Warning: This is full of spoilers.
At Monday night's SAG Awards, Nicole Kidman was asked what was the hardest part about her turn in LION. She thought for a moment and then replied, "Playing a real person. I'm playing Sue Brierley… trying to find her essence, and honor it, and have it be properly depicted on screen." This was a concern as well for Sue's son Saroo, whose incredible life story was the basis for the film. "There were times where it felt like it was running away from us. There were times where it felt the script was a bit far-fetched and diluted a bit," Saroo admits to me from his home in Tasmania. "But we worked with the film creators, and they were so open."
The result is a film that's enjoyed broad critical praise, a wide release in the US, and has already grossed more than $34 million at the box office globally—a feat many would've told you was impossible for an Australian film. No one really saw LION's success coming, even Kidman only really felt it once the film was shot, edited, and show to early audiences. "I knew we were onto a good thing when my sister and my husband saw the film and they both came out weeping. And wanting to, like, just hug me," she said Monday night. "I thought, that's an amazing reaction to a film."
Saroo's reaction to the film has been positive too—particularly Dev Patel's Oscar-nominated take on him—but admits the whole thing has been a bit surreal, tracing back to that first brunch with Patel at a quiet cafe in Hobart. You might think that, given all the twists Saroo's life has taken, he'd be the kind of person who's not easily rattled. Then again, is there a right way to act when you find yourself sitting across a table from Dev Patel? "I didn't know what I was in for. I was sort of starstruck, surprised—I was meeting Dev Patel!" Saroo says. "I've never met a celebrity in my life... let alone having breakfast [with them]."
But things went well, and the two bonded telling stories of growing up in Indian families—Patel in Harrow in London's north-west, Saroo in Hobart after being adopted by Sue and John Brierley from an Indian orphanage when he was just five years old. "It almost felt like we were brothers," Saroo says of his brunch with Patel. "We just bounced off each other and talked about things we liked. He definitely has sincerity in his voice and is so open about things." One thing Patel was open about was how much he wanted the role: "He went out to the director and writer [Australians Garth Davis and Luke Davies]... knocked on their door, asking about this film where a child gets lost in India, insisting he wanted to be a part of it," Saroo explains. "Like, you know, 'I'm the right person and I'll do whatever it takes to be part of it.'"
Reduced to a headline, Saroo's story—the one that inspired Patel to fight to play the role, and commit to the hours of Australian accent training that came with it—usually boils down to this: Indian Orphan, Adopted by Australian Couple, Finds His Birth Family Using Google Earth. And as amazing as that sounds, it's a retelling that misses some of the most incredible parts of this story. Like Saroo's near perfect photographic memory, which allowed him to remember minute details about the small Indian town he grew up in, decades after he got lost, separated from his older brother on a train.
It also gives the sense it was some sort of fluke that Saroo was able to track his birth mother down, 25 years later. Speaking with him, you get the sense that there are few other people on Earth who could've pulled this off. Although Saroo had a relatively happy life growing up in Tasmania there was a desire within him to understand what happened to him as a child. This yearning kept him going through nearly five years of late nights craned over a computer. It was a painstaking, meticulous process, scouring Google Earth for familiar landmarks. He didn't even know what the name of his hometown was. "I was too scared to tell anyone because it felt like mucking around: it was like finding a needle in a haystack," he says. "I knew that, but all of a sudden I forgot about that and was so intrigued about being methodical, doing things in its simplest form, to be strategic about it."
In his mathematical way, Saroo broke his problem down into simple questions: How fast do the trains go in India? How long had he been asleep? Working backwards he drew a 1,600 kilometer radius around Kolkata—where he'd woken up on a train more than two decades before, a five-year-old alone in one of India's most populous cities, with no idea of where his family was. Slowly, Saroo ruled out one tiny town after another. "I was searching for so long and then all of a sudden, early morning around 2–3 AM, I stumbled upon something," Saroo explains. "I had come to this train station that I haven't seen for 25 years. It was a moment of shock, this tremendous feeling, where it was just perfectly the way I remembered it."
Saroo was from Ganesh Talai neighborhood of Khandwa, an ancient city in central India, more than 1,500 kilometers west of Kolkata. As he clicked around his hometown, the landmarks of his childhood were all there. "It was in the roads and the stations, and how it seemed untouched for such a long time—all of the sudden, there it is," he remembers. A few months later, Saroo set off to visit, the idea of finding his family a faint flicker in his mind. "When I got to my hometown, all I wanted to do was take my shoes and socks off and walk the streets that I used to 25 years ago. But I threw my bag outside the hotel, walked out and my legs automatically took me straight to the door I was born," Saroo says. "There was no one in the house, it was all black and dark and the house was almost broken."
Saroo was despondent, but soon a woman appeared and asked him "in a very English voice" if she could help him. He pulled an A4 photo of himself as a child out as his bag and explained to her this was him as a child. "These people don't live here anymore," she replied. Suddenly, another man appeared and Saroo repeated his question. "He told me to stay there for a second and he came back about five minutes later and said, 'Come now, with me. I'm going to take you to your mother.'" Around the corner he introduced Saroo to a woman, instantly he knew. "She stepped forward, I stepped forward; we both just had our eyes glued towards each other—it was such a pivotal moment where time itself stood still. Collectively, being neutrons and protons and electrons, our minds came together like a nuclear fission," he says.
Today, Saroo visits his birth mother as often as he can—he still doesn't speak Hindi, and she doesn't speak English, but they have a translator who just lives around the corner. In the midst of all the Oscar buzz around LION, she is set to travel over the US for the awards ceremony. It's another surreal turn, but that just seems to wash over Saroo. He's more interested in talking about his work with ISSA, the Indian Society of Sponsorship and Adoption. When I press him, he admits he might want to write a prequel to LION, about his life growing up in Tasmania after being adopted by an Indian orphanage by the Brierleys. "Hopefully that would get turned into a movie too," he laughs. "I think there should be more true stories out there."
Follow Maddison Connaughton on Twitter.