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Garth Davis: I love movies that really shift something in me

Garth Davis' feature film debut, 'Lion', is up for six Oscars. The film-maker spoke to us about putting himself in the mind of a lost child

Garth Davis at JW Marriott, Juhu in Mumbai, earlier this month. Photo: Aniruddha Chowdhury/Mint
Garth Davis at JW Marriott, Juhu in Mumbai, earlier this month. Photo: Aniruddha Chowdhury/Mint

Of the nine Best Picture nominees at the Oscars this year, there’s only one by a first-time director. That film is Lion, the feature debut of Australian film-maker Garth Davis. It’s based on the real-life story of Saroo Brierley, a five-year-old boy from Khandwa in Madhya Pradesh who wandered off, got lost, boarded a train and, through an extraordinary set of circumstances, was eventually adopted by a couple in Australia. The film tracks his separation from his family, and his attempts to track them down years later. Dev Patel stars as the adult Saroo, along with Nicole Kidman as Sue Brierley, Saroo’s adoptive mother and Rooney Mara as Lucy, Saroo’s girlfriend; the supporting cast includes Nawazuddin Siddiqui, Tannishtha Chatterjee and Deepti Naval.

Davis has worked in commercials for close to 20 years. In 2013, he came to wider notice as the co-director (along with Jane Campion) of the acclaimed TV series Top Of The Lake. In India to attend the film’s premiere—Lion releases here on 24 February, two days before the Oscars, where it is nominated in six categories—he spoke to us about bringing Saroo’s remarkable story to the screen. Edited excerpts from an interview:

A lot of your work—your commercials for Schweppes and the 2014 World Cup, ‘Top Of The Lake’ and your short film ‘Alice’—deals with heightened emotions. Is this something you look for in a project?

I’m very drawn to the human condition and the emotional aspects of stories. It’s what’s not on the page that I get excited about. I get frustrated when I go to the movies and walk out not feeling anything. Sure, I have been entertained and had a laugh, but I love movies that really shift something in me and create a conversation. That’s what I’m interested in, whether it’s a commercial or a film.

You started out by retracing Saroo’s journey...

When the producers secured the rights to Saroo’s story, I wanted to get to India as quickly as possible. And the first day on my research trip was, coincidentally, with (US TV show) 60 Minutes. I was there when Saroo’s adopted mother met his birth mother.

I started by meeting both mothers and all of Saroo’s living family. I retraced his roots, his village, the dam in Khandwa. I tried to imagine what it would be like if I was a child, where I might play. I worked very emotionally, from the inside out. I didn’t do the whole train trip, but I did go to Burhanpur and back. Then I went to Kolkata and spent time on the streets and at the station—again, just imagining where I would sleep if I was five years old, where I would look for help.

Tell us about your collaboration with screenwriter Luke Davies.

Once we decided on Luke as a writer, I said that he had to do the same trip. So he did that, and we did the Tasmania leg together, and met a lot of Saroo’s friends there. Then we started work together.

I like to be involved with the scriptwriter early on, helping shape the story, and working out how the story can be told directorially. There are a lot of rhymes and poems—some visual, some spiritual—in Saroo’s story, and getting the screenwriter on board and developing that language was very important.

The first half of the film is anchored by an eight-year-old first-time actor, Sunny Pawar. How did you make him feel comfortable?

It was just a lot of preparation. I devised a programme for him with an acting coach named Miranda Harcourt and an actor and translator, Vaibhav Gupta. We had to make him feel like the whole thing wasn’t bigger than him. We had to work very hard at creating an environment that was natural and safe and relaxed.

Eventually, Sunny and I developed sign language. I would do this (Davis makes a downward gesture, like a dance mudra, with one hand) and he would understand that the scene was about feeling.

How exhaustive was the casting process?

It was massive. It took five months or so to find the children, because I had to cast all these children in Kolkata as well. And then we had to get the adult lead roles. Each of these characters had to have a tonal quality about them that sat with Nicole and Dev. I pushed very hard for Deepti and Nawazuddin and Priyanka (Bose) and Tannishtha.

Given that this was your first feature, did you storyboard extensively?

I definitely storyboard, but I only start once I have cast and location. I like to find the world first. I never like to say, “That’s what I’m thinking," and hand the storyboard to the location manager. I work from the inside out—I need to feel the village, I need to feel what it’s like to be a child. When I do that, I start to see the film from Saroo’s point of view, and then the shots are inspired.

You have worked before with the film’s cinematographer Greig Fraser (‘Zero Dark Thirty’, ‘Foxcatcher’). What visual approach did the two of you work out?

The film is in two halves—almost like yin and yang—so there are two very different visual styles. The first half is very tactile, human, alive. And the second half, with the adult Saroo, is an internal story—it’s everything that he’s not sharing about his life, which he’s suppressing. It’s intimate—you can almost feel his past haunting the imagery, until his two worlds collide.

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