Google Earth and sheer determination. This was the winning combination for Saroo Munshi Khan, whose life story is one that reads more like a plot line concocted by Hollywood’s finest writers.
At five years old, the Khandwa local was separated from his older brother at a train station in India while looking for food scraps and fallen coins. Waking up on an empty train zipping further away from the streets he knew so well, Saroo spent the next few days trying to find his way back home through the dizzying streets of India’s second-largest city, Kolkata. After a series of scary stranger encounters, Saroo was taken to a juvenile home and then transferred to an orphanage where he was then adopted by a family in Hobart, Tasmania. A moment that he remembers as being an opportunity for a new beginning.
Nearly 10,000 miles away, a map of his homeland stuck to the wall meant that Saroo was unable to forget home. With vivid flashes of memory appearing to him well into adulthood. These flashes served as the spark that led his mission to search for his mother. Using Google Earth and the little memory of landmarks he had left, Saroo was reunited with his hometown and his mother, Kamla in 2012, after nearly 25 years of separation.
His seemingly impossible quest didn’t take long to grace the pages of international publications, leading to his self-written tome, first published in 2013 and a movie deal that signed for AU$12 million dollars in 2014. The story’s film iteration, Lion, is finally hitting the big screen later this month and accompanying high critical acclaim has been nominated for four Golden Globes as well as a winning host of other international awards. It’s a story of poverty, redemption, determination and sheer belief, all larger than life themes that Australian director, Garth Davis has managed to portray seamlessly. We chatted with the director, whose previous work includes Top of the Lake and Love My Way, to find out the key elements that helped him create the award-winning masterpiece.
A connection to the story
Garth first stumbled across Saroo in a Vanity Fair article. “I loved Lion because it moved me so much as a story, and it was also immensely challenging – it was both epic and expansive, but deeply intimate.” His desire to work with emotive stories a non-negotiable element when choosing a film. “It seems I am pulled towards real life stories, and I am sure I always will be…. but this is not a conscious decision. End of the day I love exploring the human condition.”
Researching beyond the book
When picturing a director: a black canvas chair, a speaker and a clapperboard comes to mind. But Garth shatters this illusion pushing his physical, emotional and professional boundaries to ‘get the shot’. His first encounter involved following an Australian camera crew to the filming of the first meeting of Saroo’s adopted mum, Sue Brierley, and his real mother, Kamla, Saying in an interview, “I was completely overwhelmed [to think of] a young child in all those environments.”
Finding the perfect cast
From research to casting, Garth made sure that each element of the film was as authentic as possible, the role of Saroo as a child was an essential element that needed to be perfect and Garth took the casting local, going to schools and communities for the perfect little boy. “Each child who was considered to have acting potential tested and these tests were sent back to Australia. I just kept coming back to Sunny. I would put a camera lens on him and he just felt like the boy I had been feeling. I needed a boy who in his natural state could give me 80% of the performance, someone with a look behind his eyes, a history, a quality that’s beautiful to look at…and Sunny had that in spades.”
And when it came to bagging one of Australia’s largest exports, and Oscar winner Nicole Kidman, this time the story did all the work. “Ultimately, the story attracted the actors – they all loved it so much. In terms of Nicole Kidman, well the universe led us together. The more time I spent with the real Sue Brierley, the more I thought of Nicole… and then serendipitously, she had read the script and was reaching out to me. So it was destined.”
Not one to shy away from a challenge, Garth openly admits to feeling overwhelmed at moments when directing his first feature- film. “I always feel like this, even now. But that means you are in the best place… only the best work comes from this place.” Adding that this project was not just another job opportunity, but a truly life changing experience. “There was so much love and light on our set, it was impossible for it not to be captured. I know this of life and work now. I deeply appreciate and foster this emotional atmosphere with my cast.”