We’ve seen a bit of a trend recently from Hollywood to make movies that have been inspired by true events, and that trend is showing no signs of stopping.
Lion is a breathtaking movie about five-year-old Indian boy, Saroo (Sunny Pawar), who gets separated from his older brother Guddu (Abhishek Bharate) one day. Saroo mistakenly gets on a train that, instead of bringing him closer to home, takes him thousand of kilometres away to Kolkata. The young boy fights for months for survival on the streets, dodging life-threatening situations and unsavoury characters, before he is adopted by Australian couple Sue (Nicole Kidman) and John (David Wenham). A moving enough story – but the tale doesn’t end there. Twenty-five years later, he is overwhelmed by an urge to find his biological family and home village, and uses the at-the-time newly-launched Google Earth to look all over India for that one train station and dusty rural path that he can vaguely remember.
The best way to tell a true story like this is to tell it as honestly as possible, and to be as accurate as possible. In fact, because Google Earth played such a vital role in Saroo’s search, the company lent their help and services to the film producers to ensure authenticity in the scenes where Saroo obsessively searches the Indian landscape for anything that looks familiar to him.
Both Oscar nominees, Dev Patel shines in Lion as Nicole Kidman’s adopted son from India who wants to find his birth family
Director Garth Davis travelled to India to see for himself Saroo’s home village, the bench at Burhanpur train station where the scared little boy woke up wondering where his older brother had gone, and Howrah station, the hectic station in Kolkata where Saroo eventually found himself at.
One of the technical and stylistic decisions made for the film here was to shoot everything from the five-year-old’s eyeline. The director of photography, Greig Fraser explains that this really helps the audience experience what it’s like to be a disorientated child completely lost in a sea of people.
“This was where the full force of the story really hit me,” says Davis. “Imagine a five-year-old alone there, unable to speak the language … that’s when I knew this was going to be a really powerful film.”
The film’s current success owes a lot to producer Emile Sherman, who was the one who secured the rights to Saroo’s autobiography, A Long Way Home. It was Sherman, Davis and screenwriter Luke Davies who decided to tell Saroo’s story as a linear narrative, with flashbacks in the second half of the film where Dev Patel plays Saroo all grownup.
“The more traditional structure would have been to start with Saroo in Australia, who suddenly recalls memories of his past, and to cut back and forth as he searches for home,” Sherman admits. “Ultimately, we decided to go for a more epic structure – and let the audience fully experience young Saroo’s family life, from the moment he steps onto the wrong train, to his life on the streets of Kolkata. [This way] we can fully appreciate his emotional pull back to his birth mother.”
Academy Award-nominated actor Dev Patel talks rubbing (statues’) bottoms, his Oscar date and man buns
Making an incredible story relatable to a global audience is no easy feat, but not only has Davis succeeded in this beautifully, he and his team have also been able to use Lion to call attention to the 80,000 children who go missing every year in India, and spread a poignant message about adoption.
“There are so many kids who never end up in a loving home,” says Sherman, “and there are so many loving families who want a child.”
No one understands this better than Kidman, a mother to two adopted and two biological children. Perhaps this is why the emotional scene in which she explains why she adopts is so moving: it comes from a place in her personal experience and psyche that’s true and honest.
Lion is more than just a fancy Hollywood message about India’s lost children and orphans though. Hoping to inspire its audience to take actual action, See-Saw Films, one of the studios behind the movie, has created #LionHeart. It’s a campaign to help India-based organisations Magic Bus, Childline India, and Railway Children India protect kids on the street and help them find their way home. Some of the dangers of life on the streets are depicted in the film – and while Saroo might have escaped a dark fate, and more than once, many children do not.
“Helping India’s most vulnerable children isn’t [just] about signing a petition, making a phone call or clicking a ‘like’ button,” Patel says in support of #LionHeart. “There are organisations on the ground doing amazing work to help kids like Saroo. The best way that we can help is to give them the financial support they desperately need.”
Edited by Ginny Wong