In this Australian exclusive, we chat with the star of the Oscars 2017 ceremony Sunny Pawar, and the man who helped find him, Indian film professional Pravesh Sahni
If you don’t think Sunny Pawar is cute, then you don’t deserve any happiness.
Those are Twitter’s words, not ours.
Social media (the world?) went crazy at this year’s Oscars, and not just for that serious stuff-up at the end. The frenzy was also for another reason – a pint-sized star from India with the cutest tuxedo ever, gorgeous hair, heart-melting smile, and all the confidence in the world.
Eight-year-old Sunny Pawar, who plays a young Saroo Brierley in the Oscar-nominated film Lion, became one of the most memorable Oscar moments from 2017.
He stole the red carpet from under the stilettos of some of the world’s most beautiful and expensively dressed women, participated in an unforgettable cameo with the host Jimmy Kimmel, wowed everybody with his turn on the silver screen in a critically-acclaimed movie (why is there no Oscar category for Best Child Actor?), and returned home to a Lion’s welcome.
Oh, and he also did a whole lot for his already likeable co-star Dev Patel. The British Indian actor’s dalliances with little Sunny all through the awards season – fixing his bowtie, tying his shoes-laces or simply hoisting him up – ended up increasing the X factor for him, many times over.
“Get yourself a Dev Patel!” Twitter urged.
Ok, granted, it was Dev’s gentle care of his glamorous mum that might also have added to this, but it was Sunny to a large extent. One Twitter user spoke for many young people when they said, “I’m going to marry Dev Patel, have a big fat Indian wedding (you’re all invited) and then we’re going to adopt Sunny Pawar.”
We speak with little Sunny and his dad Dilip on the phone, the day after they arrive back in India from LA. It is 5pm their time. They have spent the day doing the rounds of television interviews and press conferences, but Sunny answers all our questions like he is answering them for the first time.
“Bahut accha laga. Bahut achcha tha,” he says repeatedly. I loved it all. It was nice.
We realise he is, after all, but a little child, and feel a bit sorry to be subjecting him to this questioning. But his answers, although short and direct, belie his age; he reveals no sign of exhaustion, and we marvel at his capacity to process it all.
You looked fantastic, we say. Thank you, he says, with a hint of American in his accent.
Great suit… who did your hair?
“Main khud kiya!” Did it myself!
At the show, did he recognise the big stars?
“Pehchaana, par naam nahin malum.” Sort of recognised them, but didn’t know their names.
Was he nervous at all? At the Lion King scene, maybe?
“Nahin, dar nahin laga, bahut enjoy kiya!” No, I loved it!
Dilip chimes in, “Main isko samjhaya tha, darne ka kaay ko? Baadme jab chocolate barsaaya, isne do pakda. Dono kha gaya!”
“I explained to him there’ll be nothing to be scared about. When the chocolates showered down, he caught two packets -ate them both up!”
Accompanying the tiny dynamite at the Oscars, was Pravesh Sahni, whose Delhi-based film company India Take One Productions handled the India affairs for the makers of Lion, Sydney-based See-Saw Films. Sahni got to walk with his little ward on the red carpet, scored a seat with the main guests, and found his own fifteen minutes of fame as he appeared on screen many times.
Lion is the fourth film Sahni has been involved with that has gone to the Oscars, the others being Slumdog Millionaire, Life of Pi and Zero Dark Thirty. But this one will be the most memorable.
“Oscars 2017 has been one of the best experiences of my life,” he tells Indian Link, on the phone from LA. “Not many Indians have been to the Oscars as you know, and it was a special privilege to be in the midst of it all.”
He was seated in row number 3 in the middle, right behind Denzel Washington, with Sunny and the rest of the Lion team.
“I thought I would be up on the balcony somewhere,” he admits laughingly. “It was far more glamourous than I thought. I have seen it on TV before, but here I was, just eight feet away from the stage!”
He also admits to being quite overwhelmed by it all, despite having worked in the industry for 30 years and creating a niche for himself by assisting foreign films that have been set in India.
“I just kept looking around dazed!” he reveals. “I was in a world I always dreamed of being in. I didn’t even think of taking my own photos, there were so many people taking pictures of us. There is a five-minute break every 15 minutes during the Oscars ceremony. Everybody around us, all the big actors, wanted a photo with Sunny. They all knelt down, in their tuxedos and beautiful gowns, to get close to him!”
On the red carpet, Pravesh got to act as translator.
