Director: Garth Davis
Writer: Luke Davies, Saroo Brierley
Cast: Dev Patel, Nicole Kidman, Rooney Mara
As the end credits of Lion tells us, every year in India over eighty thousand children go missing. Lion is the story of one such missing child – Saroo Brierley – a boy who experiences multiple twists of fortune in the lottery of life, both improbably good and bad.
Saroo is born to an impoverished mother who lives in the slums of India. As a young boy, he never really learns the specifics of where he lives or what his name is. He identifies as Saroo. He knows his brother as Guddu and his mother as ‘Mum’. He lives in a neighbourhood that he thinks is called Ganeshtaley. Each day, he goes out with Guddu and they scavenge for rocks and coal to sell at the markets. On a good day, they will sell enough to have a serving of milk.
Although born into a life of hardship, Saroo has both a cheerful disposition and is hard working. He is full of admiration for his older brother and he enjoys lending a helping hand to support his family. In fact, Saroo feels left out when Guddu drops him off at home and continues to do night work. One evening, Saroo convinces Guddu to take him along.
Saroo only gets as far as the train station when he feels too sleepy to work. Guddu leaves him to sleep on a bench at the platform and tells him he will come back for him. When Saroo wakes up, he cannot find Guddu and he panics, searching for him on the train at the station. The train takes off with Saroo on it, on a two day trip to Calcutta and before Saroo realizes it, he is thousands of kilometres away from his family and he doesn’t have enough information about his hometown to help any adults reunite him with them.
Life on the streets in Calcutta is harrowing. Not only must Saroo find food and shelter for himself, he is constantly having to second guess the help offered by adults who give him attention. The city has its share of Good Samaritans but there are also bullies, deviants and people smugglers looking for easy prey. Despite a couple of narrow escapes, Saroo survives two months on the streets before he eventually is housed in an orphanage by police officers. When a missing persons ad in a national newspaper fails to draw contact from his family, he is given up for adoption. He is eventually found a new home in Tasmania, Australia under the care of Sue and John Brierley.
Saroo is given a new chance in life and he makes the most of it. Sue and John are nurturing and supportive parents, giving Saroo opportunities he never would have had in India. He gets to enjoy life in Australia to the fullest – playing cricket on the beach in the summer and boating in the bay with his parents. A couple of years after Saroo moves in with the Brierley’s, they adopt a second child from India named Mantosh. Memories of Saroo’s early life, and of his mother and brother, begin to fade away.
As a young adult, Saroo leaves Tasmania for Melbourne where he intends to complete a hotel management course. He begins a relationship with a girl in his class named Lucy. He becomes friends with the Indian students. When they invite him over for a party, a platter of Indian food, and in particular a distinctive dish known as jalebis, suddenly jolts Saroo’s memory of his past life. Startled and unsure of himself, this moment plants the seed in Saroo’s mind to seek out his biological family.
Saroo finds support and encouragement from Lucy to revisit his old life but instead he becomes increasingly withdrawn. He yearns to reconnect with his mother and brother but he is worried about offending his adoptive parents. He is also angered and ashamed of his circumstances living such a comfortable and charmed lifestyle compared with the life he left behind. Saroo wouldn’t really have any leads to go on to reconnect with his family until a friend mentions that Google have created a new application called Google Earth which might help Saroo narrow the search. Even as he does though, his inability to deal with his sense of guilt threatens to leave his relationship with Lucy and his adopted parents in tatters.
Without having any familiarity with the true events that inspired Lion, no doubt most people will understand what happens in the second half of the film as an adult Saroo begins an improbable quest to reconnect with his family. What lifts the film beyond the genre cliches that audiences would be familiar with is the work from both young and old Saroo (Sunny Pawar and Dev Patel respectively) who both deliver such natural performances that audiences can’t help but become drawn in and invested in their incredible odyssey.
Something that neither the trailer nor the promotional material for Lion lets on is just how much of the film is dedicated to covering the time Saroo spends in the streets as a young boy. These sequences rely heavily on the performance of Sunny Pawar and he is nothing less than utterly convincing despite the challenging nature of the scenes. No offence to Dev Patel but when you look at the performances of the two actors playing Saroo, Patel is good but Pawar is great.
Everything else in this film comes together just so. The supporting cast are wonderful, particularly Nicole Kidman, who wins over audiences as a forlorn and lovingly tender mother, despite wearing a horrendous Pauline Hanson-esque wig. The cinematography excels at capturing all the grit, grime and colour of India. The score is subtle and elevates each scene without ever feeling overbearing.
Lion is a thoughtfully made and inspiring production. It is a moving tale about the nature of family, where you come from and what makes you who you are. Saroo Brierley has had an extraordinary life with more twists and turns in fortune than any one person should reasonably expect. His courage and tenacity are fitting traits for a film that carries the mantle of Lion.