This is the time of year when we’re bombarded with very serious (and often depressing) movies vying for Academy Awards nominations. 2016 is no different, with Martin Scorsese’s “Silence,” Denzel Washington’s “Fences,” and the indie “Manchester by the Sea” taking up a lot of the conversation.
But thankfully, there are still some new movies to leave you happy, and one is the remarkably touching “Lion.”
It follows the incredible true story of Saroo Brierley, who at five years old while begging at the Khandwa train station in Burhanpur, India, falls asleep in a train car and finds himself in Calcutta, 930 miles from his hometown. After surviving as a street kid and eventually being adopted by a couple in Australia, 25 years later, Brierley finds his birth mother with the help of Google Earth.
Australian director Garth Davis caught wind of Brierley’s story in a 2013 article producers Iain Canning and Emile Sherman handed him while he was directing episodes of “Top of the Lake” for them.
“As soon as I read the article I fell in love with the story,” Davis recently told Business Insider.
Interested in making a movie about Brierley, the producers rushed out to get the life rights (Brierley’s book about his experience, “A Long Way Home,” would not be published for another year), while Davis flew to India to meet Brierley and his family.
“We found out that ’60 Minutes’ was going to India to take Saroo’s adopted mother to meet his birth mother. I tagged along on that trip,” Davis said.
It was the first of numerous research trips Davis took to India, where he retraced Brierley’s journey back when he was five years old.
Later, writer Luke Davies was hired for the script and took a trip to India, too. Then the two met up at Davies’ house in Los Angeles and in front of a very large whiteboard began to develop the story for “Lion.” Around that same time, actor Dev Patel (“Slumdog Millionaire”) began to come around the house, too.
“He was there fighting for the role from the very beginning,” Davis said.
But Davis was already having doubts about how to cast the Saroo role.
“There wasn’t an actor that I could think of that was the person in my mind,” he said. “That was a problem.”
So, even though Patel was one of the first actors to show interest, he was nowhere near the top contender.
“I had to catch up to him a little bit,” Davis said with a laugh of Patel. “His passion was really important. You just want to make sure that every person on your set wants to be there and is really passionate about the role. Because you just can’t get the work to that level otherwise. So it went a long way that he was fighting for the role and his passion was there and his commitment was there.”
The path of “Lion” from idea to production went at breakneck speed. Davies spent six months on the script, completing in May of 2014. Davis, along with producers Canning and Sherman, hopped on a flight to the Cannes Film Festival weeks later where the Weinstein Company bought the worldwide rights for $12 million. Shooting began in August.
“It was a project that never stopped,” Davis said.
Though Davis was conflicted about casting the adult Brierley, he also had to find the five-year-old Brierley.
A four-month talent search led to Davis casting Sunny Pawar, whom he and his team found in Mumbai. Though Pawar didn’t have any acting experience, Davis said, “It became pretty clear that he was our boy.”
But Davis said getting Pawar to be the emotional center of the movie was the biggest challenge of making “Lion.”
“Some of the scenes are quite complicated,” Davis said. “He’s doing maybe four things in a scene, three of those things may be difficult things like running to a door, asking to get off a train, looking scared — all of that will be in one shot. So it’s a lot of things for a five-year-old child to pull together in a scene. It’s incredibly difficult to get a child at that age to do that. I don’t know how to explain it. It’s very sobering.”
Much of the film is through the eyes of young Brierley, and Pawar’s performance keeps you on the edge while also being uplifting. Brierley’s dedication to finding his home is unwavering.
The movie is also strengthened by supporting roles from Nicole Kidman playing Brierley’s adoptive mother and Rooney Mara as adult Brierley’s girlfriend.
Davis — who’s working on his next movie, “Mary Magdalene,” starring Mara in the lead role — is happy for the awards attention surrounding “Lion,” but he said that was never the motivation.
“We made this because we were so moved by the story,” he said. “This is just a movie of passion.”
That, and they wanted to satisfy the request of Brierley and his family, who have been fully supportive of the movie from the beginning.
“They wanted to make sure the story gave people courage to love and open up the question of adoption,” Davis said. “They just wanted their story to be told very honestly.”
“Lion” is currently playing in select theatres.
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