Lion’s tale: How Sunny Pawar became Saroo
Casting director Tess Joseph talks about discovering the sweetest face in Hollywood
At the Golden Globes it was Dev Patel who carried him on his shoulders as he walked up to the stage. At the Academy Awards, it was Jimmy Kimmel who lifted him up as the Kodak Theatre filled with the music of The Lion King’s ‘Hakuna Matata’. Sunny Pawar, despite Lion’s dry outing at the Oscars, shone bright.
But back in June 2014, Sunny was a regular Mumbai schoolboy at Air India Model School in Kalina and casting director Tess Joseph, who had preciously worked on The Namesake and Darjeeling Limited, was on a sort of a break. It was then that Tess got a text from actor Joel Edgerton, saying he had recommended her to friends in Australia who were making Lion. Shortly afterwards, Tess was working long hours trying to find the perfect young Saroo Brierly for Garth Davis’ film. She recalls, “The auditions started in June. We collaborated with several schools in Mumbai, Delhi and Pune and by the time we found whom we were looking for, we had auditioned about 2,500 kids over four months. We had even gone to an orphanage to find the young Saroo.”
As soon as Tess spotted Sunny, she was drawn to him. “I loved his face. He had soulful eyes, a certain stillness and husky voice,” she recalls. But that wasn’t the end of it. An acting coach worked extensively with Sunny in special workshops, helping him transform into Saroo. “That’s when Garth and the entire team knew Sunny was the one who would play the young Lion.”
For the role, Sunny needed to wear his hair long. And while Garth was against using wigs, schools in India insist on students sporting short crops. “So, I had to talk to the principal at Sunny’s school and get special permission for him to have long hair,” adds Tess, who was invited to the Academy Awards Nominees’ dinner in Los Angeles for her contribution to the film.
Tess also recalls lobbying for Priyanka Bose to play the role of Saroo’s mother, Kamla. The Hollywood crew didn’t even have Priyanka’s name on the initial shortlist. “I know Priyanka’s work and thought that she might just work out for this one, so I called her. When she came in for the audition, she had all of us mesmerised. Maybe, it was Priyanka’s own experiences as a mom that brought truth to the scenes, maybe it was her sheer determination.”
Tess Joseph with Garth Davis