‘Lion’ 8-Year-Old Star’s ‘Fearless’ Character Gives Him ‘Hope and Strength’

TheWrap Screening Series: “He achieved the impossible,” Sunny Pawar says

As one of 2000 kids chosen to audition for “Lion,” Sunny Pawar was plucked from his elementary school in Mumbai, India by a “sorcerer” named Garth Davis, who waved his magic wand and made the boy a movie star.

“Lion” isn’t just 8-year-old star Pawar’s first movie role, but it’s also the first movie he has ever seen. Yet Davis gave him a single piece of advice in learning how to act: “Be fearless.”

“I was born to do it,” Pawar said via a translator in a Wrap Screening Series panel moderated by Editor-in-Chief Sharon Waxman.

Pawar’s natural gift for acting was exactly what Davis needed on “Lion,” in which the boy single-handedly dominates the film’s first hour. Pawar (only six at the time of shooting) plays Saroo, a boy from a working class family in a small Indian village and slum, who gets separated from his older brother at a train station and finds himself lost thousands of miles away, unsure of how to find his home. Twenty-five years later, an adult Saroo (played by Dev Patel) utilizes Google Earth in order to find the family he left behind.

“He achieved the impossible,” Pawar said, speaking of Saroo’s inspiring story. “He gives me hope and strength.”

Pawar only spoke a few words on stage, but his confidence in front of so many adults charmed all. While the grown-ups were talking about cinematography and the musical score, he made faces with his father in the audience.

At one point Pawar spread his fingers and held his hand in front of his face, then closed it into a fist and brought it down to his chest. This was the gesture Davis made — going from his eyes to his heart — to show that Pawar, who only speaks Hindi, needed to act sad and that he was doing a good job.

These sorts of spontaneous moments were the ones Director of Photography Greig Fraser tried to preserve on film. Fraser explained he was trying to create an environment where the boy could be free to do his best work, flaunt his fearless spirit and feel loved on set.

“You need to be reactionary,” Fraser said. “Try and give actors space and freedom and flexibility.”

Fraser also filmed this year’s “Rogue One: A Star Wars Story,” and whether it’s working with experienced actors on a massive blockbuster or filming a child who has never seen a movie camera before, he said they both feel as though they come from the same place. You have a camera in front of an actor, and you need to not limit them with parameters to do what they do best.

Since filming “Lion,” Pawar has already shot a second film, “Love Sonia,” starring Demi Moore, Freida Pinto and his co-star on “Lion” Abhishek Bharate. His dream is to play a superhero, particularly the Indian action hero Krrish. And although he’s enjoyed traveling the awards circuit and seeing America, like Saroo, he always has a place he calls home.

“India comes first for me,” Pawar said.