the world.
Using the profile and publicity that will surround this moving film, See-Saw hope to shine a spotlight the need for global support to assist these organisations. Audiences will be able to find out more information and an opportunity to make a donation via the film’s website, http://www.lionmovie.com.
Saroo Brierley and his adoptive parents, Sue and John, continue to live in Hobart, Tasmania, where Saroo works in the family business.
Saroo is a passionate supporter of the work of Mrs Sood, who arranged his adoption to Australia and who runs orphanages in Kolkata, and he returns to India frequently to visit Mrs Sood, his birth mother Kamla and his extended Indian family.
Saroo is also a sought-after motivational speaker in Australia and other countries.