Galloway on Film: How to Avoid Pain in Telling a True Story

Courtesy of Luke Davies
Saroo Brierley visits an orphanage in India.

It isn’t easy bringing a person's life to the screen. Just ask the man who wrote 'Lion.'

In 1986, a five-year-old boy made the mistake of falling asleep in a rural Indian train station. When he woke up, he’d lost sight of his brother, and would soon lose sight of his home. Setting out to find them, he began an epic journey that led him first to Kolkata and then to a new life in Australia, before he found his way back to his village a quarter-century later.

It’s a big story, the stuff of legend, not to mention countless newspaper articles and a best-selling book, A Long Way Home, written by that one-time boy, Saroo Brierley, now 35. His tale has been turned into an award-winning film, Lion, which draws its title from the literal meaning of his name, as it was originally spelled, Sheru.

In capturing his life in print, and then in film, what principles were followed, what distortions accepted, what sacrifices made? I asked Brierley and screenwriter Luke Davies over lunch in West Hollywood last week.

Saroo, how did the book come about?

Saroo Brierley: About four years ago, when I tracked down my biological mum in India, a local policeman alerted the media and they went crazy. Everyone in India was amazed by this story of a boy getting lost and finding his family. And then, when I came home to Australia in 2012, it just snowballed. I was on every single sort of media that you could know, from TV to magazines to newspapers. I got asked, “Would you like to write a memoir about your journey?” I was like, “Absolutely.”

What was your first step?

Brierley: I had to ask my parents, “Should we write something about ourselves, and our trials and tribulations, the good and the bad and the ugly?”

Did they hesitate?

Brierley: Slightly. But so many people were enthralled by the story, we thought perhaps this could help them in a humanitarian way.

You had a lot of offers from publishers. Who did you decide to go with, and why?

Brierley: I went with Penguin, because at school all I’d seen was Penguin books. Ben Ball, the head of Penguin Australia, said, “I have a ghostwriter for you. There are two people; which way would you like to go?” We thought, “Let’s just interview both of them,” and then we went with Larry Buttrose, because we had a connection. He’s been to India quite a few times as well.

How did you help him understand your story?

Brierley We went to India together, and did the same journey, that 32-hour journey from Burhanpur to Kolkata. I wanted Larry to see everything that I saw. I was writing at the same time, writing in chronological order everything that happened. The book was that thick! I was doing something like 2,000 words a day, downloading all these things that I remembered and sending them to Larry.

Did he do any independent research?

Brierley: He spoke to my friends. He asked: “How was Saroo in social events and stuff like that?” And they said: “It almost felt in those situations that Saroo was in another world.” Which, in fact, I was, though I didn’t realize it.

Did you have trouble remembering all the details?

Brierley: I remembered everything. But it all had to be constructed and orchestrated.

Was anything significant cut from the edited book?

Brierley: No. But in the [U.S.] edition, they wanted a bit more. They said, “Can you add a little bit about when you were a child? What else did you do?” I said, “We used to steal coals.” That was already in the rough draft I’d given the Australian publisher.

Luke, how did you become involved?

Luke Davies: [Producers Emile Sherman and Iain Canning] came to me and said, “Have you heard this story about the kid who got lost in India?” And I had just heard about it, because it was all over the Internet.

You went through a long audition process, writing various outlines before you got the job. Then, when you were on vacation in Paris, you were told to meet Saroo.

Davies: I got this lovely phone call: “Luke, we’ve got good news, you’ve got the job. Bad news is you’ve got to cut your Paris trip short and you’ve got to be on a plane to India within 72 hours.”

Brierley: I said, “If we’re to write this script, Luke has to come with me and I’ve got to show him everything.” I said, “I’m not signing unless he comes.”

Davies: You can’t believe the trauma of dealing with the Indian bureaucratic system of visas, mixed with the French bureaucratic system and an Indian consulate in Paris — it’s insanely difficult. On the day I’m leaving, it’s so nail-biting. I get a taxi and we have to stop to pick up the passport and go straight to the airport, not knowing if my passport’s going to be ready. That trip was ridiculously stressful.

Where did you go in India?

Davies: I went to Howrah Station and all the platforms and all the underpasses and all the craziness. We got paparazzied. That was crazy. We were at Howrah Station and suddenly we’re surrounded by all these guys. It was really bizarre.

What surprised you about Saroo?

Davies: How easygoing he was. I was expecting someone more intense and neurotic, just because of the experience he went through, which would scar you for life. And I gradually came to realize: We all have a certain need for approval, a people-pleasing quality. He doesn’t. I have a theory about why this is — because he fully understands in his bones and in his DNA that a thing happened to him that was one in a zillion, and it made him have a sense of heroic destiny.

