Tannishtha & Priyanka Bose on Fighting Stereotypes with Lion
“Truth is stranger than fiction” – Mark Twain. No quote could better describe the remarkable true story of Saroo Brierley that highlights the vagaries of life, but also rewards those who do not lose hope.
Five year old Saroo was separated from his elder brother Guddu and mother Fatima Munshi, when the siblings had gone to search for scrap at a railway station near to their house. While waiting for Guddu who didn’t return after a long time, Saroo wandered and fell asleep in a train that chugged off and took him to the city of Kolkata. A city that was at least 1600 kms away from his hometown of Khandwa in Madhya Pradesh.
Saroo who was later adopted by John and Sue Brierley and raised in Australia, had given up hopes of being reunited with his biological family were it not for Google Earth. As unbelievable as it may sound, the software helped Saroo track his hometown and reunite with his estranged mother.
Later, Saroo chronicled his journey in a book titled A Long Way Home which inspired director Garth Davis’ Oscar nominated feature Lion. The film stars Sunny Pawar and Dev Patel who play young and adult Saroo respectively. The other cast members include Priyanka Bose and Nicole Kidman who play the roles of Fatima Munshi and Sue Brierley respectively.
Interestingly, the film also casts Tannishtha Chatterjee in a fictional role that provides an interesting twist to the amazing tale of Saroo.
From premiering at Toronto International Film Festival last year to rave reviews to being one of the top Oscar contenders, Lion has chartered an amazing journey, similar to that of its protagonist.
The film was recently premiered in India by Jio MAMI Film Club and is scheduled to release soon theatrically in India.
We recently caught up with Bose and Chatterjee who spoke to us about their roles, working with Garth Davis, fighting stereotypes and more.
Republished below are excerpts from the same.
Could you tell us about your roles and how it came your way?
Tannishtha: I met Garth (Davis) a month after he wrote to me expressing an interest to work together. He said that he has a written a role for me and Nawazuddin (Siddiqui) in the film as he really wanted to work with us. He also told me that he had seen a lot of my work and this was something I had never done before. It was quite a high that somebody actually saw my work, wrote a role especially for me and wanted to work with me. So even I before I read the script I said “Yeh toh karna hain” (laughs).
And when I read the script, I did realise that indeed nobody has ever cast me in such a role. I am always the good girl. Even though it was a short role, I knew that I could do something interesting with it. And it gave me an opportunity to explore something new.
Priyanka: I had read about the story in a tabloid and was fascinated by the realism of it with Google Earth playing such an important role in it. I got intrigued and I read more about Saroo and Su Brierley. A year later, the casting director Tess Joseph said he wanted me to cast for the film. She was of the opinion that I could do justice to this part and wanted me to come on board. It’s a very beautiful story. When I read Garth’s script, I was intrigued by the way he had written the character of Kamla. He had treated her like as a muse.
How did you go about preparing for the role? Did the process vary from your other roles considering it was completely based on real life characters?
Priyanka: For me the preparation involved listening to Garth as he had spent more time with the people on whom the characters were based. I am very intuitive and need to learn more. I needed to absorb a lot from Garth and at times my questions were unrealistic as I was trying to understand how he had envisioned the character. I needed to explore that and meet Saroo Brierley and asking him to share some of the most intimate things of his life and memory. I had to meet Kamla because till then I had a one dimensional understanding of the character and Garth’s idea of who she was.
Tannishtha: I don’t think too much about the process as I have been doing it very long for now and it is quite an organic thing for me. Every character is also approached in a different way due to the demand of the story, character and the director you are working with. Those different approaches teach you something and you take at a certain level. I have worked with a lot of kids (including Sunny Pawar) and it has taught me that you cannot plan and prepare too much as you don’t know what is coming from them.
As artists, we work hard. But people don’t see the background work because the endeavour has always been to make it look effortless on screen. And every actor strives to transform themselves so much that they become someone else completely. But there is a lot of work that has gone in for many years.
The film is nominated for 6 Oscars including Best Film. What are your expectations from it?
