Did you watch the Oscars last night? One of the movies nominated for Best Picture was based on the an amazing true story. Today, let’s compare history with Hollywood’s version of Lion.
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- Lion (2016) – IMDb
- Lion (2016) – Synopsis
- The lost Indian boy Saroo Brierley who found his way home 25 years later | Daily Mail Online
- Lion Movie vs. the True Story of Saroo Brierley, Google Earth
- Saroo Brierley: What it’s like having your life story, Lion, nominated for an Oscar
- ‘Saroo Brierley: Homeward Bound’ Beautifully Tells How Google Earth Reunited Man With His Mom | The Huffington Post
- Google Earth Helps Indian Man Find Family And Village After 25 Years | The Huffington Post
- Interview: Saroo Brierley, Author Of ‘A Long Way Home: A Memoir’ : NPR
- Saroo Brierley – Wikipedia
- About Saroo – Saroo Brierley | A Long Way Home
- Garth Davis – IMDb
- Nicole Kidman on Lion and adoption: ‘It’s about the simplicity of love’ | Film | The Guardian
- Sunny Pawar – Biography – IMDb
- List of languages by number of native speakers in India – Wikipedia
Disclaimer: Dan LeFebvre and/or Based on a True Story may earn commissions from qualifying purchases through our links on this page.
Note: This transcript is automatically generated. There will be mistakes, so please don’t use them for quotes. It is provided for reference use to find things better in the audio.
The movie begins when we see a five-year-old Saroo being called by his older brother, Guddu. Together, the two hop onto a train to steal some coal that they then turn into milk when they get back to their village by swapping the coal for it.
In the movie, Guddu is played by Abhishek Bharate while the young Saroo is played by probably the cutest little kid ever, Sunny Pawar.
After this, we see Saroo and Guddu bring the milk back home where we’re introduced to Saroo’s mother and sister.
Saroo’s mother, Kamla, is played by Priyanka Bose while Saroo’s sister, the young Shekila, is portrayed by Kushi Solanki.
This particular scene with Saroo and Guddu stealing coal from the train wasn’t something that happened the way we saw in the movie, but the point the filmmakers were trying to make here was true.
Growing up in an impoverished village, Saroo’s family did whatever they could to get food. Like many others, they were constantly hungry.
Perhaps the filmmakers got the idea to portray this hunger with coal because of something Saroo recalled about his baby sister, Shekila. It was a little habit she picked up to help keep the constant hunger at bay: gnawing on charcoal from the fireplace.
But the biggest inaccuracy in the movie here isn’t what the movie shows, but what the movie doesn’t show. And it’s not something we see through the entire film.
That’s Saroo’s father and his other brother. In truth, Saroo’s father, a Muslim, had left his mother, a Hindu, after getting married to another woman. It was something he was permitted to do under Islamic law, but it also meant Saroo’s mother, Kamla, was left alone to support four children.
The oldest was Guddu, then there was Kallu, who’s not in the movie, Saroo and Saroo’s younger sister, Shekila.
As for Saroo’s father, because he left while Saroo was still little he wasn’t someone very close to the children. So perhaps that’s why his character didn’t make it into the movie.
Back in the movie, young Saroo convinces his brother, Guddu, to take him along for a week-long trip. Guddu is torn, not wanting to take him along because he’s too young, but also because he watches Shekila. But Saroo mentions Kallu here in what’s probably the only mention of his older brother in the film.
This is fairly accurate, but there’s more to the story.
In truth, both Guddu and Kallu spent a lot of time away from home. With their mother off working often a week at a time without returning home, that’s one of the reasons why Saroo and Shekila were so close. They were often the only two at home.
Since Guddu was the oldest man in the household, even if he would’ve been a child in many other cultures, it was customary for him to help provide for the family. So that’s what he did. He worked multiple jobs, and Kallu went to help his brother out by finding food for Guddu to eat when he was done working or finding a place for the pair to sleep at night.
Even though Kamla, Guddu and Kallu would leave home for sometimes weeks at a time, they’d always return. They’d be a happy family for a brief period before they’d have to head back out to make a living.
Just like the movie shows, it was during one of these trips that Saroo convinced Guddu to take him along.
