By ANGELA DAWSON
Front Row Features
HOLLYWOOD—Garth Davis recalls a meeting with producer Emile Sherman prior to an event at the Sydney Opera House where they were discussing the details of making their movie “Lion,” when the subject of butterflies came up. Davis, who was onboard to direct the drama based on the true story of an Australian man who went in search of his Indian family that he had become separated from years earlier, wanted to incorporate images of the yellow winged insects in the film, because of what they represented to the main character as a memory as well as the spiritual nature of the creatures.
“Later, we went into our dinner party, which was in a closed area of the Opera House, and this homeless Indian man walks in selling butterfly pins. He walked right up to Emile, and all I could say was, ‘It’s happening, it’s beginning.’”
Davis, an Australian director best known for his Emmy nominated-winning work on the TV series “Top of the Lake,” said he saw the coincidence as a good omen. The film, which has been nominated for four Golden Globes, including Best Picture in the Drama category, tells the incredible story of Saroo Brierley, born into poverty in a small Indian village. Though poor, his family, led by his strong and loving mother, Kamla, was everything to him. At age five, while out scavenging with his older brother, Guddu, for scraps of coal and food at a nearby train station, Saroo fell asleep and got separated from his brother and then became trapped on an empty train to Calcutta (now called Kolkata).
After months of living on the streets of the crowded Indian city, dodging sex traffickers and scraping by, the boy was picked up and taken to an orphanage. More months passed and no one came to collect him so he was adopted out to a white couple in Australia. Though the couple, Sue and John Brierley, was good to him (they even adopted a second Indian “orphan”), Saroo never forgot his beloved birth mother and his siblings. As a man, he scoured Google Earth to find the village where he grew up, remembering only that the train station was adjacent to a water tower and there was a dam nearby. After years of frustrating failure, he eventually spotted a place that looked familiar. It was like finding a needle in a haystack, as the movie makes clear. Soon, Saroo was on his way to India to find the family he had been separated from 25 years earlier, but what he discovered would be bittersweet.
The critically acclaimed film stars Oscar winner Nicole Kidman, Dev Patel, Rooney Mara, David Wenham and newcomer Sunny Pawar, who was discovered at a school for disadvantaged children in Mumbai after an exhaustive search to find a boy to play young Saroo.
Davis, who hails from Australia, says viewers of the film have connected with the film’s themes of identity and family.
“People come up to me and say, ‘I’ve gotta ring my mum,’” he recalled during a recent interview.
The filmmaker, who just finished shooting “Mary Magdalene,” with Mara in the title role, spoke about what drew him to Saroo’s story, and the challenges and tribulations of making the film in India and Australia.
Q: Was that kind of universal human connection what struck you when you came across the material?
Davis: Me and (producers) Iain Canning and Emile Sherman from See-Saw Films, came across this article about Saroo. This is when he just had found his home. So I read the article as well and totally fell in love with it. They started trying to get the rights early on. Saroo’s book about his experience came a little later on into the process. It was obviously an amazing story.
Q: Saroo’s story is one of thousands of stories of children swept off the streets and shipped to another country. When he returns to his native land, he can no longer speak the language.
Davis: It’s a unique story in a sense that although his family lived in poverty, it was a loving family. It was an innocent mistake that he got lost. It’s not a story of child who escaped abuse or was sent off by his parents. It’s unique in that way.
Q: Sunny Pawar plays young Saroo. What a coup that you found this young boy who carries so much of the film. How many boys did your casting director see?
Davis: Thousands over a period of five months. Then we had a shortlist of over 100 children. I went to India and did some acting workshops with them over a week or so.
Q: What was it about Sunny that made him your top choice to play Saroo?
Davis: By the time I met him, I had a good idea of who I thought Saroo was. Whenever a kid would walk in, I would see if I connected in any way with him. This little boy was very little, which was great because it helped show this sense of peril. He was a bit tough, a bit street-wise. He had this great introspection. I was watching him looking at everything going on in the room. Straight away, I thought, “This could be him.” When we got him into the workshops, he was really great in them. He could stay in the game. I could just put a camera on his face and he was just beautiful. He wasn’t afraid of the other kids.
At that point, we had found Abhishek (Bharate, who plays Guddu, Saroo’s older brother). I was pretty certain we were going to book him. So I put him with Sunny quite a bit. There was a lot of tactility and drama games.
Q: Dev Patel, who plays grown up Saroo, was eager to play this role. Tell me about how he showed up at writer Luke Davies’ home.
Davis: I was at Luke’s house and we had just finished our research trips together and had dreamt about how the film could be, and we were just working on the structure. We got a call from our producers and managers who told us that Dev wanted to meet with us while we were (in the U.S.) We thought it was a bit early because we didn’t have a script yet. So Dev came around and in his great style and front foot and alive and passionate about this story. I said, “I’m not there yet. We’re not casting yet. We’ve got to write the script.” But he was great, from day one.
Q: When you and Luke were writing the screenplay, were you thinking of Dev as Saroo?
