When Sue and John Brierley adopted their first son Saroo from an orphanage in Calcutta, India, they couldn’t wait for him to grow up and tell them his story. Thirty years on, Saroo’s adoptive parents aren’t the only ones who know about his incredible tale of losing his family, moving to a foreign land, and his miraculous Google Earth search for his past life. The 2017 Oscar contender “Lion,” based on the book “A Long Way Home,” recounts Saroo’s story in painstaking detail, “warts and all.” In the wake of its six nominations, including in the two best supporting categories for Nicole Kidman who plays Sue and Dev Patel who plays Saroo, Sue Brierley spoke with Variety about seeing her family’s story on the big screen and reliving events from her life through the prism of an Oscar-winning actress’ performance.
What did you think when Saroo told you he was going to write a book about his experience?
Saroo never ceases to amaze me. I always knew that he had something special about him. We talked a lot about the content of the book, and obviously there’s a lot of fairly personal and private material that had never seen the light of day, and certainly many things that we hadn’t made public before, but we were more than supportive and we decided, as a family, that if Saroo was going to do this it had to have all the material, warts and all. It’s turned out to be an incredible book, it’s been published in about 20 different countries in many languages, and is included in many school curricula, so “A Long Way Home” has been an amazing thing and a highlight of our story as a family.
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Are you surprised the book has been made into a film?
Not really, once it was out there as a book — certainly that was fantastic — but from the moment that Saroo found his first family, I thought, “This is such an amazing thing that it’s going to take off all on its own,” and it did. It showed a unique identity that seemed to gain extra dimensions as the months went by and before we knew it, there were companies saying, “We want to make a film.” Then the decision was who to go with, but in the end we went with See-Saw (Films) and we’re very happy with how they’ve produced this film.
How did you feel when you heard Nicole Kidman would be playing you in the film?
It was great because right from the get go when the film was mooted, we joked around the family table saying, “Who’s going to play you?,” and I always wanted Nicole and the family laughed about that. But in actual fact, we couldn’t be happier about all of the cast. She really connected with me very deeply, and really got into me personally, and I think that enabled her to play the role so accurately.
Is it strange watching her entering your life like that and reliving your experiences up on screen?
I was actually very comfortable with her doing it, she’s a wonderful person and a special spirit, I don’t know how it would have been if the part had been allocated to an actor that maybe I didn’t connect with or feel the same way about, it would have been much more challenging for me, but I had faith in her commitment to the role. I was comfortable about suddenly appearing on screen embodied by Nicole.
Were the lines in the film accurate? One of my favorites was when you meet Saroo for the first time at the airport, Nicole says, “When you grow up, I can’t wait to hear your story.”
Yes, definitely, because we chose to have two Indian sons, so obviously we wanted to know all about them. We knew they didn’t just drop to earth, that they had stories and history, and it enabled us to parent them appropriately as well. The more we got to know them, the more we could give them what they needed growing up. It was a very conscious decision all the way through, sometimes when Saroo would get a bit cranky and say, “other mothers don’t do that,” as a young child, I’d say, “no, I’m a professional parent, it’s got to be the way it’s done.” I spent sixteen years waiting for my boys, so I had plenty of time to research, learn, read, endlessly. I was preparing for my biggest role.
There’s another line when Nicole says, “there are enough people in the world, but to take two boys who are suffering and give them a chance in life, that’s something.” Is that how you feel?
That’s exactly the reason why I’ve got two Indian boys, I’ve always had a soft spot for children in need, I feel that often they’re not valued enough in our society, and especially nowadays when I know that there are millions of children living in tents and on the streets, in war zones, either orphaned or abandoned or totally unaccompanied, and I feel very strongly about that. I feel as a society we’re not taking enough notice of that and focusing too much on adult refugees and economic refugees, whereas my focus is those children who are in that situation because adults have blown their world apart with bolts and bullets.
I’m hoping that the film will open up a few minds and allow people to start thinking about adoption rather than IVF or replicating, but in short I still believe what I’ve thought since I was a young girl: there are so many children who need a family, and I’ve never stopped believing that.
Sunny Pawar’s performance is a real standout as young Saroo, what did you think seeing him play your son?
For me that performance is just amazing, I really find it incredible that a little boy like that can carry so much emotion in his face and portray the scenes to accurately. It was quite traumatic for me seeing him play Saroo for the first time, because I hadn’t seen that part of Saroo’s life. We’d talked about it endlessly and discussed it a lot, but I’d never seen the hardship he was going through and to see it in front of my eyes really did rock me.
The film was able to make finding someone staring at a computer and searching on Google Earth so cinematic, how do you think it achieved that?
In a way there aren’t many words being said in that part of the film, but it’s such a powerful part of the story and such a vital part because the rest wouldn’t have happened if it wasn’t for that search. Given that John and I didn’t know that Saroo was even searching, just to find his home town was amazing, and then of course to find his family there, well that’s just the ultimate miracle really. They could have moved anywhere, that part of India is really tough in the slums, people move endlessly, but his mother, credit to her, just had this utter belief that one day her son would come back.
What was it like to meet Saroo’s biological family?
It was emotional and it was such a wonderful experience in my life. You go through your life and there’s a few big events that happen here and there, but for me that one is right up there, second only to meeting Saroo as the airport for the first time. To stand there in front of the woman who’d given me her son by accident, and then with the words she said at that meeting, I was very overcome, because she quite literally gave me her son. It’s just the most powerful experience that any mother could have. I was getting upset when we met and she wiped away my tears and I thought, “My goodness, with what you’ve been through.” She’s an amazing woman.
Do you feel that the film and the book have changed you as a family?
We’ve always been a very adaptable family. We’ve been able to cope with the ups and downs, and certainly they’re shown in the film, and I think that has helped us cope with all that comes. So now, with the film going out to the world and all the things that entails with the speaking events and screenings — we’ll embrace the whole experience with open arms, because I feel it’s a way of validating our story, our lives. There’s so many dimensions to that alone that every interview is different, the diversity of reaction to the film is amazing.