Issue 65 / Dev Patel Aims For An Oscar In 'Lion'

Dev Patel Aims For An Oscar In ‘Lion’

Jan 08, 2017

The Slumdog star comes full circle at TIFF 2016 with a poignant true story that should be a contender come awards season.

It’s early September and there’s an air of déjà vu at the Toronto International Film Festival. About an hour ago, a film called Lion had its world premiere at the Scotiabank Theatre and now a group of journalists have gathered in the HSBC Gallery at the TIFF Bell Lightbox waiting for the film’s cast and crew to take their place on stage for a press conference. It’s a group that includes such A-listers as Nicole Kidman, Rooney Mara, and, at the head of the pack, Dev Patel — that’s where the déjà vu comes in.

If you jumped back in time to this very room in 2008, you would’ve found many of the same reporters waiting for Dev to answer their questions about another heavyweight TIFF premiere — Slumdog Millionaire. But the Dev who walks out on stage today is a far cry from that boy who was taking his first tentative steps into the movie business. He’s a Hollywood vet — self-assured, charming, fielding questions with ease. Then of course, there’s the new look.

 Dev Patel holds court at a TIFF press conference, alongside director Garth Davis and co-star Rooney Mara.
Photo Credit: Images

“In terms of Toronto, it’s really special. I rocked up here with Slumdog in my school shoes and a borrowed suit,” Patel chuckles. “It’s so good to be back here with a bit of facial hair.”

Admittedly, the physical part of his transformation has less to do with the passage of time than it does the film he’s here to promote, which required him to hit the gym and let his typically clean-cut hair go to seed with shaggy locks and a full beard. Lion is the tale of real-life miracle man Saroo Brierley, who in the mid-’80s, at the age of five, got lost on a train platform and wound up in Calcutta, 1,500 miles from his remote village and unable to tell anyone where home was. Forced to beg for food and dodge predators on the streets, he was eventually taken into state custody and adopted by Australian couple Sue and John Brierley (played here by Kidman and David Wenham), who raised Saroo in Hobart, Tasmania.

Two decades later, now a fully acclimated Australian, Saroo was at a party with his girlfriend Lucy (Mara) and some school pals, when an Indian dish cooking in the kitchen triggered a poignant flashback to childhood, leading Saroo to open up about his past and one of his friends to point him in the direction of a new program called Google Earth. So began an all-consuming quest to reconnect with his barely remembered brother and birth mother (Priyanka Bose) — one that threatened to erode the bonds between Saroo, his parents and everyone he held dear in his new life.

 Saroo Brierley (Dev Patel) is slowly consumed by his need to track down his birth family.
Photo Credit: The Weinstein Company

Likely, you’ve heard the story before — on 60 Minutes, in a magazine or via Saroo Brierley’s own 2012 memoir A Long Way Home. But for anyone not familiar, Saroo’s journey is about to be thrust back into the limelight. Like Slumdog before it, Lion earned raves at TIFF. Slumdog won TIFF’s vaunted, Oscar-predicting People’s Choice Award in 2008; this year, Lion finished runner-up to Ryan Gosling-Emma Stone musical La La Land. Also like Slumdog, it’s been slotted in for a late-November release date, indicating that the Weinstein Company will be pushing it hard come awards season.

But for all the inevitable nods to Slumdog Millionaire that have popped up in the press, the people who made Lion see it as an entirely different animal.

“It’s really easy to compare it to Slumdog when you’re dealing with a young boy in a situation of poverty in the beginning,” says Patel. “But apart from that, thematically and tonally the films are completely different. Slumdog has a kind of frenetic energy about it and a pacing. And this film is a sweeping story with these two pillars on each end, played by Priyanka and Nicole. It’s a mother and son story, and for me personally as a performer, what was exciting is I’m really playing more of an Aussie than an Indian. He goes back to that country like an alien, can’t speak the language. And it’s about discovering his roots and finding home.”

 Priyanka Bose walks the red carpet at Lion‘s TIFF premiere.
Photo credit: Pimentel/Getty Images

After the press conference wrapped, ANOKHI got the chance to speak with the film’s Australian director Garth Davis, best known for acclaimed TV miniseries Top of the Lake, in a roundtable interview where he delved into the challenges of adapting Saroo’s story into a truly cinematic experience. “For me, it was, ‘OK, this story works in a paragraph, but how does it work really onscreen, and as a journey.’ He can’t just find home straight away, you know what I mean? It was much more the dilemma of his obsessive search, at what cost that comes.”

That in mind, Davis was very aware of the need to cast the right performer.

[Dev’s] just such a beautiful soul, and he’s got such a light in him,” the director explains. “I thought that was really important that people like Saroo, because he was going to go to a very dark place. And if you have a very dark, serious actor, I don’t think our audience could hack it. But I really felt the light in this family and I wanted the light in my actors. It was pretty much his spirit and his outlook that I loved. And I also got very excited about taking him to a performance space we haven’t seen. I think sometimes he can get typecast, and I think this was something he really wanted to play.”