Have you discussed that with him?

Davies: We’ve discussed it at different times, a lot.

What else surprised you?

Davies: I was pushing him, asking some questions about emotional stuff, the stuff that [director] Garth Davis and I imagined and created to make the movie really emotional. And there was this flash of anger in Saroo, like, “You guys talk about emotions when I was five years old. But you don’t understand: I had the thickest skin you can possibly imagine.”

Brierley: I had the thickest skin.

Davies: — thick skin that prevented emotions [getting in the way]. He said, “Every single thing that happened was an emergency. It was left-right, black-white, this-that, yes-no.” And there’s no room for emotions when that’s going on in your life.

Brierley: You’re living on raw nerves.

Davies: [To Brierley:] I think you’re still sometimes like that. Emotions are a luxury.

Have you had any therapy, Saroo?

Brierley: [Shakes his head] What happened in my past happened. What’s the term — don’t cry over spilled milk? That’s the thing people don’t understand. I’m all right. I configured myself into coming out on the other end OK. I can disassociate myself.

That’s not quite how you’re shown in the movie, where you’re very emotional.

Davies: We had to create a movie where, in the second half, we’re doing the heavy lifting for Saroo, [with all the emotions] that he’s often out of touch with as a human being. I wanted him to see the film and keep crying.

Did you cry?

Brierley: Of course. Twenty-five times.

Davies: I wanted the film to make Saroo say, “Oh shit, those things are real and I have been good at repressing them as a survival mechanism for so long.” I want the end result to be that eventually he goes to therapy! [Laughs.]

What else did you change from real life?

Davies: An early draft contained a lot of stuff about Saroo being restless and unhappy before he goes to college — he’s into cars, and he’s speeding, and the police chase him one night and he manages to get away and he parks the car in a dark street and runs off.

Did you make that up?

Brierley: It’s a real thing.

Davies: That’s a scene we really liked. But it’s always about prioritizing. When the script is 135 pages long and you know it has to be 100 pages, [you have to cut].

Were you ever tempted to distort the truth, to simplify it or make things clearer?

Davies: We were lucky. The major things were so extraordinary that we knew we had to keep to them. With smaller things, it doesn’t matter if we tweaked the years, the time compression. In real life, he sent two or three women completely bonkers from his excessive searching, and it was over a five-year period, not a two-year period. For a long time in the script we had two girlfriends — based on real-life girlfriends — and in the end we made them one. We only met one [of the real-life women] and she was amazing.

Brierley: She was very supportive. The relationship was breaking, because I was repeating history with the other [girlfriends]. She stuck with me, but I didn’t really tell her everything. She didn’t ask.

Beside cutting one of the girlfriends, did you worry about not being true to Saroo’s character?

Davies: At a certain point — no offense to Saroo — the principle shifted from, “I’ve met him; he’s got an amazing story; and I think I've got him on board when I have questions to ask” to, “I can’t think about Saroo for the next six months. Now it’s about honing the story and getting it right. Later on, when the family reads it for the first time, we’ll find out whether we’ve created any things they object to.” Obviously, they had the right — and we would have followed their wishes — to get rid of anything they didn’t like, that would have made them uncomfortable.

You had that right contractually?

Brierly: Yes.

Did you say no to anything?

Brierley: [In an early draft], there’s a scene where I’m with my best friend partying and we end up taking two girls back to our house — twins. And I said, “Don’t do that or the mothers will be coming after me!”

Did you find the script true to you?

Brierley: Yes. Except that scene!

How did your mom feel when she read it?

Brierley: She couldn’t put it down, to the point that I left her [for a few hours], and when I came back, the whole house is dark, and I walk through to the kitchen, and there’s mom where I have left her. The dog’s looking at me, hasn’t been fed, thinking, “What’s going on with this crazy lady?” She was mesmerized, as I was.

Luke, what lessons did you learn from writing this? What counsel would you give another writer who’s adapting a real-life person’s story?

Davies: If it’s a living person, you must believe very clearly that you have moral and ethical obligation to not cause pain. But as I say that, there’s this possible Rupert Murdoch thing I’m working on. Do I have a moral and ethical obligation? I don’t know.

Is the obligation to not cause pain? Or is the obligation to the truth?

Davies: It’s a great question in relation to Mantosh [Brierley’s brother]. As Saroo has said, Mantosh has his own demons. To have him exist in the film is possibly to cause him a kind of pain.

Did it?

Davies: Mantosh loves Saroo and supports him, even though it makes him uncomfortable. Is that pain? Yes.

For more Galloway on Film, please check out the archive. 

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