A LONG WAY HOME
Behind ‘Lion’: Saroo and Sue Brierley on Bringing Their Unbelievable True Story to the Screen
The real mother and son from ‘Lion’ take us inside the year’s most moving Best Picture nominee. Warning: Contains spoilers.
Saroo Brierley may be the subject of the Best Picture nominee Lion at this month’s Academy Awards, but for now his adoptive mother Sue is just “waiting for him to move out of my spare room.”
At 35, Saroo still lives in Australia with the parents who brought him into their home from an orphanage in Calcutta when he was a young boy. Separated from his Indian family at five-years-old, Saroo was miraculously reunited with his birth mother 25 years later following an exhaustive search that is chronicled in Lion.
It’s a rainy February afternoon in Los Angeles and Sue and Saroo are sitting in a cafe, drinking coffee and eating dessert as they discuss how their real lives became a critically-acclaimed, Oscar-nominated film. They have just arrived from New York, where they made appearances on talk shows like The View and CBS This Morning.
Our interview is the last of their week-long press tour in the U.S. and Sue is looking forward to the L.A. shopping trip her son promised her as a reward of sorts for opening up about their unique and unlikely journey into the spotlight.
It’s been almost four years since Saroo first published his memoir, A Long Way Home, on which Lion is based. He says he never anticipated that he would get to the point where he and his mother were Oscar campaigning on behalf of his true story. Saroo just wanted to get his story out into the world and when the idea of optioning the book for a film came up, he jumped at it. He feared that Hollywood would “dilute” his story, but was pleasantly surprised by the finished film.
“I’m quite happy with how it’s turned out,” Sue adds. “We’re just so amazed with the end product, because it’s a film like no other.”
As excited as Saroo and his mother are to attend the Oscars ceremony later this month, he says, “At the end of the day, getting to the Oscars wasn’t for us. We wrote this book to help other people in a similar situation.”
There may be orphans and child refugees all over the world, but no one’s situation can really be called “similar” to Saroo’s. At the age of five, young Saroo, played in Lion by the beyond-adorable Sunny Pawar, was separated from his older brother Guddu while on a mission to find scrap metal and other valuables they could sell at a train station not far from their neighborhood in India. Guddu told him to wait on a bench on the train platform, but when he didn’t return after several hours, Saroo wandered onto a train and fell asleep. He woke up hours later and more than 1,600 kilometers away in the bustling metropolis of Calcutta.
The second half of the film tracks the journey that Saroo, now played by Slumdog Millionaire star Dev Patel, went on to find his original home using a new technology called Google Earth. Seeing the way he could zoom in on any portion of the globe using the new platform galvanized him to search for his family in earnest. The painstaking process, which took Saroo years to complete, ultimately led him back into his birth mother’s arms.
“A lot of people forget that anything is accomplishable if you embrace technology,” Saroo says now. “Because the answers are right there at the press of a button,” he adds, whether it’s learning how to play the guitar or tracing your way back home.
“Saroo’s always been very good with computers,” Sue chimes in, supportively.
When Saroo’s book came out in 2013, a crew from the Australian edition of 60 Minutes followed him and Sue back to his hometown in India, where his adoptive and birth mothers met for the first time. Footage from that experience, shot by Lion director Garth Davis, who was working in conjunction with the 60 Minutes team, appears over the end credits of the film.
“I was so happy to meet her when I went with Saroo,” Sue says of her first trip to India. “When you’re trying to telepathically share someone like Saroo with their birth mother — you know, that was a big thing for me all those years, I was just so desperate. And then when she could see him and basically what I’d done with my part of Saroo’s life…” Sue trails off, speechless, and lets out a deep, emotional sigh.
Earlier this year, Saroo returned to his birth country for the Indian premiere of Lion in Mumbai. While there, he helped set up a special screening for his birth mother and siblings. “I didn’t know what to expect,” Saroo says of the experience of sharing the film with his family. “Indians in general are sort of thick-skinned and hard to be moved,” he adds, noting that Lion is very different from the typical Bollywood film.
“I sat down and as soon as the movie started, my mother was in tears,” he continues. “It was so powerful for her, because it showed what happened and then beyond. She had never realized what happened after my brother and I went off. And how I got back and found them.”
“His mother was really crying a lot, and so was I when I saw it first,” Sue adds. “I wish I could have been there with her, because she was seeing the life I gave Saroo on the screen.”
“I think they were quite speechless at the end,” Saroo says. His family couldn’t fully comprehend everything he had gone through until they saw it play out in front of their eyes.
In the film, we see Saroo constantly thinking about and searching for his roots, and Sue says she was doing the same. “We were just always thinking about his past, first family, because that’s Saroo. That’s his life. You just can’t delete it.”
Saroo’s parents had given him and his adopted brother Mantosh the option of visiting India as children, but Saroo says he always “got cold feet.” What was he afraid of? “I don’t know, disappointment?” he says. “If we went back then I would want to at least give a valiant attempt to search for my family.” He worried if he got there and started looking, he wouldn’t be able to stop.
Instead of traveling to India to pick up Saroo, Sue and her husband John waited for him to arrive at the airport, accompanied by a representative from The Indian Society for Sponsorship and Adoption, or ISSA. This was by design, she says, because rather than “taking away a screaming child from a foreign country,” the organization preferred the “much more gentle and kind approach” of bringing children to their new homes.
When Saroo arrived in Australia, Sue says he was “starving,” and though he couldn’t speak English, he constantly indicated “this horrible pain in his belly, because they couldn’t get enough to eat” at the orphanage. She’s “very proud” of the fact that he got into such good shape so quickly. “I put a lot of effort into that. I waited 16 years for my kids, so I wasn’t going to do it in a half-hearted way,” she says. “And look at him now.”
Just as Saroo’s birth mother was moved by the experience of seeing what happened to her son after he left home, Sue found the early scenes in the film “quite traumatic” to watch herself. “Obviously Saroo had spoken to me quite a lot about that time,” she says of his life in India. “We had a lot of those bathtub discussions. And as you learned more English, I knew more about what was going on,” she tells her son. “But to see it in front of my own eyes and know what Saroo went through really rocked me.”
One of many heartbreaking scenes in the film comes when Sue, played by fellow Aussie Nicole Kidman, gives Saroo his first bath. He can’t understand what she’s saying, but she tells him that someday he’s going to share everything about his life in India with her. “We did that. I had discussions with Saroo bathtub-side night after night,” Sue says. “Saroo couldn’t speak to me so it was just these incredible eyes looking up at me and splashing in the water. I’m so gifted in life to have had that experience.”
Sue says she was “over the moon” when she found out Kidman would be playing her in the film. “I wanted her to be me all along,” she says, going on to chastise the Australian media for being “very harsh” on the actress. “I’m the first to speak up for her, because she truly is a very intelligent, spiritual, soulful woman, who’s been through a lot in her own life. And she went to such lengths to learn about me and I really admire that.”
Kidman could also relate to Sue personally, calling her role in Lion a "love letter" to the two children she adopted with Tom Cruise in the mid-1990s. “I’m very similar to Sue,” Kidman told the Guardian in a recent interview, “in the sense of having a vision, and feeling that it was just part of my path. Something, for whatever reason, I was going to do.”
“I’m a great believer in the idea that, if you’re a maternal woman, you can love,” Sue says. “And I was not confined to biology and blood. Most of the world doesn’t agree with that. To be with somebody who knows that feeling, knows the intensity is just the same. As an adoptive mother, you’re often almost downgraded as a mother. Because it’s not from your body. But for me, I think we’re a higher level of mothers. We can mother a child that isn’t from us. She understood that.”
“She’s had a difficult life as well, it hasn’t always been cruisy,” Sue adds, using an Australian slang expression to describe Kidman’s experience that she only subsequently realizes is a pun for the actress’ famous ex-husband. “I felt for her with all of that.”
Both Patel and Kidman landed Oscar nominations for supporting performances, a phenomenon that is still confounding the people they play. “We’re just trying to figure out who the actual star of our film is,” Sue says.
“I think it’s Sunny, really, I just love him,” Saroo says of the eight-year-old Indian actor who had to learn his English lines phonetically. “He really takes you in. And he’s so innocent.”
In what may very well be the most politicized Academy Awards in history, Lion is not necessarily among the most political of this year’s films. But the Weinstein Company has attempted to make a connection between the movie and President Donald Trump’s ban on immigrants from majority-Muslim countries in one of its recent For Your Consideration ads. Another nominee, Iranian filmmaker Asghar Farhadi, plans to boycott the awards due to the ban.
And Sue, who describes herself as “an old hippy from way back,” sees a political message in Lion as well. “I don’t want people to get locked into bizarre attitudes about refugees and mass movement of people,” she says. Perhaps, she hopes, people will see the film and think about adopting the millions of refugee children who currently reside “in camps because of war and bombs.”
To President Trump and other politicians like Chris Christie, who once said he wouldn’t even allow “three-year-old orphans” into his state, Sue says “those orphans, those unaccompanied children living in tents now, should be at the top of the list.”
“If I can raise another woman’s son, so can a lot more women,” she adds, calling on parents around the world to “step up” and welcome refugee children into their homes. “I never dreamt I’d have such a scope and have so many people respecting what I’ve got to say,” Sue says, still a bit baffled that anyone in the press cares what she thinks about these issues.
More than anything else, Sue is still a proud mother at heart. Before they set out on their L.A. shopping trip, she excitedly shares the news that the Taronga Zoo in Sydney has decided to name one of its new lion cubs after Saroo. Her son can’t help but blush.