In the movie, while Guddu and Saroo are on the train, they sweep under the seats, looking for anything they might be able to eat or sell. Not finding much, they settle in for the train ride to the big city—a town Saroo recalls as “Berampur.”
Then, in the movie, Saroo’s life takes a dramatic change when he falls asleep on the train with Guddu.
The way the movie depicts this is very accurate.
Although Saroo was too young to know the specifics of where they were going at the time, he’d later find out the real name of the “big city” was Burhanpur. Today, there’s around 210,000 people who live there. So it’s not a huge city, but it was the big city to little Saroo.
The movie shows Saroo falling asleep on the train.
But according to Saroo’s recollection, while he was tired on the train, he didn’t actually fall asleep until they arrived at the train station in Burhanpur. It was here that he fell asleep on a wooden bench while Guddu did some things he said he needed to do. It’s a minor difference, and the result is the same.
In the movie, when Saroo wakes up, he’s all alone. There’s no one there. The only thing in sight was a train, which also seemed to be empty.
This is true, although Saroo remembered there being some sleeping people on the train when he first climbed on board.
Using what he’d learned from his older brothers to avoid conductors on trains—they tend not to like kids without tickets sneaking onto the trains—he went into a different carriage. He thought perhaps Guddu had gotten on the train to check under the seats, trying to find whatever he could.
Afraid he’d be left at the station when the train left, Saroo went back to sleep on the train.
When he wakes up this time, in the movie, the train is moving. There’s no sign of Guddu anywhere, and there’s not even anyone else on the carriage he’s in.
This is also true, and it had to have been terrifying. Saroo was only five years old. And all of a sudden, he has no idea where his brother is…or where he is. Looking outside, the terrain was completely alien. There’s nothing he sees that reminds him of home.
Just like that, Saroo was lost.
Back in the film, Saroo gets off the train at an incredibly busy train station. As he gets off, he has to push past a mass of people getting on.
While the specifics of what we see were dramatized for the film, it’s safe to imagine what we see on screen is similar to what it must’ve been like.
Although he didn’t know it at the time, Saroo had entered the train at Burhanpur and exited at Calcutta. Well, that was it’s name then. In 2001, Calcutta was renamed to Kolkata. That’s almost 800 miles, or over 1,200 kilometers to the east. Roughly, that’s about the same distance from Sacramento to Vancouver, Canada.
Except if you were to travel from Sacramento to Vancouver, at least you’d be speaking the same language—even if it is with a bit of an accent. At least you’d know what people are talking about.
Within the massive country of India, there’s a total of 23 languages that are officially recognized. The most-used is Hindi, which is what Saroo would’ve learned in the Khandwa region. In fact, that’s the most popular language in India as it’s used in a little over 41% of the nation.
But that’s not what is predominantly spoken in Kolkata. There, Bengali is the primary language.
According to the movie, there’s a few things that happen to little Saroo in the big city of Kolkata. And this time, when I say “big city”, I mean big city. There’s about 4.5 million inside city limits, and over 14 million in the metro area.
Much larger than the relative “big city” of Burhanpur.
In the movie, when Saroo arrives in Kolkata, his first night is spent in the train station’s tunnels with a group of other kids he stumbles across. Then, he’s startled awake by a group of men who are picking up the kids.
This is true.
Although he couldn’t have known what the men wanted with a bunch of homeless children, all he knew was he didn’t want to be taken. So he ran.
But there is a slight difference in the movie here. As he’s running, he runs down a tunnel and almost gets hit by a bus. In truth, Saroo ran down the tunnel with the train tracks. It was a train that nearly hit Saroo, but he managed to press himself against the wall and keep from getting hit as it raced past.
To this day, Saroo doesn’t know what the men wanted. But it’s probably safe to say those poor children didn’t end up in a very good situation.
After he manages to escape this terrifying moment, in the movie, things start to look up when a woman notices him. When she realizes he’s speaking Hindi, and that’s not spoken nearby, she takes him in. Fortunately, she speaks Hindi, too, so she can communicate with Saroo.
Her name is Noor, and in the movie she’s played by Tannishtha Chatterjee.
Noor says she knows a good man who can help and convinces Saroo to stick around by bribing him with food and a soda. But when the man shows up the next day, something is off. Sensing this, Saroo bolts for it.
That didn’t happen; and there’s no mention of a woman named Noor in Saroo’s book.
