LION. Director: Garth Davis. Players: Dev Patel, Nicole Kidman, Rooney Mara, Priyanka Bose, David Wenham, Nawazuddin Siddique, Deepti Naval, Sunny Pawar, Abhishek Bharate. English, Hindi and Bengali with Eng. Sub-titles. Theatrical Release (The Weinstein Company). MPAA Rating: PG-13 (Parents Strongly Cautioned. Some material may be inappropriate for children under 13.)
To stand out, origin stories must compel that tug to identify “home” for all of us – be it brick and mortar or an abode for the heart to lower anchor. The big screen christening of the real-life story of Indian-Australian Saroo Brierley’s search for his roots could easily have fallen the way of an unappealing chronology of slum life or an impersonal rags-to-riches diary. Bringing together a gifted cast, however, Davis’ feature debut Lion uses simple story telling that is intimate, appealing and also disturbing for its graphic humanity to score a phenomenal entry.
For five-year-old Saroo (Pawar) and his family – his brother Guddu (Bharate) and mom (Bose) – existence in a poor north Indian hamlet is hard but not impossible. On a routine hunting and scavenging run with Guddu, Saroo is left alone and unknowingly gets on the wrong train. Ending up in Kolkota and dogged by child predators, and now utterly despairing at having broken away from his mom and brother, Saroo is eventually adopted by an Australian couple (Kidman and Wenham). Two decades later, the grown up Saroo (Patel), can’t shake a lust to re-trace his lost childhood family and so begins a fateful search.
Luke Davies’ script broadly follows Saroo Brierley’s 2014 book A Long Way Home. While the adult performers brand the movie, plausibility here would be impossible if not for eight-year-old Pawar disappearing into five-year-old Saroo so beautifully. Saroo’s Madhya Pradesh childhood – while far from ideal – captures the magic and the bond that only very close families share. Saroo’s faint memories from his Madhya Pradesh early years, re-envisioned evocatively by Greig Fraser’s minimalist camerawork, go from a recurring memory of a butterfly grove to sharing a mango with his mother toiling in the field to train rides that off-tracked Saroo so dramatically to begin with.
How Hollywood movies go about authenticating their India experience can be a telling sign in how India-grounded the stories end up. As good a movie as it was, Slumdog Millionaire essentially kept India at an arm’s distance. Lion, on the other hand, wallows in its Indian factor. The earthiness seeps in early and is confidently retouched on again and again. While Slumdog viewed India from the outside looking in, Lion roars from the inside looking out. To give this wonderfully international story a native Indian vibe while keeping intact a broader frame is remarkable filmmaking indeed.
As the grizzly haired budding Tasmanian businessman Saroo, Patel hits the right notes in merging his longings to re-connect with building a life Down Under. His pain is palpable, so much so that he takes a sabbatical from his girlfriend Lucy (Mara) and engages Google Earth to pinpoint a spot that could be 1,000 miles from Kolkota in an unknown direction. As the mother with cried out eyes, Kidman shoulders a brave front while keeping the family together – the couple has another adopted son from India who is often a point of family squabbles. Naval as the schoolmarm adoption agency organizer, Siddique as a suspicious, saccharin-sweet Kolkota stranger bearing gifts for the young Saroo, Mara as the girlfriend and Bose as Saroo’s birth mother round out a terrific cast.
The plight of children lost in India – and there could be thousands if not millions – or anywhere else for that matter is replete with danger. Child traffickers lurk at every corner, children get “loaned” out to well-heeled guests overnight – even from government run homes for lost youth and children cry themselves a lullaby to sleep in hopes of warding off that very same evil. Davis does not shy away from these horrors while leaving out the most lurid – and most horrifying – details to the imagination.
Backing up to that esoteric “home,” it can be made up of wooden trails that go nowhere in particular, that butterfly patch, the sounds of carefree children bathing in the river and a train passing nearby or the sudden fragrant whiff from a plateful of freshly dropped jalebi. The saddest moment in Lion, a hard and fast break from what the five year Saroo calls home, comes when Saroo is first handed a photo of his adoptive parents and slowly, silently must surrender to an unfathomable possibility he may never again see his birth family again. That point of departure sums up the entire movie in a few seconds. It could happen on the other side of the globe. Davis makes it all so urgently relevant for the here and now.
Globe trekker, aesthete, photographer, ski bum, film buff, and commentator, Aniruddh Chawda writes from Milwaukee.