Director: Garth Davis
Starring: Dev Patel, Nicole Kidman, David Wenham, Rooney Mara, Sunny Pawar, Priyanka Bose
Lion tells the true story of Saroo Brierley, a young boy from Madhya Pradesh, India who was separated from his family, adopted by a Tasmanian couple and reunited with his birth mother 25 years later. Based on Brierley’s autobiographical novel A Long Way Home, the film explores themes such as the dire situation of lost and homeless children, the difficulties of adoption, the loss of cultural identity in adopted children, and the importance of motherhood and family support.
After adorably convincing his elder brother Guddu to take him along to work, Saroo falls asleep on a decommissioned train on Burhanpur train station. He wakes up to find the train has departed and he is long separated from his brother. Unable to leave the train carriage, he spends days on the train, hungry and alone, and eventually finds himself in Howrah Station, Kolkata. He is 1600 kilometres from home, unable to speak the language of the city he is in, and unable to give details about his home or family. After escaping from human traffickers and abusive situations, he is sent to an orphanage and adopted into an Australian family.
The film divides itself into two halves – the first follows 6 year old Saroo (Sunny Pawar) and his harrowing journey from living with his impoverished family in Ganesh Talai to being adopted by John and Sue Brierley (David Wenham and Nicole Kidman). The second shows older Saroo (Dev Patel), his sense of cultural loss and emotional displacement, and his search using Google Maps to find his home and biological family.
One of the film’s greatest shortcomings is that the second half is considerably slower than the first and loses some of its emotional momentum. Perhaps this is a deliberate choice. The stagnation of the film’s second half could be seen as a reflection of Saroo’s slow and arduous search. Either way, the latter half of the film fails to continue the emotional tension that the first half had created. This is because viewers go into the movie knowing how it ends, so instead of building tension to an unknown outcome, the long drawn out search simply adds monotony.
The other major problem in the film is that Saroo’s relationship with his adoptive family and girlfriend Lucy (Rooney Mara) is not fully explored. This is largely because adult Saroo is shown to be preoccupied with his search and lost in memories of his childhood. However, this means that due to the lack of character development, important character moments such as a vulnerable speech by Nicole Kidman near the climax of the film falls short and the emotional impact which should be there is considerably lessened. Saroo’s girlfriend Lucy also comes across as a boring, one-dimensional character who could have been replaced by a kooky lamp or a pet dog without making a considerable difference.
Having said that, the climax of the film is appropriately emotional and almost manipulative in the way that it tugs at your heartstrings. There was not a single dry eye in the cinema as we saw Saroo Brierley, unable to speak Hindi anymore, embracing his mother and sister and finally finding his home and reclaiming all that was once lost to him. It is a great payoff, and perhaps it is one that comes a little later than one would like, but it feels satisfying and is wonderfully played by Priyanka Bose and Dev Patel.
The uncontested highlight of the film is 8 year old Sunny Pawar. He handles difficult scenes with aplomb and reduces viewers to tears as they fear for his life and grieve with him at the loss of his family. The cinematography and minimal dialogue shows the dire situation that Saroo finds himself in. Despite being small and vulnerable, Pawar’s mature portrayal shows Saroo to be a three-dimensional character, filled with intelligence and resourcefulness. Pawar’s portrayal is only strengthened by Dev Patel who fills Saroo with an acute sense of loss and lack of direction. For his work in the film, Dev Patel was rightfully nominated for an Academy Award, becoming only the third Indian actor to achieve this feat.
Lion is a beautiful film about human relationships and perseverance in the face of adversity. The film ends with real footage of Sue Brierley meeting Kamla (Saroo’s biological mother) in Ganesh Talai. The film leaves you feeling positive about the strength of human kindness and motherhood. It is worth the watch.
Words by Ishita Mathur