Lion is based on the true story of a boy named Saroo who becomes separated from his brother at the age of five, falls asleep on a train and finds himself in Calcutta, hundreds of miles from home. When rescued by an orphanage, has no idea how to say where he came from. Saroo is eventually adopted by a family from Australia and he grows up to be a successful businessman. Never forgetting his Indian family and never abandoning hope of one day finding them again, Saroo uses Google Earth to retrace his journey and be reunited with his birth mother.
In the latest Through The Lens series, cinematographer Greig Fraser breaks down two key scenes from Lion. First, the train journey that takes young Saroo from his home to the bustling megalopolis of Calcutta. Next, Fraser talks about the scene that he says was most emotionally intense to shoot as a cameraman, when young Mantosh has his anxiety attack.
Getting Lost On The Train/Calcutta:
The scene is long from leaving the empty station to getting to Calcutta. This is the crux of the movie, it’s Saroo’s life changing event. A decision made had a massive knock-on effect for his life going forward.
We needed to be true to the moment of the horror of a five-year-old going missing. We wanted to make sure the camera wasn’t roaming free. Each time the camera moved in a certain way, we made sure it had a clear and definite purpose, to help the audience understand his franticness, his exhaustion, and his complete and utter misery. He was also missing his mother, and that’s the first thing a child does. The camera was completely understanding of that. It was important the camera had some freneticism to it, but there was also that need to balance the none-overwhelming camera movements.
When his heartbeat slows down through his tiredness, the camera slows down too. We need to make sure that this journey was something he felt quite helpless in. The audience feels, “Get off the train.” As Westerners, we have this firm understanding of what would happen if we got stuck on one of our trains. India however, is a very different beast where things happen differently, and we wanted to make sure that he ended up losing that hope, and goes through waves of feeling there’s a way out, and the camera had to show those waves.
We also needed to make sure we ran the gamut of showing time passing from day to night, and night to day. This wasn’t just a simple train ride going for a few stations, this train was going for a few periods of sleep for him. That is also very true, but it propels him a lot further from home. When he lands at that bustling train station, it’s a crowd we’ve never seen in our film before. So far, up to this point, like Saroo, we are naive as to what a train station like this looks like, we’re not too savvy to this level of crowd and noise.
When he comes out of that door, we wanted to make sure he’s like a little goldfish weaving his way through obstacles and bigger fish against the flow of traffic. He’s moving at half their height and is incredibly small against the rest of the world around him.
With small Saroo, we needed to keyframe that to remind the idea of how big that world is. We wanted to create this feeling of where Saroo is under water and drowning. What do you do when you’re drowning? You try to come up for air. Thus Saroo climbs that pole to search for his brother and his mother. You feel him too.
Garth is such an incredible director and he has this deep understanding of what the characters need and what the stories needs, and how we’re going to tackle this. He was instrumental in making sure that as a cameraman and director of photography, we didn’t de-power Saroo. We know he’s a victim. He gets lost and loses his family, but we needed to make sure that this young man was still a little powerhouse. We still had to show he had that he has some backbone and didn’t succumb to everything in his path.
It was important that Saroo didn’t fold. That point in Calcutta was just the start of his journey and we needed to make sure his poise is maintained.
We did the scene over a period of time. We shot in Calcutta for that scene, and it probably took us four to five days to shoot.
I recall spending days on trains, moving trains, still trains. Remember there are many aspects to that scene. There’s the haunted girl who sees him and he calls out to her but there’s no response because she has her own demons.
We had good fortune and good planning that we had some control of Calcutta station. They can’t stop trains for us because trains are their main transport system, so we were working around train schedules and navigating the real moving hustling platform, and a platform that we could control.
Take for example when the train pulls up to the station, and he sees all these people outside the window. We had full control of that train so we could pull that train back and forth. We could put lots of people outside the window.
Saroo rushes out, and we control that part. But when it cuts wide to him climbing on that pole and you’ve got the sea of people that was a live working platform where our camera was hidden and the art department built something to look like storage containers. We pointed the camera to look down the platform. That was done for real because we didn’t have the resources to have that many people on the platform. We tried to be as clever as we could to try to control some things and use some real locations and real people in that.
That’s one of my most emotional scenes to have shot. When you walk away from a movie, seeing Dev Patel, Nicole Kidman and Rooney Mara do their work, it’s amazing. To watch them at work, it’s mindblowing and I never get tired of it.
This affects me deeply. I wasn’t present when Garth made the choice to cast him, but Keshav Jadhav was a sweet young boy with his own demons. Watching him have that freakout and panic attack, as a cameraman you have to forego your emotional being in order to properly and not be overwhelmed by a performance like that. You can’t respond to it emotionally. I remember doing that scene, he was giving us 200% of his ability. It was so distressing watching it because as someone behind the camera, I’m smelling his breath on Nicole’s warm breath, I was so intimate.
I had this feeling of shock because of his passion and the reality that this man put into his performance that felt so honest and so real.
After we shot the scene, I gave Garth a hug. He had done so much research into these children and how they got to these places.
The scene was shot just once. We set the scene. We talked about it. We made sure nothing was in the way in case Keshav wanted to move into the kitchen or bathroom. We prepared for that and then we shot. It’s not far off from real time and we shot for four or five minutes and got that scene.