“Sunny was asked who he would most like to shake hands with and he said, “Hrithik Roshan”. That’s who he likes, Hrithik Roshan – he doesn’t know the Hollywood celebrities yet.”
(We learned from Pravesh later that Hrithik has been in touch to seek a meeting with little Sunny).
The Lion team went to the after-party hosted by the Weinstein Company.
“We got there just after the awards ceremony, about 10pm,” Pravesh recounts. “There was a red carpet, and you’re supposed to show your photo ID, because the security is handled by the police. Guess what, in all the excitement, we forgot to bring our ID. I got concerned because the Pawars didn’t even have their passports on them. But a representative from the company said, ‘Everybody recognises Sunny. His face is his photo ID!’ One of the police officers picked Sunny up in his arms and carried him in!”
The Lion family was disappointed, Pravesh reveals, to have been nominated for six awards and not having won even one.
“It was just bad luck, not our day. The spirit was, at least we were nominated, so we’d already won 99% of the battle.” Unfortunately the Indian team had to rush home as Sunny was drifting off, having been on the red carpet since 1pm, and he had to be at the next event, After the Oscars at 5am the next morning.
(One of the hosts on the show, Jerry O’Connell sat Sunny on his shoulders and declared “I want to walk around Hollywood Boulevarde like this with my new friend!”)
“The theatre was full as they discussed the previous night. Then, in the afternoon, we put Sunny and Dilip on their flight back to India.”
Pravesh also reveals that Sunny has been going back and forth between India and the US for the past three months now.
Strangely, he was initially refused a visa. “His dad had a bank balance of only Rs.120. Then the film’s distributors The Weinstein Company got involved, and got the Pawars a 10-year visa.”
Pravesh believes Sunny has what it takes to make it big.
“I have worked with a lot of actors, and I can tell you, he is a star,” he says with conviction. “But his father and he need to have a proper plan. And not be too greedy. You know, to avoid what they call the ‘Oscars curse’ – where you increase your price so much that you take yourself out of the market. Sunny’s a good kid. He’s now been put in school – See-Saw Films have been kind enough to look after him. He’s going to learn English. Will he be able to work in English movies? Yes, it’s possible; but it’s going to take time.”
Pravesh has also seen Dev Patel through his career.
“I have worked with Dev Patel on five films through India Take One. We have seen him grow from Slumdog to Best Exotic Marigold Hotel and then Lion and we just finished Hotel Mumbai with him. He is a great actor and a wonderful person. He did his first film with us at 17. Imagine, you see an actor go from that, and now you’re sitting next to him at the Oscars and he’s nominated for Best Supporting Actor!”
What, for Pravesh Sahni, is the standout memory from his time at the Oscars?
“When Jimmy Kimmel came up to re-enact the scene with Sunny from The Lion King. It was a special for Lion, for Sunny, for India Take One, for us all, that the world was watching us. Perhaps Sunny would have stayed out of focus for the entire Oscars if this incident hadn’t happened. But with the entire auditorium looking at you, as the host talks to you one-on-one, that’s memorable. When you win an Oscar you get one-minute for your thank you speech. Sunny had much more than that on the Oscar screen. The next day, the driver who picked us up, knew not only Sunny, but even recognised me!”
Pravesh says it has been an honour to be involved with Lion.
“This was a story that touched us all from Day One. Credit goes to director Garth Davis. We never had the Oscars in mind – this was a creative project.”
The entire process from scouting, or the recce, to the conclusion of shooting took about a year.
“Our job is to make the director’s dreams possible. This was a difficult shoot. Working with a foreign director on the streets in India, everything is tough!”
To shoot at the Howrah Bridge, for example, was a nightmare.
“It is an amazing scene in the film, but the idea of having Sunny alone on the bridge, bathed in light, was almost impossible. It was through the cooperation of the West Bengal government, along with the Director of Photography Greig Fraser, that this beautiful scene finally came to be in the film.”
This is the third Australian film Pravesh has been involved with, the others being Save Your Legs! and Hotel Mumbai (coincidentally also starring Dev Patel).
“I feel so lucky, after Slumdog and finding those kids, to have found Sunny. It is wonderful to find Indian talent and deliver it to the world.”
Sunny was only five years old when the project began. Garth Davis couldn’t speak any Hindi, and Sunny couldn’t speak any English.
“They developed a kind of sign language. Thumbs up meant the scene was good, thumbs down meant they had to shoot it again. We had translators on set, as well as Sunny’s dad Dilip, but it was about that personal connection with the director. He had, after all, picked him from 1200 children!”
