All families have their stories; but few have a story quite like that of the Brierley family. Having adopted a child from India named Saroo, twenty-five years later, they would return to find his birth parents.
The story is told in Saroo Brierley book A Long Way Home, which is the basis for the extraordinary film Lion, now showing in cinemas. In town for the South Australian premiere, Saroo and his mother Sue, took some time out to chat to Glam Adelaide over a plate of noodles.
“I had never really considered being a biological mother, for various reasons,” Sue says. “I was just very set in my ways [in wanting to adopt from India]. At twenty-one, when John [Brierley, Saroo’s father] and I moved into the home that we built together, we just naturally assumed that we would be able to pursue this. But this wasn’t the case. At that time, adoption was only for infertile couples, which was not something we could prove, so we just set about living our lives. But then, after sixteen years, there was a window of opportunity when the law changed, which we jumped at. Seven months later we had Saroo offered to us, and we were over the moon.”
Saroo takes over to talk about telling his story, saying, “It wasn’t until I learnt the English language that I was able to tell the story of what really happened. My visual sense were heightened, but I never went to school, so I only knew a few words [of Hindi]. I couldn’t even string a sentence together.”
When Saroo eventually returned to India, he had to use an interpreter to communicate with his mother, Fatima, but he also discovered that the local police had alerted the media.
“We were inundated with news-crews from Mumbai, Kolkata, Delhi, Chennai…and before we knew it, the story had spread all over India. And then when I returned to Australia it just snowballed. We were then asked by several publishing companies, if we would like to write a book, and we thought about the fact that it is such a private story. But the story is so compelling and uplifting, that we decided to do it, and share our knowledge.”
“Right from when I first adopted Saroo,” Sue says, “I was aware that that he was born to another woman. And when I realised how wonderful he was, I knew that he must have been loved. He was so calm, and was obviously not a child who had been neglected. I knew that there was a woman out there who had loved Saroo before me. I was mindful of that every day. I took my duty of caring for Saroo very seriously. Every night I would send a psychic message to Fatima telling her how wonderful Saroo was and I would give thanks to her. She was always a part of my life and our family.”
When Sue met Fatima the first time, some people questioned her going with a 60 Minutes crew, and having them there at my most private moment.
“I was actually glad they were there to support us,” she admits. “They facilitated every part of the trip. And we didn’t know how this meeting was going to go…it could have gone horribly wrong. But when the moment came, she said to me, through Cheryl [the translator]: Thank you for bringing up my son. I give you my son. He is yours now.”
From private moment, to a news story, to a documentary, to a book, and now to a film…all of which Saroo tells us, took place “in the space of a few months.”
So what did they think about seeing such a personal story portray on screen in the film, Lion?
“Saroo saw it first on his own, and was quite traumatized by it, in a way,” Sue says. “Then the next day, John and I arrived in Sydney and the three of us watched it together. And it was so shocking; so realistic, especially for me, because I feel that Nicole [Kidman, who plays Sue in the film] really nailed it: all the emotion; all the pain; all the ups and downs. I was legless. I could barely walk. They had to get me a glass of water and I staggered out of the theatre. The three of us spent some time afterwards just crying and holding each other. Maybe if it wasn’t so well done it wouldn’t have affected us so much!!”
There is little higher praise for film based on a true story, than that it emotionally rocked the people it portrays. And clearly audiences feel the same way, with the film garnering accolades from public and critics alike. It is also a strong Oscar contender.
Lion stars Dev Patel, Rooney Mara, David Wenham and Nicole Kidman, and opens today in cinemas around Australia.
Take a jumbo box of tissues…
Interviewed by Tracey Korsten