But what we see in the movie is similar to something that did happen.
After almost getting nabbed at the Kolkata train station, Saroo decided it wasn’t safe there anymore. He traveled along the train tracks for a while. Losing track of time, Saroo nearly passed out in the blazing heat of the day. After sitting down on the tracks, a man nearby noticed this and approached Saroo.
The man warned Saroo that the train tracks were dangerous, and similar to Noor in the movie, invited Saroo to get some food.
But this man didn’t live in a nice apartment like Noor in the movie. No, in truth, he worked on the railway and lived in a shack by the tracks along with a number of other men. They did let Saroo eat and give him a place to rest.
So while it wasn’t Noor who called someone for Saroo, it was this unnamed railway worker.
When the man arrived, he acted very strangely—much like we saw in the movie. He lay on the bed next to Saroo and listened to his story. This made Saroo uncomfortable, and he trusted his instincts.
He took his first chance, which was later that evening while the railway workers were chatting over a humble dinner, and bolted into the night.
In the movie, Saroo’s fortune changes when he sits down in the streets of Kolkata across from a small café. In the window, he sees a man eating soup. Pulling out a spoon he found earlier, Saroo mimics the man’s movements. This gets the man’s attention, who comes to talk to Saroo and, eventually, takes him to the police station to try to help.
Similar to the story of Noor, this part was changed in the film. But it’s based on something that did happen, albeit a little differently.
After escaping the railway worker’s home, Saroo wandered the streets of Kolkata. He wasn’t necessarily trying to find his way home; he was simply trying to survive and repel the biting hunger that nipped at his heels.
It wasn’t a man in a café that found Saroo, but rather it was Saroo who stumbled upon a boy who he thought was about the same age as Guddu. The two struck up a conversation and eventually, the boy invited Saroo back to his home. Saroo stayed with the boy’s family for a few days before they took him to the police station to see if they could find his family.
Just like the movie shows, though, there was no luck. The police couldn’t find Saroo’s hometown. They couldn’t find his mother. Without anywhere to send him, Saroo was sent to an orphanage.
According to the movie, after a few months in the orphanage, a woman named Mrs. Sood, who’s played by Deepti Naval, comes to let Saroo know they’ve tried to find his mother without any luck. But there’s a family in Australia who wants to adopt him.
All of this is true, but in truth it wasn’t an orphanage in the sense that it was a home only for children without parents. It was a juvenile detention center called Liluah, and was home to orphans and trouble children who had been caught breaking the law on the streets of Kolkata.
Saroo spent months at Liluah.
Mrs. Sood is a real person, and at the Indian Society for Sponsorship and Adoption, she was responsible for orchestrating Saroo’s adoption.
The couple adopting Saroo is also accurately depicted in the film. It’s John and Sue Brierley. John is played by David Wenham while Sue is portrayed by Nicole Kidman.
Although Saroo didn’t know it at the time, John and Sue had wanted to adopt any child who needed a home. They didn’t request a certain gender or a certain background, like many adopting parents do. Nor were they incapable of having children, just like the movie shows.
John and Sue Brierley simply wanted to provide a loving home to a child who needed it.
And they got Saroo.
Oh, and to give you an idea of how true to reality the movie is, do you remember the shirt Saroo was wearing when he first met his new parents? In the movie it’s a white shirt that says Tasmania on it.
That’s the exact same shirt the real Saroo wore when he flew from India to meet the real John and Sue in his new home of Tasmania. You can see a photo of the real Saroo wearing this shirt on the cover of the book, A Long Way Home.
According to the movie, Saroo got a brother when John and Sue adopted yet again a couple years later.
This is true, although the timeline is a little off.
While we don’t know exactly when Saroo was born because, well, there’s just isn’t any documentation for that, the Indian adoption authorities gave Saroo a birthday of May 22nd, 1981. They did this because he needed a birthday on record, so they guessed at the year and added the month and day he showed up at the orphanage.
When Saroo arrived in Tasmania with his new parents, that was toward the end of 1987. So he was six years old.
John and Sue Brierley adopted Mantosh when Saroo was ten, so Saroo had lived with the Brierley’s for four years before getting a brother. And again, it wasn’t that the Brierley’s asked for another boy. They simply requested any child that needed a loving home.
