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Dev Patel On The 'Driving Force' Of Playing The Part Of A Living Person


It seems like an impossibly tragic tale. A 5-year-old boy named Saroo from an impoverished family in India goes with his older brother to a train station one night. The big brother leaves the tired little boy there on a bench to sleep so he can go off to his night job. The little boy wakes and his brother isn't there, so he wanders onto an empty train and again falls asleep.

When Saroo wakes up, the train is hundreds of miles away from his small village. And after two days alone on this train, it finally stops in Calcutta. The child is completely alone. After living on the streets for a while, he ends up in an orphanage and, ultimately, is adopted by a family in Australia. Dev Patel plays the grown-up version of Saroo in the film "Lion." And Dev joins me now from the studios of WHYY in Philadelphia.

Dev, thanks so much for being with us.

DEV PATEL: It's a pleasure to be here. Thanks for having me.

MARTIN: I imagine, in part, what attracted you to the script was knowing that this was a true story, that - kind of, the stakes were higher. You're playing someone - not a fictional character. You're playing a real person, a real life.

PATEL: Yes. Yeah, yeah, yeah. It's - you know, the relationships in this film are still evolving as we speak. And, you know, that requires you to be a lot more delicate. But it's also the driving force when you're up at 4 a.m. and you're absolutely exhausted. And you just think back to meeting Saroo for the first time or Sue, his mother, or Kamla, the mother I got to meet in India. And, you know, we cried together, laughed together. And it just gives you that extra motivation, really.

MARTIN: So what was that like when you were able to meet the real-life Saroo Brierley and talk about his life?

PATEL: He's so generous. He's so funny. He's the epitome of a fiercely driven young man. And thus, we have created a movie from his resilience and his perseverance, really. But he - you know, we sat down, had breakfast together. We spoke about his life. You know, he told me about the idea of finding his mother from space using this app, a needle in the haystack in this vast country. And he really achieved the impossible. And, you know, with every click of that mouse, he felt he was getting one step closer to this destiny.

MARTIN: Were you able, in your conversations with him, to discern how his own revelation happened? Because in the film, it seems as if Saroo has put away that life in India to fully be Australian, and it comes upon him like this epiphany when he's in his mid-20s. And all of a sudden, he remembers and then is myopically focused on finding out where he's from. Did it transpire like that in real life, or was it something much slower over time for Saroo?

PATEL: No, it's very accurate, actually. He suppressed a lot of his past to get by in life. And there's a moment where he's at a house party in college and he goes to get some beers from the fridge. And in that fridge are these jalebis, which are Indian sugary, like, street snacks. And as a young child, he'd always yearned to taste one of those, but they couldn't afford it 'cause they grew up in absolute poverty. And one day, his older brother said, I want to buy you a whole vat of those.

And he's there in Melbourne in his jeans and his cool T-shirt, and all of a sudden, he's staring at these jewels. And it completely opened Pandora's box for him. And, you know, he was riddled with guilt 'cause he's living this privileged life with these wonderful, loving, Australian parents. But he thought, damn, you know, my family is - could be out there searching for me every single day on those train tracks while I live here. So I need to find them and tell them I'm OK and that I love them.

MARTIN: We should say that Saroo, as an adult, starts to grapple with his past. And he loves his adoptive parents, but he becomes pretty obsessed with finding his mother, his brother and his sister back in India. But he doesn't know where he's even from 'cause he was so young when he left. And so he uses Google Earth (laughter) - he uses that program to kind of scour...

PATEL: Yeah.

MARTIN: ...These maps to try to remember where he came from. It's pretty unbelievable.

PATEL: Yeah, it's quite amazing.

MARTIN: It's interesting. It's not a dominant part of the film, but the idea of class and what a different life he's living, especially when he's in that moment with his college friends. They're sitting around this living room, and he's kind of processing what he's feeling. And one of his friends, who happens to also be of Indian descent, is dumbfounded by the fact that Saroo's mother carries rocks...

PATEL: Yeah.

MARTIN: ...That she is of a lower caste, that she is so desperately poor. And he's dumbstruck by it.

PATEL: Look, when he was on those trains, he was a child who hadn't had an education. He didn't know his last name. He didn't know the name of his town. When the police or authorities asked him, you know, what his mother's name was, he said ammi, which means mom. You know, he was just a small child. And he was embarrassed by that. And it's something very deeply personal that he'd never really opened up to the world about. But he grabbed the bull by the horns and decided to do something about it.

MARTIN: Dev Patel - he stars in the new film "Lion." It comes out this week. Dev, thanks so much for talking with us.

PATEL: Thanks for having me.


SIA: (Singing) Never give up, never give up. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.