Dev Patel plays a man grateful to Google Earth in ‘Lion’

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Dev Patel stars in “Lion.” | The Weinstein Co.

Dev Patel unleashes long hair and a beard in the drama “Lion.”

The increasingly wild mane is fitting for his character’s true quest to find his long-lost village in India through years of searching Google Earth.

“As soon as I auditioned and got the part, [director Garth Davis] said, ‘I need you not to shave and to start growing your hair out,’ ” says Patel, 26, the star of 2008’s Oscar- winning “Slumdog Millionaire.” “The look is very lion-like, and as you go further in the film, it just gets wilder. We had to get to some wigs by the end.”

“Lion,” also starring Nicole Kidman and Rooney Mara, opens Nov. 25 and will screen at 7:45 p.m. Tuesday at AMC River East 21 as part of the Chicago International Film Festival (chicagofilmfestival.com).

Based on Saroo Brierley’s 2013 memoir “A Long Way Home,” the story traces back to his destitute Indian childhood where his single mother worked construction sites. Saroo was 5 in 1986 when he fell asleep in an empty train car parked at the station near his Indian village.

When he awoke, the train was speeding to the city Calcutta, a thousand miles away, beginning a fateful, dangerous journey.

The lost child didn’t know the name of his hometown or his family’s surname, so he was placed in an orphanage and eventually adopted by an Australian couple, Sue and John Brierley (played by Kidman and David Wenham).

Kidman worked extensively with 6-year-old actor Sunny Pawar, who was selected to play young Saroo after a search throughout India. She bonded with the first-time actor, who didn’t speak English, by playing cricket — scenes which eventually made it into the film.

“My throw is terrible and Sunny would laugh at me, which was endearing,” Kidman says. “Sunny is this little light and he makes the huge story leap very believable from small Saroo to big Saroo.”

An Australian woman (Nicole Kidman) adopts a lost Indian boy (Sunny Pawar) in “Lion.” | The Weinstein Co.

An Australian woman (Nicole Kidman) adopts a lost Indian boy (Sunny Pawar) in “Lion.” | The Weinstein Co.

Older Saroo (played by Patel) never forgot his birth home, despite growing up in the suburbs of Tasmania, Australia, where he was afforded a college education, a girlfriend (Mara) and a good job. He utilized the burgeoning Google Earth technology to painstakingly search satellite images of small villages along India’s extensive train lines.

“Google Earth is a far more advanced application now and simpler to navigate. When Saroo was searching it was cloudy, square pixels and took ages to zoom in to look closely,” Patel says. “This became his completely consuming obsession, finding this needle in a haystack. This man’s determination and perseverance was incredible.”

Twenty-five years after accidentally leaving, Brierley miraculously found his village and made his way back. Patel says the joyous scenes of the return home were shot with real villagers.

“They were all reacting with that energy, it was one of those rare times when you are completely lost in something,” says Patel. “Google Earth found the place that matched Saroo’s memory, but his entire being and soul took him home. It’s a triumphant story at its core.”

Bryan Alexander, USA TODAY

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