Tracing every track: adopted Australian’s amazing journey
A TRAIN journey across the middle of India sounds like a romantic journey through the subcontinent, but it was a nightmare for young Saroo Brierly.
Born Sheru Munshi Khan, Saroo was just five years old when he fell asleep in an empty train carriage and woke up thousands of kilometres from home.
When he finally disembarked at the huge Howrah railway station in the crowded West Bengali capital of Calcutta (now Kolkata), he was disoriented and, thanks to the language barrier between Bengali and his native Hindi, he was mistaken for a street urchin by those he approached for help.
After dodging the many dangers of the city's streets, young Saroo was eventually placed in an orphanage and adopted by Tasmanian couple John and Sue Brierly.
In his 20s, thanks to the advent of Google Earth, Saroo began tracing every train line out of Kolkata in the hope of reconnecting with his lost family.
Against all odds, Saroo used memories of landmarks to find his family's village. Miraculously, he arrived in Ganesh Tilai to find his birth mother and younger sister still living there.
His incredible story is now the subject of a film, starring Dev Patel and Nicole Kidman, which has already earned plenty of Oscar buzz.
"It had that fable-like quality, that odyssey quality of this little boy who goes on this massive journey," director Garth Davis tells ARM's Weekend magazine.
Saroo's incredible story was brought to the attention of Davis and the film's producers by a newspaper article. They were quick to act, securing the rights to Saroo's story before the publication of his book and the airing of a 60 Minutes story.
"The first thing I did was go to India with him," Davis says.
"Coincidentally it was the same time Saroo was meeting his birth mother as part of the 60 Minutes story, so I tagged along for that.
"I retraced all of his steps. I just tried to do the legwork so I could experience it myself. It was quite a big journey."
Davis was adamant about casting a young actor who was the same age as Saroo when he was separated from his family.
"The usual way you would cast a five-year-old is to cast an eight-year-old who looks young, but I found the eight-year-olds were too old," he says.
"As a director I visualised this film and felt the characters… when Sunny (Pawar) came into the room he was the first child I came across who I could feel Saroo in him. There was something about him. I went 'oh my God, that's the kid'. When I put the camera on him I could just see the film."
The first half of the film, focusing on young Saroo and his older brother Guddu (Abhishek Bharate), is in Hindi with subtitles - a brave move for Davis considering Lion is his feature film debut.
"I thought these brothers were so loveable and engaging, and that there was enough drama there to hold an audience. It was definitely worth the risk," he says.
Slumdog Millionaire star Dev Patel plays the adult Saroo during his formative years at university, his exhaustive Google Earth search and his eventual pilgrimage home to India.
"He wasn't a tortured soul," Davis says. "He became this very carefree, beautiful Australian man. I think it's very important for the story to see this guy who seemed normal in many ways; a guy you'd see walking down the street."
Rooney Mara, who will star in Davis's next film Mary Magdalene, plays Saroo's girlfriend Lucy.
"It was a very small role but she just loved the story," he says.
"She was a Ferrari in a 40km zone but she is such an amazing actress and I think she's beautiful in Lion because she's so magnetic and mysterious. It brought something to the story emotionally. At the time I thought 'if I could do a whole movie with her; and my wish came true."
Davis and the film's cast reunited in Los Angeles last week for Hollywood's awards season.
Lion was nominated for four Golden Globes and is up for two Screen Actors' Guild awards later this month.
"I don't have any expectations on that because it's a funny business," Davis says. "All I do is support the film with the same love and passion I put into making it. That's all you can do, just be yourself and stand tall and let everybody who's worked on the film accept that acclaim. Nicole and Dev are getting some beautiful recognition and that makes me really proud. It's a wonderful position to be in."
Lion opens nationally on Thursday.