In the movie, when Mantosh arrives, he has a much worse temper than Saroo.
This is true, and although he didn’t know it at the time, Saroo would later find out Mantosh had come from the same orphanage he was at: Liluah. But Mantosh’s time at Liluah was much worse than Saroo’s. He was abused, both physically and sexually, who knows how many times in the years it took for the adoption to go through.
Perhaps now you’re wondering how Saroo had managed to get adopted relatively smoothly—it didn’t take years like it did for Mantosh.
It all hinged on the inability to find Saroo’s parents. When they weren’t able to find them, Saroo was labeled an orphan. He had no parents as far as the State was concerned.
By comparison, Mantosh’s mother had died, but he had a father. For some reason we don’t know, his father just didn’t want him. But this added just enough complexity into the process to slow the adoption process down immensely.
During that time, Mantosh fell victim to the horrible environment in Liluah.
Would Saroo have fallen victim to the same fate if he’d stayed at Liluah for years instead of the months he was there? Maybe.
In the movie, after we’re introduced to Mantosh, the film fast forwards a couple of decades to Saroo as an adult. This adult version of Saroo is played by Dev Patel.
According to the movie, as an adult Saroo has seemingly put his life in India behind him. He doesn’t even think about looking up his previous life until someone in his hotel management class suggests it to him. This is the same class in Melbourne, Australia, that Saroo meets a girl he hits it off with, Lucy.
In the film, Lucy is played by Rooney Mara.
That’s not really true, but in the way we’ve seen a few things altered in the film so far, it’s close.
In 2007, Saroo attended the Australian International Hotel School in Canberra, which is about 280 miles, or 450 kilometers, from where the film says the class was in Melbourne.
But Saroo did use Google Earth on his computer to painstakingly search for his hometown. He did this much in the same way that the movie shows, by following the train tracks coming out of Kolkata.
Inch by inch, mile by mile. Or, I guess more appropriately, centimeter by centimeter, kilometer by kilometer.
There’s some other minor details that were changed in the movie, like the part where we see Dev Patel’s version of Saroo figuring out how fast trains can go by searching the web. Then, based on his calculations, he builds a search radius out from Kolkata.
In truth, one of Saroo’s friends had a father who worked at the railway station in India. Saroo asked her to see if her father could give some insight on how fast trains were. He did, and that’s how Saroo figured out the search radius.
But that’s a distinction without a difference as far as the story is concerned. The end result was the same: Saroo had a search radius to try to find his hometown.
Probably the biggest change in the movie had to do with Rooney Mara’s character, Lucy.
In truth, her name was Lisa, and while the movie makes it seem like Saroo met her before he began his search, that’s not true. By the time Saroo met Lisa, he’d already begun his search. In fact, he was months into it.
But it’s slow going, so it wasn’t something he’d finish right away.
And just like the movie shows, Saroo started to get rather obsessive with the search. The more he searched, the more that itch continued. He had to find his hometown.
In the movie, it’s at the point of utter desperation when Saroo finally finds it. He’s randomly searching Google Earth when he spots a land formation that he thinks he recognizes. Zooming in, he finds more things he recognizes from his childhood.
While the scene in the movie was fictionalized for the film, that is very similar to how Saroo ended up finding his hometown.
It was on March 31st, 2011, when Saroo returned home from work and began his evening routine. It was the same thing he’d done almost every night for years.
With the hour getting late, he was about to turn in when he just randomly started flicking along the map. He was following a river in the Indian countryside. It had nothing to do with his search, but he was just looking at the terrain.
By this time, he’d become accustomed to look for train stations. So when he found one, he ritualistically began following the track. Then he paused and looked a bit closer.
There was a water tower, just like the one he remembered from his childhood.
But surely that couldn’t be it. There has to be millions of water towers in India. As he continued to search the area, he found more things he remembered. A road in the shape of a ring—exactly what he remembered seeing from the station as a child.
When he saw the name of the station, it was Burhanpur! He had remembered it as “Berampur”, but he also knew that’s what he thought it was as a child. Since he didn’t know how to read or write at the time, his understanding of the name was purely phonetic.
In the movie, Saroo finds what looks like a town called Ganesh Talai on the map. That’s not really what happened. The movie seems to have sped this up some.
