A Story of Courage: An Interview with the Family Behind ‘Lion’

A remarkable story of adoption will take center stage at one of Hollywood’s most beloved events this weekend, where “Lion” has been nominated for six Academy Awards, including best picture. This film tells the true story of Saroo Brierley, who through a series of devastating events was separated from his family and town in India, and forced to fend for himself as a young boy in Calcutta until arriving at an orphanage. Saroo was adopted by Sue and John Brierley, and taken to begin his second life in Tasmania, Australia. The film depicts Saroo’s transition into his new family as relatively seamless until, as a young adult, Saroo embraces the power of Google Earth to address unanswered questions and track down his hometown. From there, he begins the unbelievable journey of reconnecting with his birth mother, with unwavering support from his family in Tasmania.

We spoke with Saroo and Sue, and discussed what Saroo’s transition was like in real life, how families can best support their children who have been adopted, and why parents shouldn’t shy away from their children’s search for biological family.

What was your experience adjusting to life in Tasmania? How did your parents and your community make that feel like home for you?

Saroo Brierley: It wasn’t really that hard to adapt you know to a new life with a new family, it was a longing I’d been wanting for such a long time…so coming to Australia was something, it was something that [felt like] I sort of made it. And so, I’m thinking coming to a new family wasn’t [as big a thing] in my family, in my situation. And knowing my background too, but you know … I sort of made friends pretty easily. There was not really a sort of hardship or anything at all. I can’t really tell you I went through any sort of bad stages … I just embraced being in Australia with my new family.

Sue Brierley: I think from my side as a parent, to take a child into your family, you’ve got to be really mindful of their needs. Which sort of sounds very simplistic, but in our case we knew that we had a little Indian boy that had come from very tough circumstances … so the prime thing for us on Saroo’s arrival was to get him ready to recover. Because he’d been through an incredibly stressful time, a dangerous time, and we didn’t want to pressurize him to feel he must comply too quickly, do this too quickly, learn that – we didn’t want to put that on his shoulders … I know it’s a true fact that a child can’t learn when they’re under stress and pressure. So he was already six years of age, starting school for the first time, with a new language, not being able to speak English – that was stressful in itself … We just wanted to feed him well, help him recover his strength. And you could see him relaxing day by day, and he was then enjoying school as he started to get English, he was given a lot of extra support with his language skills and schooling right through school, we always had tutors for the boys. You know we really set out to make the transition as easy as possible.

And then the other thing we did was we really validated their identity by our home and décor, the type of food we ate. Everything was to honor who they were. So I think that’s also very important, too, that it really shows your respect for the child. Because they’ve done nothing wrong to end up in such dire need.

David Wenham and Nicole Kidman as John and Sue Brierley, Saroo’s adoptive parents. Young Saroo was played by Sunny Pawar. Credit: Lion

Saroo, do you remember learning English, and what that process was like? Do you still speak any Hindi?

Saroo: I don’t have much [left] with regards to Hindi, probably five or six words and that’s it. Really sort of putting sentences together … at the age of five, I really didn’t learn much. Coming into Australia, I had [tutors] at school and outside of school as well, and that really sort of expedited the process of catching up in grade one with the other kids as well.

Sue: [We had] a tutor that would come to our house … twice a week depending on what subject matter was required, but we always did that. And I think it paid off because now I’m very proud to say that Saroo has a degree and he’s written a bestselling book that’s published in about twenty countries in many languages. And that’s quite amazing for a six-year-old street child from another country to achieve. Really I’m very proud of him. I’m proud of myself that I, in a big way, enabled him to reach that potential. And that’s what it’s all about when you have a child ­– is to make sure they can reach their potential. I take it as my duty when I take on being a parent.

Saroo, what was it like finally telling your parents about your search for your biological family in India? Sue, why was it important to you to support him in this?

Saroo: I didn’t actually tell them that I was exploring or searching for my family. To me, I was just sort of – I was just sort of mucking around. When I accomplished what I set out to do, and found my hometown – you know you’re trying to find a needle in a haystack … The next day I told my parents that I’d been doing this search, and guess what, I found my hometown. 

Sue: Well, I only had the opportunity to be supportive once he announced that he found his village. And then of course, I just was so desperate for his family to still be there … because there are no guarantees in life. So I was quite worried about that. And then when he finally got there… he’d found his mother and we were just over the moon, because it was so exciting.

It’s hard to describe how happy we were, because we had never denied that Saroo had had a first family, and a mother that obviously loved him as best she could and supported him, because he was so sound of mind when he came to us. So we knew he’d been loved, and that was why he could sort of jump into his new life and wasn’t scarred by mistreatment … so really we were very happy about that. And I felt no threat about that, I was just happy to see it. And then consequently, of course, I was able to meet Kamla [Saroo’s biological mother], and it was just an amazing experience.

But really for me, it’s an important thing for adoptive parents to keep in mind is that you’ve got to respect a previous life and identity of your adoptive child. Whether they’re five or six, or whether they’re a baby. There is a prior part of their life that you can’t keep a secret. Because if you do that, you make them feel they should be ashamed of that early start. And I don’t agree with that at all, so you mustn’t ever show fear about your child searching. 

Do you have any advice for adoptive parents?

Saroo: They’re just children, and you have to go along with the times, and support what you need to. But I think in regards to telling them they’re adopted is certainly I think an issue, because, for example, there was a girl, a family a few days ago when I did this presentation – she told her adopted daughter at the age of 10 that she was adopted, and her adopted daughter goes, you know, “why did you tell me that?” and was quite upset. So there’s things like that: like when’s a good time and when isn’t a good time, maybe the earlier the better. I was different because I knew that I was coming to a Caucasian family and coming to Australia, but these are some of the issues that would be top of the list. In regards to being a parent, you give it all you’ve got really, and help in every way as many ways as you possibly can. It’s not sort of, rocket science, being a parent. Just follow your heart, I guess.

Sue: Every child needs to feel they’re wanted. That’s really important, so I know that for me … we didn’t want to try having our own children, we just wanted to have our children from India.

This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity and brevity, and is being co-published with Adoption Today magazine.

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Elizabeth Green
About Elizabeth Green 42 Articles
Elizabeth Green is the community outreach and education manager for Fostering Media Connections, and a general assignment reporter for The Chronicle of Social Change.