Plenty of people think their lives would make a good movie, but Saroo Brierley’s experience — now in theaters with “Lion” — was readymade for it. Google Earth, which plays an integral role in the adaptation of Brierley’s 2015 memoir “A Long Way Home,” unveiled a special feature Monday in honor of the film’s opening. But this isn’t your average marketing tie-in.
When he was five, Brierley (played by Dev Patel) was separated from his family when he fell asleep on a train in India, ending up fourteen hours away in Calcutta. After living on the streets for a few months, he was adopted by the Brierleys of Hobarth, Tasmania, and assimilated to island life, giving up hope of finding his birth mother. When college friends suggested using the new Google Earth technology to re-trace his footsteps, Brierley embarked on a multi-year search that eventually lead him to his hometown — and, eventually, his mother. To call the movie’s final reunion scene a tearjerker would be an understatement.
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According to Brierley, the film adheres quite strictly to real life events. “There are scenes in there that are just the way that were in reality — actual, not fictional,” Brierley told IndieWire while he was in New York for the opening last week. “I thought I’d be quite defensive towards the film, because naturally you’d think you’re the one who lived through all the trials and tribulations. But it wasn’t like that at all, it brought back memories. It was physically and emotionally gripping right from the start.”
Brierley, who manages the family business when he is not touring the motivational lecture circuit, speaks in modest terms about his journey. But Gopal Shah, the lead product manager for Google Earth, is more emphatic about Brierley’s achievements. “He used a very deep technology within the product,” explained Shah. “He started out looking at the satellite imagery like everyone else does. Then he was dropping pins. You have the ability to mark up the map, you can attach titles and description, and he was keeping notes. The more advanced thing he did was set up that search radius, and he was able to plot that using the measuring tool.”
Brierley estimated he was on the train for 14 hours. Retracing his steps as an adult, he looked up the train speeds and created a search radius based on the estimated distance travelled.
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Not shown in the film, Shah added, is that Brierley eliminated certain areas of the radius based on geography and weather patterns. “He knew he didn’t go through somewhere cold, so he cut out the cooler regions, and he knew he didn’t go through the mountains so he cut out that area. He brought in a heat map to look at temperature patterns.”
Shah was describing the point when Brierley’s search becomes obsessive and all-consuming, as indicated in the film by Patel’s long, shaggy hair and beard. “I was like that at stages, but you should have a shave and a haircut,” said Brierley. “I thought I was just mucking around. I was trying to find a needle in a haystack. I tried to find one town in the billions of towns in India. Who would want to do that? That’s such a crazy idea, but I took that on, and I prevailed. Particularly because the connection between mother and son is so strong.”
Google Earth’s “Lion” feature allows viewers to both trace Brierley’s physical journey as a child and his interaction with the technology, along with personal insights from the family and anecdotes about various landmarks. It begins with the Howrah railway station in Calcutta, and even shows young Brierley’s flight path from Calcutta to Tasmania. Viewers can see images of the water tower and fountain in Khandwa, the landmarks Brierley used to identify his hometown, as well as a hand drawn map by his mother, Sue, based on his recollections. “If you look very carefully you can actually see through to the other side of her journal,” said Shah.
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Though he never could have predicted the technology would be used in this way, Shah said that Google Earth tries to “focus on the good,” with NGO partnerships that track deforestation in the Amazon, coastal erosion levels, and find land mines, to name a few. He also noted the many artists who have used Google Earth to let laymen see what astronauts see, to make collages out of man-made structures, and to preserve graffiti and street art after it has been scrubbed clean.
Though Google gets the most credit in “Lion,” Brierley also relied on YouTube to watch high definition videos of the Khandwa train station that offered more visual details than Google Earth could, and Facebook to communicate with locals to confirm landmarks. He wanted to be as certain as possible before hopping on a plane and getting his hopes up.
Brierley is very happy with the film, and was looking forward to viewing it in a theater with his family and a live audience. “We’ve never watched this film with an audience,” he said. “Seeing their reactions, this is gonna be a first for us.” (Bill Clinton was among the audience at the film’s New York premiere.) He wasn’t too concerned about the details that didn’t make the final cut of the film. “Maybe there’s a Bollywood version waiting to get out that we can put those in there,” he said, “but that’s not now.”