‘Lion’ Film Based on Harrowing Real-Life Story of Lost Indian Boy

By Sarah Le
Sarah Le
Sarah Le
November 27, 2016 Updated: May 4, 2018

It was the sight of a small, fried Indian dessert called jalebi at a friend’s house in Australia just a few years ago that shook Saroo Brierley to the core, bringing back a flood of memories of becoming lost in India at the age of five.

The amazing story of how he traveled to the home of his adoptive parents in Tasmania and back to India again as an adult in 2012 in search of his family has since been made into a bestselling book and most recently a movie called “Lion,” in select theaters now.

Brierley attended a Q&A following a screening of the film at ArcLight Cinemas in Hollywood on Friday, Nov. 25, with actor Dev Patel, who also starred in “Slumdog Millionaire,” and newcomer Sunny Pawar, who plays Brierley as a young boy.

“I was clenching onto my seat, really. I was trying to hold the tears back,” said Brierley of his first time watching the movie. “It was so captivating and gripping.”

The film portrays that night, long ago, when young Saroo had tagged along with his older brother Guddu in an effort to make some money for his family in central India. Feeling sleepy, he laid down on a bench at the train station while Guddu went off in search of work. Upon waking up, the small boy was completely alone in the dark night and became frightened.

Pawar plays the part of this little lost boy to perfection, desperately searching for his brother and repeatedly calling out his name in his heartbreakingly plaintive voice. He eventually boards a decommissioned train that takes him thousands of miles from his home.

Through a series of remarkable events, Saroo was adopted by a loving Australian couple and lived a fortunate life. But over the years, his memories persisted, returning in dreams and strange out-of-body experiences.

And then that plate of jalebis pushed him over the edge.

“It wasn’t a matter of needing to right a wrong nor one of wanting to return to where I ‘belong,'” Brierley wrote in his book, “A Long Way Home.” 

“I wanted to know where I came from—to be able to look at a map and point to the place where I was born—and to throw light on some of the circumstances of my past. Most of all, though, I tried to keep my expectations in check as insurance against disappointment, I hoped to find my Indian family so they would know what had happened to me.”

It’s a persistent theme for many adopted children, said Brierley. Sometimes there’s just an unshakable feeling of needing to know, to go back and understand.

“A lot of people won’t understand. It’s really hard to tell other people,” said Brierley at the Q&A on Friday.

A few audience members also shared their experiences of adopting children or being adopted and how much the movie had touched them.

“It’s just such a special story. It’s a really important story,” said actor Patel at the event. “To get the essence of his struggle, someone who’s suppressing a part of his identity, his pain, to try and keep functioning. He’s kind of a charismatic guy, and then all of a sudden Pandora’s Box is opened from this jalebi.”

(L-R) Author Saroo Brierley, actors Nicole Kidman, Priyanka Bose and Dev Patel attend the premiere of 'Lion' at AFI Fest 2016 in Los Angeles, Calif. on Nov. 11. (Photo by Jesse Grant/Getty Images for TWC-Dimension)
(L-R) Author Saroo Brierley, actors Nicole Kidman, Priyanka Bose and Dev Patel attend the premiere of ‘Lion’ at AFI Fest 2016 in Los Angeles, Calif. on Nov. 11. (Photo by Jesse Grant/Getty Images for TWC-Dimension)

Brierley’s mother, Sue, is played by Nicole Kidman, who herself is a mother of adopted children.

“It was really magical,” said Patel of a scene in which the character Sue opens up about her reasons for adopting him. “I was just a ball of tears. I was just reacting off of her.”

The climax of the film comes as Brierley walks through his old neighborhood towards his boyhood home for the first time as an adult, not knowing if his family will still be there.

Before the ending credits, the audience can read on screen: “80,000 children go missing in India each year.” The creators of the film are working with Brierley and various organizations to help these children.

Brierley said he has a very strong and profound feeling that everything in his life happened according to destiny, and he hopes the movie can inspire others.

“For a few people, I wish it to be actually educational in a way that if there’s anyone else out there in the world in any nation that it empowers them, and perhaps if you’ve ever been in the situation as myself, that you can use this movie for yourself to sort of find your way back home or to a long-lost person.”

Sarah Le