But on the sets, Sunny was accorded regular treatment.
“No pampering of any sort, no special treatment in any manner. After all, he was playing a very emotional role and was required to keep that demeanour,” a source from the film revealed.
Sunny’s shooting schedules spanned over three months in Kolkata and Madhya Pradesh in India, and Melbourne and Tasmania in Australia.
Cricket came in handy to help other cast members relate to the diminutive star. Some of these candid scenes even made it to film.
“We worked in Bhopal and Kolkata, but I loved shooting in Australia,” Sunny said in one of his many interviews. “The place was so beautiful. There were so many places to roam and play, we went there after shooting.”
What was Nicole Kidman like, Sunny has been asked.
“Maa jaisi thi,” he is said to have replied. She was like mum.
The eight-year-old, starring as Kidman’s young son in the film, said he enjoyed a real-life bond with the Oscar-winning actor.
“She’s very affectionate and very warm,” Sunny says. “Nicole said that I’m a natural and I should always be a natural.”
He played cricket with her on the set. But in his straight-forward way, he adds with child-like honesty, “I’m much better than her.”
He also tried to teach the 49-year-old star ‘thoda thoda’ Hindi.
It is clear Sunny also adores his older co-star Dev Patel.
“Cricket khelta tha, badmaashi karta tha.” He would play cricket and would goof around on the set. It was so much fun.
Was there a language problem?
“No, there was no language problem. Dev spoke to me in English, and I spoke back in Hindi.”
Together, Dev and Sunny introduced Lion at the 74th Golden Globe Awards. Dressed in black tuxedoes, the duo was welcomed onstage with a huge applause.
Dev gave a synopsis of the film on stage, and then lifted Sunny so he could say to the microphone, “This is our film, Lion.” The audience erupted with love.
The same thing happened with the 89th Academy Awards.
“My ovaries can’t handle this!” screamed one popular website as it posted multiple cute-factor-overload photos of Sunny at the Oscars. And breakfast show hosts on TV might well have said “#ovaries”, millennial speak for an explosion of cluckiness, as they ended their interviews covering Sunny in cuddles and caresses.
Sunny is a Class 3 student at the Air India Model School and lives with his parents Dilip Pawar, a former government office sweeper, and home-maker mother Vasu, in a slum in Kalina in the western suburbs of Mumbai. He has a younger brother and sister.
“Ladke ne itna achcha kaam kiya, bahar desh me, hum bahut khush hain,” Dilip tells Indian Link. Our son has done good work, appreciated in a foreign land; that makes us happy.
“Zindagi mein sabka apna naseeb hai, par mehnat ke bina kuch nahin hota.” We come to this world with our destiny written out, but really, nothing happens without hard work.
He reveals he will consider more offers for Sunny, wherever they come from. Love Sonia, Sunny’s second film, featuring Frieda Pinto is ready for release later this year.
Sunny tells us, “English nahin jaanta hai par jab sab mujhe sab bole, Great work, main bola thank you.” I don’t speak English but knew when everybody in LA was congratulating me.
Did Sunny enjoy his time in LA?
“Bahut achcha laga. Exciting tha.” Loved it; it was exciting.
What did he like?
“Disneyland achcha laga, TV interviews achcha laga. WWE achcha laga.” Disneyland, the TV interviews, meeting the WWE heroes.
His favourite scenes from the movie?
“Train wala”. Scenes on the train.
He also recalled the running, when “Director Sir” told him to run.
Who are his favourite actors?
“Hrithik Roshan, Ajay Devgn, Rajnikanth”.
Have Sunny’s friends liked his work?
“Abhi nahin mila to. Kal school jaaonga. Pata nahin unhone picture dekha ya nahin.” I haven’t met them yet. I’ll go to school tomorrow. I don’t know if they’ve seen the film.
Does he think life with them will change for him now?
“Pehle jaisa tha, khelna koodna, waisa he rahega.” It’ll be just like before. We’ll play just like normal.
We can’t handle how cute he is!
When Sunny met Barack
Sunny Pawar met President Barack Obama at the White House in the last week of Obama’s Presidency to raise awareness for the #LionHeart campaign.
He was in Washington, DC to help raise awareness for the initiative that provides financial support and resources to children in India.
The Weinstein Company, See-Saw Films, and The Charity Network launched the campaign in November 2016. Since then, the initiative has raised over $100,000 in its mission to assist the over 11 million homeless youth of India.
With inputs from IANS