Little boy found

Sue Brierley and Saroo Brierley on the true story behind Lion.

by Anne-Katrin Titze

Sue Brierley with Saroo Brierley on Nicole Kidman in Lion: "It is a really powerful portrayal."
Sue Brierley with Saroo Brierley on Nicole Kidman in Lion: "It is a really powerful portrayal." Photo: Anne-Katrin Titze

Lion, directed by Garth Davis with a screenplay by BAFTA winner Luke Davies, based on Saroo Brierley's memoir A Long Way Home, has been nominated for six Academy Awards - Best Picture, Adapted Screenplay, Cinematography by Greig Fraser, Original Score by Volker Bertelmann and Dustin O'Halloran, and Best Supporting nods to BAFTA winner Dev Patel and Nicole Kidman.

Sunny Pawar as Saroo Brierley: "It goes quite well in chronological order, the way that it started."
Sunny Pawar as Saroo Brierley: "It goes quite well in chronological order, the way that it started."

Sue Brierley, with her son Saroo Brierley, joined me for a conversation that led us to memories of their first meeting, creating a bond, Lion the film, adoption laws in Australia, and Saroo meeting his biological mother after 25 years of separation.

Anne-Katrin Titze: Did you actually wear a Tasmania T-shirt when you arrived at the airport and you saw each other for the first time?

Saroo Brierley: Yes, I did. Mom actually sent me the outfit from my shorts to my shoes up to my top and it states: Tasmania - and Other States. Where it should have been the other way around.

Sue Brierley: Because Tasmania is a very small island at the bottom of Australia. So it reverses the concept in a bit of a tongue-in-cheek way. But I wanted the shirt to say Tasmania. It was very important to me and especially once we committed to adopt we were obliged to provide for Saroo with his requirements and so forth.

Sue (Nicole Kidman) and John Brierley (David Wenham) with Saroo: "I got to meet my little boy all over again."
Sue (Nicole Kidman) and John Brierley (David Wenham) with Saroo: "I got to meet my little boy all over again."

AKT: So you picked out the T-shirt, sent it …

Sue: And then when he came home he had his own little special outfits for traveling from the airport to home. We had a long time to think about how we prepare, what we would do. How we would validate Saroo who was a little Indian boy and mostly is our son. We enjoyed it.

AKT: Do you remember that very first moment?

Sue: Yes, yes. It was just burnt into my soul forever. Now the only way I can liken it - not that I've given birth to a child - but I think it is sort of right up there with the moment a woman would meet her child for the first time.

AKT: Saroo, do you remember the moment?

Saroo: Yes, I do. It was such a transitional phase but such a beautiful moment too, of sort of meeting the new family that you are going to be with. I guess, it was something that I had been longing for such a long time. The fact that what I've done in Calcutta of trying to find my family through catching trains and going through the hardship and stuff like that and also sort of soliciting, advertising, to see if anyone would claim me - which failed as well. So what do you do? In that moment coming across - being with your new family was just a massive point of creating a bond between mother and son.

Saroo on the Lion screenplay by Luke Davies: "You've got to appreciate sensitivity, what might be upsetting to other people."
Saroo on the Lion screenplay by Luke Davies: "You've got to appreciate sensitivity, what might be upsetting to other people." Photo: Anne-Katrin Titze

You know, it's been burnt in my memory and it's been burnt in my mom's. I think the maternal-ness came just in straight away - of taking the chocolate out of my hand which was melting. And, giving me a Teddy bear and talking about the book as well which was sent over for me to look at. So they would tell me - this is where you're going, this is your new mom and your new dad and this is their house. It was planned pretty well and it was planned in a way that you didn't want to startle me.

Sue: We had a lot of time to work this out, how we would greet our son. Obviously, he was not a baby. We didn't want to make him frightened in any way. We didn't want to be too physical and grasping in case he wasn't used to that experience. So we were very sensitive of how he would feel. We tried to get as much preparation in before he actually came. The home was very mindful of that as well. So there were a lot of things at play that seemed by chance but in actual fact they were very well thought out and planned.

AKT: And of course the film packs your entire life story into such a short amount of time. How did you feel about the depiction of this particular moment? To see Nicole Kidman as you?

Sue: For me it was wonderful because I got to meet my little boy all over again. Just the pleasure that I had on watching it again and experiencing it. Because it's so well done, so authentic. It was great. You don't get many opportunities, or I can't think of any other, where as a parent you can rerun the whole experience before your eyes and feel that emotion. And that's why we're emotional when we watch it because it truly affects us and we cry. It is a really powerful portrayal.

Saroo (Dev Patel) and Sue Brierley (Kidman): "I had to wait for Saroo to be born."
Saroo (Dev Patel) and Sue Brierley (Kidman): "I had to wait for Saroo to be born."

AKT: When I spoke with Luke Davies, he told me about a detail that is not in the film concerning adoption laws in Australia. These laws, in a way, were responsible for the timing that the two of you would find each other.

Sue: It's definitely a powerful part of the story. Maybe if things were different, if the laws were different, we would have had our family sixteen years before when we wanted to start our family. But because that wasn't possible, we had to wait. Really at times almost thought, well, forget about it, after about ten years of not being possible. And then suddenly we realized by a chance meeting in the street of a little girl who had come to a family that had their own biological son. And we knew things had changed. And so we applied and seven months later Saroo was with us. It was quite a miracle. I had to wait for Saroo to be born.

AKT: You mentioned the chocolate melting. The film is filled with details like that. Sense memories. The entire story really is your memories, what you remember from being five years old. Was seeing and tasting the red pastry actually the trigger?

Saroo: There were other experiences as well as the pastry that triggered back in time of a certain stage. Which was the stage that you sort of saw. You know, as well as music and seeing families. Parents with their children and that triggered back as in like, that's what I did have back when I was with my nuclear family. You had the mom and dad there. It was just my mom, my sister and I and sometimes I'm seeing my brother. It was just various other things as well as those two. But certainly things like that happened.

Lion at The Paris Theatre in New York
Lion at The Paris Theatre in New York Photo: Anne-Katrin Titze

AKT: The story with the woman who gives you the pungent orange drink and the man that comes, is that a combination of different episodes or is it actually one event?

Saroo: That's a variation of what really happened. What really happened is a lot, sort of, I think, a lot darker. It was three men, there was a railway worker - that scene was fine but differently set out. You could have bumped it up and made it more … a little scarier. It's true the way that it happened but it's just a variation.

AKT: It is very scary with everything that's left out. It has a fairy-tale quality to it because everything is in a sentence such as "You are exactly what we were looking for."

Sue: Yes. I think really the catch is that with a film you can't make it too ugly. So a lot of the scenes give the message of risk of child abuse but without being too graphic. Because the film will be shown in lots of places and in India it has just been released there. You can't be too offensive about things. You've got to appreciate sensitivity, what might be upsetting to other people.

We wanted to give the story without making it a nightmare. But the essence of that scene is true. It's just the characters playing it out as in a man and a woman rather than these men on the railway - they're different characters but the situation was the same. It is also to highlight the resilience and how streetwise Saroo was. How strong his character was to understand that need of getting away. That's pretty remarkable in a little kid.

AKT: Of course, where the film ends, you being united with your biological mother, that was only the beginning of your rediscovery.

Lion poster
Lion poster

Saroo: Yeah, it is. Look, 25 years of separation. There's catching up on what we both missed out on. Questions with my biological mother of what actually happened to you and what did you do? Photos and stuff like that that she wanted to see. It all takes a bit of time to sort of deal with that relationship. It's not like she's a stranger to me. Everything is really happy and good at the moment. We converse and talk twice a month and, you know, I help my Mom out, buying her a house and putting some money into accounts so she can pay for food and stuff like that. So it's pretty good.

AKT: Do you sense that your memories are shifting, having this film out?

Saroo: Not really, no. Because those memories have been there for such a long time. That's 25 years of memories and just because watching the film, it's not going to augment anything that comes to me. It's like a hard drive that just the only way to erase it is something catastrophic. A catastrophe happens mentally - so to answer that question - no.

AKT: I thought about the fact that when we see photographs, for example, they can change the way we remember an event.

Saroo: It goes quite well in chronological order, the way that it started. You know, that happened, it was like that but you can also add information in there that isn't in there. Like the bit that you were talking about, in regards to the situation with myself and the lady and the man. That's a variation but you only need to change a few things in there and it's like the real thing.

Sue: Saroo's memory is astounding. His detail memory is well above the normal person's level of skill.

AKT: Last question - do you have a favorite fairy tale?

Saroo: The Three Little Pigs!

AKT: That's very interesting. Do you have one, Sue?

Sue: That's a good question. I haven't really thought about fairy tales for a long time. I haven't really got a favorite really because in my childhood we didn't have the standard fairy tales. My parents were European. So really, the story of Christmas and St Nicolas is maybe the nearest I ever got to a fairy tale. Because my mother was Hungarian and my father Polish. And we didn't talk about the English fairy tales as such. So I guess my favorite story would have been of St Nicolas and Christmas.

Read what Luke Davies had to say on adapting Saroo Brierley's memoir into Lion and Davies on the world première of Lion in New York, Sue Brierley, Nicole Kidman, and Dev Patel.

Lion is in cinemas in the US and the UK.

The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences celebration takes place on February 26, 2017.

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