Priyanka: Honestly I have no expectations. I am very happy that it got the support of producers; makers etc have an immense reputation. So I knew that it would win a lot of acclaim. But honestly there are no expectations as too many expectations often lead to disappointment. And this is a film that celebrates hope. But the fact that this film has come so far is worthy of rejoicing and we are gonna raise a toast to it (laughs).
The film was recently screened at Jio MAMI Film Club. We would love to know about the audience feedback and reactions the film received during this screening.
Tannishtha: People had become pretty emotional after watching the film and of course Sunny Pawar was always the star. People have connected to it emotionally. One girl said that she was so angry that this little kid wanted help from so many people in Kolkata. But no one helped him and finally when he grew up and wanted to trace the location of his mother, everyone in Australia came up with so many suggestions.
Priyanka: We have fed apathy in our culture and believed in going under the carpet. After the screening, many people who were affected came to us and said it was a very emotional story which will connect to people. As artists, we also strive to move people though our stories and want to question certain things and that is what we experienced post the screening.
What can Indian audiences expect from the movie?
Priyanka: Stanley Kubrick had once said “Never tell an audience what to think”. I think audiences are too sharp and smart. But the people in the filmmaking business do not give them enough credit. With this film, the resonance will be that we value our family. But we would also like audiences to open their hearts and understand to appreciate the generosity of the family that is raising you. So this is also throwing light on adoptions. In many of the international press conferences we have had, a lot of people of have told us how they are considering adoption seriously after watching the film.
Tannishtha: The last three years have been interesting for me. From Angry Indian Goddesses to Gour Hari Dastaan to Parched to Island City and now Lion, there are so many diverse films and characters that I have done. Having done such different characters, I am a little spoilt now when it comes to my future projects. But the completed projects include a film based on the life of Rukhmabai – the first practising female doctor and is directed by Ananth Mahadevan. I immensely enjoyed doing the film and won the Best Actress award at Pune International Film Festival this year. The film is now going to Dallas International Film Festival and will soon release in India.
We (Priyanka Bose and her) have done a film together called Rakkosh which is a point of view film. It was a very interesting film since my only co-actor in the film was the camera. I am now keen to do comedy and if no one offers it to me, I will do it myself. I have also developed a comic play and have done two shows already. It is called Facial Pedicure and Mind Masala.
Priyanka: One of my upcoming projects is AscharyaFuckIt directed by Samit Kakkad and produced by Sa Re Ga Ma. The aim is to do different roles and push boundaries. And If I am not going to be approached for such roles, I will myself work towards such roles.
Having played the role of a mother in Half Ticket and Lion consecutively, is there a fear of being stereotyped in similar roles by the mainstream industry?
It’s the job of the industry to stereotype, but I do not have any fears. And I wouldn’t like people telling me what I should do and it’s my choice. Let me decide if it works for me or not. And it also depends on my equation with the director and the role. I think I have a long way to go and I am willing to break it down. Of course I have done it (the role of a mother) as it comes from a very natural space of me being a nurturing human being and wanting to be nurtured like that. Even though I do not belong to the world some of these characters inhabit, like Half Ticket for instance, but I did it. So I want to be acknowledged for the other things I do. I also want to explore myself and expand my horizons as an actor.
The film required you to age as it progresses. Could you talk about your experience of preparing for the same?
Technically, the physical transformation involved 16 hours of makeup, combined with CGI and later mixing it up with the body language etc. I study body language too. So it was quirky. In the last scene when I am finally reunited with Dev (Patel), I am with a group of old ladies. I had spent a considerable time observing them.
Could you talk a bit more about your experience of working with Garth Davis?
Garth is a very good director and works fantastically with his actors. His whole process was psychological. Yet he never made it obvious nor shifty. And therefore it was a process I immensely enjoyed. His process is also very collaborative and he is always improvising and coming up with ideas and actors always like such a style of working.
Your presence in a film for 90 seconds or more ensures that the film will go to Canada beginning with Parched, then London, Australia and now Lion has gone all the way to Oscars. How does it feel to be that lucky mascot?
Hurrah! Please spread the news that Tannishtha is a lucky mascot (laughs). Jokes apart, I really don’t know. Parched is a film I created. It was my character that started the idea and I was telling Leena the story about this particular character I had met. That’s how the film began. And that is all I can say in response to this (laughs again).