Image: Saroo Brierley, aged 6, photographed as a new arrival in Australia in 1987. Photo courtesy Saroo Brierley
It’s a Tuesday afternoon during the worst time of year in Brisbane, also known as hot, humid, sleepless January, when I sit down to talk to Saroo and Sue Brierley. At 5pm, I’m at nearly the end of the endless parade of journalists ushered into their hotel room (which boasts a sweeping, breathtaking 360 degree view of the city), squeezed into a week of tireless promotion of Lion, the film that brings their story to the screen. It’s one that needs little introduction – Saroo (played by Dev Patel), who was born in the Indian town of Ganesh Talai, became lost on a train at the age of 5 and was taken 1500 kilometres away to Kolkata, where he didn’t speak a word of the language and slept on the streets. After being taken to an orphanage, he was adopted by Sue (played by Nicole Kidman) and John (played by David Wenham) Brierley from Tasmania. Twenty-five years later, he used Google Earth to retrace his journey. Before Lion, his story was told in the book A Long Way Home and in a 60 Minutes special.
Lion is directed by Garth Davis of the Jane Campion TV series Top of the Lake and the upcoming film Mary Magdalene, which stars Rooney Mara (who appears briefly in Lion as Lucy, Saroo’s partner), Joaquin Phoenix, and Chiwetel Ejiofor. Lion is a quiet film, one of people left behind and places long forgotten, of barely remembered whispers from the past that surface at the most unexpected moments, one that lodges itself in your brain with its contemplative ache. It doesn’t rely on a single moment but the sum total to reveal its emotional heft, the conversations flowing and the narrative gradually falling into place.
But make no mistake, this is not a universal story. This is Saroo Brierley’s story, one of survival, fate, and everything that came after; but its specificity has helped it connect with audiences worldwide. When the film premiered at the Toronto Film Festival last year, it was given second place in the prestigious People’s Choice Award, a prize that commonly predicts Oscar glory, with past winners including Best Picture triumphs American Beauty, The King’s Speech, Slumdog Millionaire, and 12 Years a Slave. There’s worldwide acclaim, talk of Oscars, and [note: at time of writing] it’s already had one of the biggest opening days for an Australian film ever (one of the many records it’s set to break). However, when I spoke to Saroo and Sue two days before the film’s release, their journey was long from over.
Lion is in cinemas around Australia now.
Some transcribed components below:
On the most surprising part of of travelling with the film
Saroo: It’s our memoir, which is out there as a motion picture. It’s out there, but you want to know how people react, ultimately. We didn’t really know, but when we saw the reaction from women…and men…and children, it was just incredible, because people are talking about the movie in so many different dimensions. You know, there are so many attributes that…when people ask “are you sick of answering the same question”, no, because there’s so many variances and so many different questions being asked. You know, that’s really astounded me, because I didn’t think people would pick that up, because I think you know…those themes are in there.
Sue: Everyone takes something always a little bit different.
Saroo: It resonates a bit differently…
Sue: And it’s always a bit different, so the questions we’ve been asked, particularly at Q&A’s after the screenings, are just so diverse, and actually quite heartfelt…in a way you’ll see that’s making them recall quite deep, personal things in their own life. So they’re sort of switching it into their life story. It’s quite touching, really.
And that’s something you wouldn’t have expected I guess, that it would get people so…
Saroo: No, well the funny thing about it is some of my friends I know…well, acquaintances, really, they’ve come up and said “hey, I don’t really know my father”. You wouldn’t have…unless the film came out, you wouldn’t have really known. It’s really bringing a lot of people out that have been living in the shadows for a long time and finding a sort of…a way, I guess to talk about it…this movie, this story of myself, my memoir, I guess has been the catalyst.
I guess that’d feel so strange, because it’s this one thing about yourselves that’s touching so many lives.
Sue: I’m really happy that’s happening, because it doesn’t hurt to take a deeper look at yourself and certain issues and social issues. You can get too busy just living your life on the treadmill that you don’t reflect enough on humanity.
Saroo: It is a movie about reflection, and what it actually does, and what it’s done for me right at the start, because that’s how it started. I looked in the mirror, and you know, sort of thought “who am I, where am I going, and what am I doing?” in the short term and long term. From that point in time there’s been quite a few times I’ve looked in the mirror…at home…when I sort of came back from a wild night out (laughs). And yeah, I’ve sort of progressed and sort of flourished from what I created for myself back in those days as a young teenager, young adult, into my latter adulthood, you know?
On the first thought that made him want to share his story
Saroo: I was actually asked, which I was really humble(d by), that there’s this sort of recognition from multiple publishing companies of this amazing story, that was very unique. I’ve never written a book before, but here is someone wanting for a memoir to be written. So I think at the end of the day for us in honesty, for me, mostly due to the fact there’s other people out there in the same situation as myself, and if I’ve got this knowledge of the way that I conquered and used, you know, what there is out in the world to achieve something that I’ve been wanting for such a long time, let’s share that knowledge to the world.