Dev Patel knows how special a film like “Lion” is. He’s been waiting nearly 8 years, since his breakout in “Slumdog Millionaire”, for a role as substantive and soulful as Saroo Brierley, an Indian man who was lost as a 5-year-old, adopted and raised by Australian parents, and who, 25 years later, used Google Earth to retrace his steps to his hometown and his birthmother, not knowing the name of either.
“I read an article about it somewhere, I’m not quite sure where, and I was completely mesmerized”, Patel said. It’s why the 26-year-old pursued the part so aggressively, showing up at screenwriter Luke Davies’s doorstep before the script was even finished, and, after winning the part, taking a full eight months to prepare. Not only did the rail-thin Patel bulk up to play the sporty Saroo, grow his hair out, and learn a difficult Australian accent, but he also fully immersed himself into the emotional and spiritual reality of the man.
“I traveled the trains in India. I wrote a diary. I went to orphanages. I’d watched every piece of material about (Brierley) out there on Google and YouTube. When I met him I felt like, ‘God I’ve known you for eight, nine, months already,’” Patel recalled. “The first thing I said was, ‘You found a needle in a haystack from space. You literally did that.’ And he started laughing.”
Brierley and Patel had to go much deeper than that, though. This is not a simple boy goes home story. Brierley’s traumatic separation from his home and his mother and struggle to survive on his own is contrasted by his then comfortable upbringing in Australia with supportive and loving adoptive parents. His past is something that he represses for years, until it becomes a ghost so undeniable that he must do everything he can to find his mother.
“We sat down and spoke about this idea of guilt. He spoke about astral traveling with me. We got very meta in a way”, Patel said. “He could remember these things so vividly because every single night he would walk those streets home to his mother. That’s how he could remember it.” It’s one of those stranger-than-fiction stories that begs for cinematic treatment.
“I can’t say that the majority or even half the movie is sensationalized. It really isn’t. It actually happened in real life”, Brierley said. On set, director Garth Davis pushed Patel deeper into Brierley’s pain. He had Patel watch the actor playing the 5-year-old Brierley (newcomer Sunny Pawar) so that there were specific memories to draw on. He threw him into big scenes right off the bat (they shot the very last scene first), and he made him do “hippie” mental exercises like staring into a mirror for a half hour before coming to set one day.
“The first two minutes were excruciating, because when you do that, you’re usually brushing your teeth or popping a pimple or something and then the next 20 minutes all of a sudden I got sucked into this sort of trance-like state and I couldn’t recognize the person staring back at me”, Patel said. “I looked like my father, I looked like my mother. And I went to set visibly shaken. I was like ‘Garth, I feel like a fool, like I don’t know who I am. I think that the task went horribly wrong.’ He looked at me and said, ‘that’s exactly what you should feel. Your body is just a shell but your soul is ever-changing. I was like ‘whoa.’”
It was all in service of capturing the essence of Brierley, who Patel knows he doesn’t look like. “I really relate to characters kind of going against the odds and underdogs who show perseverance”, Patel said, although he doesn’t like direct comparisons with “Slumdog Millionaire.”
For Patel, the stories represent completely different journeys — Brierley is a modern Australian man who remembers little of his Indian identity. Patel is already fully on the awards trail for “Lion.” He’s done this before, but now has a bit of experience under his belt and is no longer that wide-eyed 18-year-old. He said he’s taking advantage of the opportunity to talk to and learn from his fellow actors on the same path.
“The first time around I was so beautifully naive about it. I look at Sunny and I can relate to it. He met Bill Clinton the other day and I don’t quite think it dawned on him who the man was he was meeting”, Patel said, laughing. Ultimately, Patel is just grateful that he was able to stretch beyond “your usual quirky best friend character role or like tech extraordinaire.”
“Stories like this, they’re so few and far between especially for a British Indian guy like myself”, he said. “I think everyone faces a stereotype … I don’t want to make it about that. It’s just my thought process of throwing absolutely everything at this role. I knew how precious it was.”
By Lindsey Bahr