Davis: I didn’t, actually. When you’re writing, you’re starting to understand what the film is and what it is, so I really wasn’t ready to get involved in casting anybody. I just wanted to be honest to the material. If we got to the end and it was Dev, then fantastic, because I love Dev. But if it wasn’t Dev, then it wasn’t Dev. I had to choose who was right for the film. As it conspired, he was the right person.
Q: You also have other great actors in this: Nicole Kidman, who plays Saroo’s adoptive mother and Rooney Mara, who plays his girlfriend. Did they want to get onboard from the get-go?
Davis: Nicole definitely wanted to do it. She got her hands on the script and totally fell in love with it. We met in New York and it was pretty obvious that she was the right person for the role. Everybody who came onto this movie really wanted to do it. It was a real project of passion.
Q: She has two adopted children herself, so there’s probably a personal connection, right?
Davis: Yes, it was very personal to her.
Q: You shot this in Australia and India. Was this your first time filming in India?
Davis: No. I’ve shot commercials in India before and had been there for a few times. The biggest challenge I had was finding people who understand the style of film you’re making because we’re not making a Bollywood film. So right down to the casting and the production company that gets the locations, they need to be in line with the way you work. So you have to choose the right people for it. And all the usual challenges still apply, like with onlookers. The locations need a lot of lead time. Moving around is almost impossible. Changing locations in a day is really hard. There’s a lot of pollution so you’re usually operating at around 70 percent. So it’s kind of tough.
Q: The scene where Saroo is heading to Calcutta on an empty train. Is that meant to be fantasy or were there really no other passengers aboard the train?
Davis: That’s totally how he remembered it. He remembered everything in such detail so I trust that it’s true. We did some investigations ourselves. It could have been a decommissioned train or some of the carriages weren’t being used and there are a lot of express trains. So there are a lot of possibilities that it could have been. We had in our outline that it was a decommissioned train.
Q: You have little recurring images that appear throughout the film, like the butterflies, which in some cultures signifies the souls of the dead. Was that intentional?
Davis: The butterflies were the spiritual emblems of the film. Saroo told me that he used to love the butterflies in his village. Even when I was location searching, I came across all these yellow butterflies. When he was lost in Calcutta, he said that whenever there was a moment of danger, he’d see a butterfly. He always felt Guddu as well in the butterfly so whenever he saw a butterfly, it reminded him of home and of Guddu. Looking back on his life, he thinks it was Guddu’s ghost, or a sign. I totally believe in that stuff.
The magic of their story I related to because it happens in my life. People will take what they will from it. That moment in the beginning with the butterflies, you wonder (as the audience) what it’s about but then by the end you realize this is how you’ll know when you’ve returned home.
With my own children, I tell them stories of my childhood, and all the stories I remember are from nature. When you’re in nature as a child, it’s something you remember more vividly. People wonder why Saroo remembers his village so vividly and I say it’s probably because he moved around a lot. As a child, he never left that village so in that first five years (of his life) he was absorbing everything around him. That village is amazingly vibrant: it’s got pigs, birds and dams. It must have been such an exhilarating childhood.
Q: Did you shoot in Saroo’s actual village?
Davis: His village has grown so much larger (since he left as a child). We had to find a village that looked as his did in the 1980s and we had to go to a modern village. Also, I didn’t want to bring too much attention to his mother because it’s too complicated. But we did shoot in Ganesh Talai, so that dam is the actual dam. A lot of the countryside is the countryside where he played and the village we shot in was not far from his real village. It’s about a half-hour away.
Q: You were there when Saroo’s mother and adoptive mother met?
Davis: It was an extraordinary moment. Saroo was very anxious about the meeting. So he was quite consumed and off and about with his Indian mother, so I spent a lot of time sitting with Sue, who obviously was anxious as well. I was kind of thrust into a deep moment with him. But just seeing the grace of Kamla and her gratefulness for what Sue’s done for her son, the words that they shared together, it was just incredible. It said so much to be about this man who is loved by two amazing women, two amazing mothers. For me, the great teachers of this movie are the women. It’s Kamla and Sue. They’ve taught me everything that this movie means.
Q: Time had to pass for the technology—Google Earth—to make it possible for Saroo to find his village and his family. How did Google help you?
Davis: You have to get their approval to show Google in the movie. That was the first thing we needed to do. They loved the story and said we’re happy for you to do that. Then the second step was we needed technical support to go to the older software because I was big on creating what it was at the time (Saroo searched for his family). Also, having those slow render speeds and the images needed to be more decayed. That was important to me that we were true to that. Also, the low-rent quality of the imagery for me was more like memory. I thought it had more texture. That’s how they helped us.
He has a photographic memory. If he traced every train track on Google, he would have found the platform (he was looking for). He was doing it for four to five years.
Q: Is the film working with nonprofit organizations to reunite lost kids with their families?
Davis: We’ve got a lot of organizations involved on the ground in India. They’re raising funds. All of this is coming from the movie. It wasn’t part of the plan but in making the movie we realized how powerful it was and created this conversation so there’s a whole dedicated team to that right now. Google also is getting involved as well to improve that situation.