Above: ELi's Peyton Lombardo and author Saroo Brierley
For their joint, annual One Book, One Community event, Michigan State University and the East Lansing community hosted Saroo Brierley, whose book A Long Way Home was turned into an Oscar-nominated Best Picture film starring Dev Patel, Nicole Kidman, and Rooney Mara.
Sunday night Brierley held a book signing at East Lansing's Hannah Community Center, and on Monday night, he delivered the convocation speech to MSU’s incoming freshmen class at the Breslin Student Events Center.
Brierley’s unique story intrigued many when he wrote his memoir and subsequent movie. When he was just five years old, he accidentally got on a train that transported him nearly 1,000 miles away from home. Scared and alone, he was in a region in India whose residents no longer spoke Hindi (what he spoke) but Bengali. After living on the streets for days, he was turned into authorities where he was eventually adopted by an Australian family. It was not until decades later that he attempted to reunite with his biological family, using the few clues he had from his childhood and the new technology of Google Earth. Spoiler alert: he successfully found his family in the tear-jerking final scene of Lion.
While Brierley was in town, I was able to sit down with him, ask him some questions, and learn more about his story.
Lombardo: What first prompted you to turn your incredible story into this memoir?
Brierley: There was a decision that I had to make because I was asked by publishers whether I wanted to write a book or not. And I thought to myself, you know, this is a very personal story. It’s not just about me but it’s about my parents, as well as my biological family too. I thought there must be other people in the world in a similar situation as myself and perhaps if I write a book, people who have been in a similar situation will read it and give them hope and the light at the end of the tunnel. If I’ve got knowledge of this (finding my family the way that I did), then why not share it to the world?
Lombardo: Describe your feelings when you first heard that they wanted to turn your book into a movie. What was that like?
Brierley: I was just like (laughing), ‘Whoa, awesome, of course!’ I thought, I loved movies myself and this has got all the credentials for the arc of an odyssey going from east to west. I thought, let’s give it a go because we had a book that’s out there and let’s move on to a movie! It’s the standard progression. I was just over the moon and feeling quite elated about it all. It’s very confronting when you’ve got someone asking, “Would you be happy making this story of yourself into a movie?” Of course a lot of people said let’s grab the bull by the horns and let’s make it!
Lombardo: There’s one scene in the movie when you were officially adopted and walking off the plane (to meet your new family). The actor, Sunny Pawar, is so calm and so relaxed. What was actually going through your mind then?
Brierley: I was feeling a bit apprehensive about things. But you also know you’re going to a new country and there’s going to be people looking after you that are not your biological parents but they’re people that are conveying there’s no hostility here. There’s love and there’s nurturing. I think that an integral piece was when my mum came over and handed me the teddy bear. Her maternal instinct came into place so quickly and that’s where the brace and bond between mother and son is created.
Lombardo: How often to do you try keep up with your family in India? Have you re-learned Hindi enough to communicate with them?
Brierley: I know a little bit but not enough to pass as a conversation like we’re having right now. I’ve been back about 16 times in four years, which is a lot. I love going back to India. It’s such an amazing place to see my heritage and my family, too. Hindi’s been hard. I don’t have a whole lot of people to talk to keep it up. You’re traveling on planes, you’re going to different places in the world, and by the time you get a book out and learn a few things, you end up falling asleep. Everything will happen in time.
Lombardo: Have you given a speech like this (MSU Convocation) in front of a crowd this big? What was that like for you?
Brierley: It felt like it was a little daunting, but then when I got up on stage it was pretty cool. It was easy. You’ve got this feel good speech you want to convey about the ups and downs of life and how you combat certain situations. I haven’t given a speech to the magnitude of the people I had today. I’ve probably done a quarter of it which is already quite big. But everyone enjoyed it, everyone liked it.
Lombardo: Do you have future plans to do other speaking events?
Brierley: I may do corporate speaking. I think it would be fun to do events like this because I prefer to do and be in these environments and speak to the upcoming future of this world and country as opposed to being at the Oscars and things like that (laughing). That was a good experience but this is more rejoiceful.
Lombardo: Any other upcoming projects?
Brierley: The next thing is the stage show musical. That’s in the process to be made in Birmingham from the producers of Matilda... that is the next phase of my journey and my memoir.
Saroo Brierley’s memoir, A Long Way Home, is available online and in bookstores. The movie, Lion, is currently streaming on Netflix...