After finding Burhanpur, Saroo followed the tracks to the town that must’ve been his hometown. The map said Khandwa. That was a name that didn’t mean anything to Saroo.
There wasn’t any sort of “Ginestlay.”
Like Burhanpur, his knowledge of “Ginestlay” was purely phonetical, so he knew it might not be exactly that. And looking at the terrain, the roads, the tracks, the buildings—he recognized it all. That had to be it.
But there was nothing nearby that was anywhere near “Ginestlay”, so he didn’t want to get his hopes up before confirming it.
This isn’t shown in the movie at all, but to help confirm he was on the right track, he found a Facebook group for Khandwa. Reaching out, he asked if there was a fountain in town. That was a landmark he thought he remembered being in his hometown.
The next day, he received a reply. Yes, but it wasn’t as big as Saroo seemed to think it was.
You can imagine how fast his heart must’ve been beating. Had he come this close only to be wrong? But he hadn’t seen it since he was a young child, so things certainly must’ve seemed much larger to him.
After a couple days of trying to decide his next move, he ultimately decided a straight forward approach was best. He wrote back to the administrator of the Khandwa group on Facebook and asked another question. Was there a district in Khandwa that starts with a “G”? Something like “Ginestlay”?
Again, it wasn’t an instant response. We don’t know how much work Saroo got done at work the next day, but it’s certainly understandable if he was a bit distracted.
Then a message came. Heart pounding, he opened it.
In the movie, after finding his home, he decides to travel there.
This is very true. Saroo was convinced. He’d found his home. The next step was to find his family. That meant going to Ganesh Talai.
Although the movie glosses over his family’s reaction, both his girlfriend, Lisa, and his parents, John and Sue were extremely supportive. They offered to go, even if it was only for emotional support. His dad, John, even offered to stay at the hotel so he could just be there if he was needed.
Saroo turned them down. It was something he needed to do alone. In his book, Saroo admits it was partially because he was afraid if he went there and it turns out he was wrong all along, he didn’t want to be standing there with his parents and tell them he didn’t recognize anything.
He also didn’t want to tell anyone in Ganesh Talai he was coming. It’s not exactly a tourist destination, and while Saroo certainly wasn’t wealthy by Australian standards, comparatively he was wealthy for the incredibly impoverished region around Ganesh Talai.
He didn’t want people finding out he was going only to have a bunch of women show up all saying they’re his mother.
When he arrived, though, the scene had to have been very similar to what we see in the movie. The closer he got to his childhood home, the more he remembered.
Finally, he found his childhood home. There it was. He was home. But, just like we saw in the movie, there was no one living in the home.
The movie shows Saroo trying to inquire about his family with a woman. By this point, after decades of living in Australia, he’s forgotten Hindi.
Then a man comes over to ask if he can help, while the gist of this is true, there were actually two men that Saroo struck up a conversation with.
Again, distinction without a difference. After seeing a photo of Saroo as a child that he’d brought, one of the men told Saroo to wait there and went off down the alley.
After a few minutes, he came back and told Saroo he would take him to see his mother. I can only imagine what it must’ve been like as he followed this man. Finally, he stopped. There were three women standing outside a small building.
There she was. Kamla. Although, she wasn’t Kamla anymore. Years after Saroo had disappeared, she converted to Islam and changed her name. She was Fatima now.
Regardless, she was still Saroo’s mother. After 26 years, Saroo was reunited with his family.
Speaking of changed names, the movie also mentions that Saroo wasn’t his real name either.
That, too, is true. Just like “Berampur” and “Ginestlay”, Saroo had apparently phonetically spelled his own name. His given name was Sheru, which is the Hindi word for “lion.”
In the movie, there’s a rollercoaster of emotions that occurs when he meets his mother for the first time in decades. First, there’s tears of joy. Then there’s tears when he asks about Guddu and finds out Guddu died the same day Saroo disappeared. Then there’s tears of joy once again as Saroo meets Shekila.
All of this is true.
Sadly, Saroo’s mother had lost two children that day. Guddu’s body was found by the tracks about a half a mile, or a kilometer, outside of Burhanpur. On top of that, Saroo had never returned.
But Kamla had never given up hope. Just like the movie says, that was the reason she never left Ganesh Talai. She always hoped Saroo would return one day.
And against all odds, that’s exactly what happened.