When little Sunny Pawar was auditioning for a role in a film along with 2,000 other children, he had no idea that he would eventually end up in an Oscar-nominated movie. "I was only asked to play," he told HuffPost India, taking a break from his board game for a series of interview that had been lined up for him.
Garth Davis, the director of Lion, did the rounds of Mumbai schools along with casting directors to try and find the perfect child to play the role of Saroo, a lost boy, in the film. They finally settled on 8-year-old Sunny.
You would think that Sunny was mesmerised by Hollywood after shooting with Nicole Kidman and Dev Patel but he is not. He has never seen a Hollywood movie, though he does have a list of stars he would like to meet — "Cena, Hulk Hogan, Seth Rollins, The Undertaker."
Sunny is a huge fan of WWE, and Hollywood or Bollywood can't match that.
The 8-year-old lives in a single-room dwelling with his parents and two siblings in a slum in Mumbai's Kalina area, sharing a bathroom with scores of other people.
"I was extremely scared at first," Sunny's mother Vasu Dilip Pawar said in an interview. "He could only speak Hindu and Marathi, and he'd only mixed with his family and the people in our community. We knew no one from the movie crew but they convinced me and assured me of his safety."
Vasu still seems to be in disbelief. "I never in my dreams thought his life would turn into this," she said.
Sunny plays the role of an impoverished little boy named Saroo in Lion who becomes separated from his brother, hops on a train and falls asleep, only to wake up a 1,000 miles from home in the city of Calcutta.
He then spends weeks on the streets before being rescued by an Indian orphanage which arranged for him to be adopted by an Australian couple who raised him 6,000 miles away from his home.
The film has won six Oscar nominations, including Best Film, Best Supporting Actor for Patel and Best Supporting Actress for Kidman.
The 8-year-old is excited when he recalls the time he spent shooting in Australia. His favourite memory is that of the train scene where he had to run. "The director just asked me to run, and I ran!" he said. "I did not feel any pressure of facing the camera."
Was it difficult to work with people who didn't understand his language?
"At any emotional scene where I had to be feeling extremely scared or sad, me and Garth Davis, the director, developed a sign language. And I knew what to do," Sunny said.
As part of the film's press tour in America, Sunny went to the Disneyland (where Tower of Terror was his favorite ride) and Times Square. He even taught Nicole Kidman how to play cricket. All of it in sign language. Kidman didn't know Hindi, and Sunny couldn't understand English.
Sunny isn't terribly impressed by Kidman's cricketing skills. "She did okay," he says. While he had many exciting experiences, there is one wish of his that remains unfulfilled. "I have never seen a live WWE match," he said. "I would love to watch it."
While Lion has received six Oscar nominations, Sunny has already bagged the Grand Jury Prize (Special Mention) at the Asia Pacific Screen Awards.
And, he is thrilled that he got to walk the red carpet in a black tuxedo, just like his "new friend" Dev Patel at the Golden Globes in Los Angeles.
Back in Mumbai now, he is enjoying going back to school and being praised by teachers and friends. "They congratulate me all the time," he said. He would like to be an actor but has a backup plan too. "If not an actor, I would love to be a police officer," he said. "I'd like to be a cop in Mumbai, in my city."
The 8-year-old is not quite aware that he has become a celebrity. As our conversation is winding down, he seems a little impatient. He must have been instructed not to be rude to the media didi, but clearly wants the conversation to end now.
"Bye bye, goodnight," he says, when I thank him for talking to me. There is joy in his voice — he finally gets to play for a while before he has to give yet another interview.
Also see on HuffPost: