The story of Saroo Brierley, told in his 2013 memoir “A Long Way Home” and in the new film “Lion,” is hard to believe. In 1986, finding himself separated from his older brother – after they had traveled from their small Indian town to a train station several miles away to scrounge for change – the 5-year-old panicked, jumping into an empty train car to look for his teenage sibling.
When that train started moving – and didn’t stop for 32 hours – the child was carried, in a locked locomotive, nearly 1,000 miles away, to Calcutta (now known as Kolkata), where he managed to survive on the streets for three weeks before being picked up by authorities.
He didn’t know his mother’s given name or even his own last name. He spoke Hindi and was unable to communicate with the parade of Bengali-speaking officials who tried to help him. And the name of the place where he kept telling them he lived – Ganesh Talai, a neighborhood in the town of Khandwa – was unrecognizable. Eventually, the boy was put up for adoption and taken in by an Australian couple, Sue and John Brierley of Tasmania, where he was raised.
That’s not even the incredible part.
In his mid-20s, after learning of the virtual 3-D mapping program Google Earth, Brierley began searching online for images that might correspond with his fragmentary memories of the town where he last saw his brother: a water tower near a highway overpass, visible from the station platform; a nearby ravine; and a place name that began with the letter “B.” Guessing that he could have been on the train for as long as 24 hours, and multiplying that number by the speed of Indian passenger trains in the 1980s, Brierley was able to narrow his search to a specific radius around Kolkata, eliminating the extreme north of the country – because he had never seen snow as a child – and the extreme south, where Hindi is not widely spoken. After several years of painstaking searching, rain line by rail line, Brierley found what looked to be an exact match: Bhuranpur, and the town of Khandwa, a short distance away. In 2012, Brierley traveled there, ultimately tracking down his mother, who had never given up hope.
Neither had he.
Actor Dev Patel, who plays the adult Saroo in “Lion” in a passionate, grounded performance that has generated awards buzz, spoke by phone recently about capturing what he called Brierley’s “unflinching drive,” as well as the extraordinary feat of memory that it entailed.
“I think Saroo should be studied scientifically,” Patel says, noting that, for many who have suffered that kind of childhood trauma, memories become harder to recall, not easier.
In a phone interview, the real Saroo Brierley, who had flown in for an appearance at October’s Middleburg Film Festival in Virginia, where “Lion” was the opening-night film, sounded surprisingly blasé about his extraordinary ability for recollection, admitting only, in a bit of supreme understatement, that “it took a bit of thinking to resurface the memories.”
To hear the 35-year-old Brierley tell the story, it wasn’t all that difficult to dredge up images of where he came from – his earliest memories, he says, date to when he was 3 years old – because those images had never left him.
“I had been saying to myself, since childhood, ‘I will never forget the place where I was born,’ ” he says. “That’s my identity. If I lose that, I lose everything.”
Sure, he acknowledges, over time some details had gotten lost in the mist of memory. But what he calls “the crux of the place” – vivid details of architecture and landscape – stayed with him.
To the degree that Brierley comes across as preternaturally mellow, centered and self-confident, given all that he has been through, Patel was, by his own admission, a strange casting choice. The actor, who is known for what he calls “screwball comedies” such as “The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel” and its sequel, describes himself as “fidgety and hyperactive” by nature.
“I’m a big, loud Labrador-esque type of creature,” he says. Although he has played characters who spend a lot of time in front of computer screens – notably in the sci-fi thriller “Chappie” – portraying someone with the “intense reserve” of Brierley did not come naturally.
Patel also put on about 20 pounds, grew his hair out from the close-cropped style he wore in “The Man Who Knew Infinity” and learned an Australian accent. “When I got the script,” Patel recalls, “I called my manager and said, ‘Don’t send me anything for eight months. I don’t want to read anything. I want to do justice to this opportunity and completely commit my soul to it.’ “
Although the 26-year-old actor says the part was “one of the biggest transformations I’ve ever had to make on screen,” he also says the role of Saroo – and his journey to reconnect with his heritage – was “one of the most similar characters to me I ever played.” As the child of Indian parents growing up in London, Patel says he “did everything I could to fit in, which sometimes meant shunning your heritage. When I went to India to do ‘Slumdog [Millionaire],’ for the first time as a conscious adult, I fell in love with it. I felt more whole, as a human being.”
Brierley says he can relate to that characterization. One scene in the movie features Saroo having a flashback, triggered by a plate of jalebi, a fried-dough treat from his childhood that Brierley says his family could rarely afford. Although that Proustian moment really happened, Brierley says there were frequently other such flashbacks – not shown in the film – triggered by seeing something as simple as a mother and child on the streets of Tasmania. He speaks of reconnecting with his mother as a form of “healing his dreams” but shrugs off the suggestion that a more traditional, or at least less obsessive, form of therapy might have helped him.
“I never thought that I needed that kind of stuff,” he says. “Everyone goes through things. It just happens that I went through something that no child should ever have to go through.”