Saroo Brierley's story is stuff movies are made of. And once that's done, the movie goes on to receive six Oscar nominations. The Dev Patel- Nicole Kidman-starrer, Lion, narrates the quest of the India-born Australian to find his birthplace, and by Brierley's own admission, has taken his story to "another level".
"It was interesting to see my life get unfolded once more," the 35-year-old businessman tells us about the making of Lion, which has received nominations in categories including Best Picture, Best Supporting Actor (Patel), Best Supporting Actress (Kidman) and Best Adapted Screenplay at the upcoming 89th Academy Awards.
He is thrilled that an acclaimed actor like Dev Patel is playing him in the movie. And there's Nicole Kidman, of course.
"Dev was just an amazing guy the first time we met," Brierley recalls. "I had never met an actor before."
He is sure no one but Kidman could have played his adoptive mother so well. "She is such an icon," he says. "She embodied my mother perfectly. The movie was made for her," he adds, talking about the fact that Kidman has adopted children herself.
The movie, directed by Australian filmmaker Garth Davis, is scheduled for release in India on February 24. It is based on Brierley's book A Long Way Home, in which he recounts his search for his hometown and his birth mother in India, 25 years after he lost both. And more: His name, for instance.
As a child in India, he was called Sheroo. That's when he lived in Khandwa, a small town in Madhya Pradesh, with his mother Kamla and three siblings. His father had deserted the family, and his mother worked at a construction site while the older brothers — Guddu and Kallu — went foraging for food. Sheroo stayed at home to take care of his younger sister, Shakila. It was a family like millions of others in India.
Until the day, when the five-year-old Sheroo pestered Guddu to take him along to the railway station, where he looked for food, or menial work. Guddu told him to sit on a bench on the platform, and not budge, until he returned.
Sheroo waited for his brother to come back, as night fell, and the platform emptied. He finally boarded a train that was at a halt at the station to look for Guddu. And fell asleep.
He woke up in Kolkata, a city where he knew no one, and survived on the streets for many weeks. When someone took the lost child to the police station, he said the name of his village was Ginestlay, near a railway station called Berampur.
Since no one could locate either on India's map, the child was put up in an orphanage in Kolkata, and later adopted by a family based in Australia. And, Sheroo became Saroo.
So by which name does he want to be called in India now, we ask Brierley. He laughs. "I guess, Saroo. I have become so used to it now."
What he couldn't get used to during the next 25 years in Australia, while he lived in a loving family, went to school, learnt English, forgot Hindi, and welcomed another Indian adopted child, named Mantosh, into the family, was not thinking about his home back in India.
As an adult, he spent hours poring over Google Earth, looking for Ginestlay and Berampur. He knew his home was nowhere near a beach, or lofty mountains. It was also about a nightlong journey by train from Kolkata. One night, in 2011, he located Burhanpur on the map, and traced the railway line in all directions.
At Khandwa, he recognised the fountain near the train tracks close to his house. But where was Ginestlay?
Buoyed with the discovery, Brierley joined a Facebook group of people belonging to Khandwa, and posted a message: "can anyone help me, i think im from Khandwa. i havent seen or been back to the place for 24 years. Just wondering if there is a big fountain near the Cinema? (sic)"
He soon got a reply: "well we cant tell u exactly . . . . . there is a garden near cinema but the fountain is not that much Big.. n the cinema is closed form years.. wel we will try to update some pics . . hope u will recollect some thing ... (sic)"
Brierley wrote again: "Can anyone tell me, the name of the town or suburb on the top right hand side of Khandwa? I think it starts with G . . . . . . . . not sure how you spell it, but i think it goes like this (Gunesttellay)? The town is Muslim one side and Hindus on the other which was 24 years ago but might be different now. (sic)"
"Ganesh Talai," came the response.
Brierley flew to India, and walked through the streets that were marked with uncanny precision in his mind. He reached his house. It was abandoned. Brierley could not believe his search would end this way. As a crowd gathered around him, he blurted, "Kamla, Guddu, Kallu, Shakila."
A man came to him, saying, "Come, I will take you to your mother." He was soon standing in front of her.
"It was a shock to everyone," Brierley recalls. "All of us broke down."
He cried more when he came to know that Guddu had died the day he boarded the train. His body was found on the tracks the next day. Kamla was sure though all those years that her Sheroo would come back. They had never found his body.
He has since then visited India about 15 times in the last four years. And he talks to the family online often. An Anglo-Indian neighbour acts as an interpreter. So what does he call his Indian mother? "Ma," he tells us. "I never forgot it."