screen life //

Dev Pa­tel stars as a man in a search for his bi­o­log­i­cal fam­ily

Life & Style Weekend - - WELCOME // INSIDE TODAY - With Seanna Cronin

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 Ben­gal 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 Week­end.

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. “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 lov­able 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.”

Davis and the film’s cast will re­unite in Los An­ge­les later this month 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. Ni­cole and Dev are get­ting some beau­ti­ful recog­ni­tion and that makes me re­ally proud.”

Lion opens na­tion­ally on Thurs­day.

PHOTO: MARK ROGERS

Ni­cole Kid­man, David Wen­ham and Sunny Pawar in a scene from the movie Lion.

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