As crucial as Patel’s poignant, largely internal performance is to Lion’s second act, it wouldn’t matter if the filmmakers had failed to find a young actor capable of anchoring the story of five-year-old Saroo. Luckily, Sunny Pawar proves a more-than-capable spark for the first act’s engine, whether running from corrupt police in the dead of night or sharing the screen with a Hollywood luminary in Kidman.

 Sue Brierley (Nicole Kidman) cradles her newly adopted son Saroo (Sunny Pawar).
Photo Credit: The Weinstein Company

Though the veteran actress admits that finding common ground with her young co-star was a bit of a challenge initially. “We had a week prior to shooting, and [he] didn’t speak any English. And we sort of bonded over sport, playing cricket and soccer, which is how you bond with small boys,” Kidman tells ANOKHI. “And that was good, because I was able to then start some words and teach him some words.”

Naturally, as the mother of two adopted kids herself, the bond between Saroo and Sue very much hit home for Kidman.

“I think [adoption is] probably what I bonded with Sue over,” Kidman explains, looking back on her day with the real Sue Brierley in preparation for the film.That was one of the reasons she wanted me to play the role; she very much believes in destiny . . . She also has red hair and fair skin [laughs]. And she’s Australian. We have a few things in common. But she’s lovely. And as you see in the film, she’s very unconditional, which I love.”

 Despite their tight-knit bond, Saroo’s obsession begins to wear on his relationship with Lucy (Rooney Mara).
Photo credit: The Weinstein Company

Bringing to life the other “pillar” in Saroo’s life, rising Indian star Priyanka Bose also had a memorable experience with her real-life counterpart, Kamla. “When I met her, it was incredible. We barely talked, but she’s really strong and when she opened, she lets you in for five seconds and you feel it. I’m overwhelmed right now just talking about it. It was really intense and beautiful.”

Bose isn’t the only Bollywood talent to grace the screen in Lion. Nawazuddin Siddiqui and Tannishtha Chatterjee also play small but pivotal parts in young Saroo’s journey. And they were performers that director Davis went after.

“The characters for me were very mythical; they were kind of self-contained. So it’s a very special quality to have and I needed special people,” Davis explains. “Nawazuddin is a universe unto himself, so it’s not like some day player coming in. And Tannishtha as well. I had to get these great actors; so I basically got on my knees and wrote the most passionate letters I could. But they were really willing to be a part of it. And I was really grateful they came onboard because they are very busy people.”

 Nicole Kidman poses with fans on the TIFF red carpet.
Photo Credit: Pimentel/Getty Images

Ultimately, it seems all that hard work has paid off, given the reviews and Oscar buzz. But for Davis, there’s another stamp of approval that means a little bit more. Prior to arriving at TIFF, he held a private screening of Lion for the Brierleys, all of whom had been in touch with the cast and crew throughout the making of the film.

“At the end of the film, I was going, ‘Are they coming out?’ And there’s no movement,” Davis recalls. “I went up to the projection box and the three of them are just cuddling — Sue, John and Saroo. And they just did not move from that embrace. After about 20 minutes, I opened the door and went [whispering] ‘You guys OK? And they all just sat down. I think it floored them. I didn’t get a word out of them for about an hour. They were very proud of it and they thought it was a very good portrayal.”

Saroo (Dev Patel) walks the streets of India, in search of closure.
Photo Credit: The Weinstein Company

It remains to be seen whether it’s a portrayal that’ll earn his leading man his first Oscar nom, but regardless, the dual experiences of transforming himself into Saroo and heading back to India, where his career first began nearly a decade ago, are enough to make Lion a worthwhile journey for Patel.

“It’s weird because, growing up, in school, I spent most of my existence trying to shun my heritage to avoid getting beaten up or bullied and just to fit it. And then I kind of discovered India, Bombay the city with Danny Boyle for Slumdog and I was completely just struck like lightning,” said Patel. “It’s just so enthralling for me to go back. And it sounds to cliché, but I understand myself and where I come from more and more. And that’s something I can feel in Saroo’s character too. We’re kind of products of two different worlds.”

Main Image Photo Credit: Pimentel/Getty Images

Original Post Date: October 22, 2016

Matthew Currie


A long-standing entertainment journalist, Currie is a graduate of the Professional Writing program at Toronto’s York University. He has spent the past number of years working as a freelancer for ANOKHI and for diverse publications such as Sharp, TV Week, CAA’s Westworld and BC Business. Currie ...


Newsletter Sign Up

Subscribe to our FREE newsletter for all of the latest news, articles, and videos delivered directly to your inbox each day!

  • PLEASE NOTE: Some of the contents of the newsletter may not be suitable for minors.

    Join A Community That Cares About What Matters To You!

    We Fearlessly Celebrate Our

    Desi Identity!