When director Garth Davis set out to make his feature film debut with Lion, the true story of a young Indian man who spends 25 years trying to find the mother he was accidentally separated from as a child, it was long before the tide of fear-mongering and hatred of the Other that characterized the 2016 presidential campaign and the administration it ushered in. But that ultimately made the movie’s message of love and inclusion more relevant and necessary. “It’s a story that could work at any time in history, I think,” says the Australian-born Davis during a recent phone call. “To be reminded of this is really important, and it just so happens that when this movie was finally finished, there was a hell of a lot of things going on at the moment politically.”
Lion is based on A Long Way Home, a memoir by Saroo Brierly that detailed his separation from his birth mother at the age of five when he unintentionally boarded a train that took him nearly 1,000 miles from his remote village of Ganesh Talai to the bustling metropolis of Kolkata (formerly Calcutta). After some harrowing incidents in and around the train station there, Saroo — who could not provide enough information to be returned to his home — was eventually taken to a center for lost children and adopted by an Australian couple, growing up to become a successful businessman. But he never stopped thinking about his home and his mother, using Google Earth to painstakingly search the vast Indian countryside until he finally found images that prodded his memory and led him back to Ganesh Talai.
Saroo’s story, along with its resolution 25 years later, was covered extensively by the media, particularly in Australia and India. The film based on his book, adapted for the screen by Luke Davies, began filming on location in Kolkata in early 2015 with a cast including Dev Patel as the adult Saroo, Nicole Kidman and David Wenham as his adopted parents and, in a striking performance, little Sunny Pawar as the young Saroo. For Davis, whose credits included episodes of the acclaimed series Top of the Lake as well as a string of commercials and short films, the story and themes made Lion irresistible to him.
“Just to feel the power of the love in this story was just overwhelming,” says the director. “There was a spiritualism and a sense of miracle in the story, which I actually loved. I also loved Sue (Saroo’s adopted mother). I love the mothers. For me, they were the pillars of this film that the story kind of bounced between. It was this great celebration of mothers and that primality was really moving. I got very excited about it. There was a lot of layers to it. You could’ve made this movie in a way that very simple, but I saw a lot of complexity in it and that got very exciting.”
For Davis, the genesis of the movie was when he accompanied the real Saroo and Sue to Ganesh Talai on the day that Sue met Saroo’s birth mother for the first time. “It was incredible because I suddenly saw these people at a really important moment in their lives,” recalls Davis. “Obviously Sue wanted to ask Kamla so many questions, so it was such a sensitive moment. I just witnessed so much in that moment. The love that both mothers had for that son that day that I was witnessing actually set me for the rest of the movie. I’ll never forget it when Saroo was standing there, these two mothers crying, and just holding him…that was the image that I held for the whole development of the movie.”
Since its debut at last year’s Toronto International Film Festival and its initial release late last year (to qualify for the Academy Awards), Lion has become a genuine word-of-mouth hit. Perhaps that is due to its positivity at a time when the world seems so divided, but Davis doesn’t care to delve too deeply into whether the political climate has helped his little film succeed. “I think what’s wonderful about the movie is it’s got its own life now,” he insists. “It’s a film that’s making people talk. It’s a film that people are owning in their own way. It’s out of my control in many ways. At least I know that this film is putting a little bit more light back into the world. I resent that every time I turn on the radio or TV, or read a newspaper, it’s all about fear-mongering and tragedy, and I don’t like it as a person. I just feel that if I can at least put a little light back into the world, then maybe we can rebalance this a little bit.”
Lion has not only found its way into audience’s hearts, but also into the thick of the Oscar race, which will conclude Sunday night (February 26) at the 89th annual Academy Awards. The film is up for six prizes, including Best Picture, Best Supporting Actor (Patel), Best Supporting Actress (Kidman) and Best Adapted Screenplay. But whatever happens Sunday night, Davis — whose next film is a biography of the biblical figure Mary Magdalene — hopes audience continue to take away more from Lion than how many gold statuettes it does or doesn’t win.
“I hope that it’s a movie they watch over and over again,” he says. “And share with their families, because it reminds us that if you can love unconditionally — to see Sue love that child unconditionally, give that child a home and give that child hope — you can overcome anything through love. I think the movie, and this story, proves that. I hope that it gives everyone a bit of courage to do that in their own lives.”
Lion is out in theaters now.