PATEL A ROARING SUCCESS
His latest role in biopic Lion sees Slumdog Millionaire star Dev Patel morph into an Aussie – complete with MasterChef-inspired accent
If Dev Patel had any fears of being upstaged in the heartwarming hit film Lion, it wasn’t Oscar winner Nicole Kidman he had to worry about. While the Slumdog Millionaire and The Newsroom favourite was in awe of how Kidman went about her business – both on set and during the recent international road trip to sell the local film to the world – Patel concedes they both found themselves happily in the shadows of newcomer, Sunny Pawar. The eight-year-old, who shares the role of Saroo Brierley with Patel, proved this year’s Jacob Tremblay, of Room fame, at the Golden Globe awards, charming the A-list crowd and winning hearts the world over with his mature-beyond-hisyears performance.
In his first ever acting role, Pawar plays a five-year-old Saroo in the true story of a little Indian boy lost on a train, who is taken far from his birth family, only to be adopted by an Australian couple (Kidman and David Wenham).
Patel, who plays Saroo as a young man in search of his identity and first home, shared scenes with Pawar; developing an instant “big brother” bond.
“We all became so protective over him, we all love him so much,” Patel says.
“He’s our little mascot on this movie.
“For him, he’d never been on a plane before or seen a Hollywood film and now he’s leading this big movie. He’s so beautifully innocent and that’s why you get such a beautiful performance from him. He’s just really enjoying it.”
Getting to know the real Saroo Brierley was even more rewarding, Patel says.
As the film moved its production from Kolkata, India, to Melbourne and Tasmania back in 2015, Patel was able to meet with Brierley, now a businessman living in Hobart, over a breakfast date.
“I was completely nervous, just these whole waves of anxiety. We’d done the biggest scene already (back in India, where adult Saroo searches for his family’s village) and I was thinking, ‘I hope he accepts me, I hope he likes me’. But as soon as we sat down, we just connected.
“I’d spent so long in his shoes, it felt like I’d know him already.”
While his Australian accent has already earned him headlines (training for eight months with a Sydney dialect coach Jenny Kent, as well as taking inspiration from MasterChef Australia judge George Calombaris), the internal struggle Saroo goes through – wrestling with memories of the family he knew as a child, then lost – was informed by Patel’s meeting with the man himself.
“We spoke about this idea of guilt, what it’s been like for him to be living this amazing life when his mother and brother could still be back there (in India) suffering, searching for him every day. There’s a lot of my part of the film, which is about pain and about identity, and it’s a really internalised space, but it’s really exposing.
“It was really amazing to sit down with him and hear him speak about that experience,” Patel says.
The remarkable way Brierley eventually found his way home was a moment of synchronicity – his desperate search to finding the human equivalent of a needle in a haystack, timed with the launch of Google Earth back in 2005, which allows users to search almost anywhere in the world using interactive maps. What Patel found even more compelling was how Brierley said he’d conjured up this same ability in his own head.
“He told me about this concept of ‘astral travelling’, which I’d never heard of before,” he says.
“He said: ‘when my mother Sue would put me to bed, my heart would start racing and it felt like I was coming out of my body and I was hovering in the air. Then I would find myself over India and in this dreamlike state I’d materialise on the streets, next to my mother and brother. I would do that every night and I’d wake up exhausted, sweating, like I’d actually been running on those streets’.”
Then, Patel explained, “this app came out, Google Earth, which paralleled what he was doing in his brain”.
“He would hover over India, then all of a sudden zoom in and I was like, ‘wow, that’s really cool’.
“Astral travelling is a thing and you can read about it ... this idea that your soul can physically go somewhere.” Lion is showing in all major cinemas from today