A review by Katy Shick
Lion, which opened nationwide on Christmas Day, is the amazing story of a small boy lost in India and his long journey to find home. Miraculously he manages to survive on the streets of Calcutta, where his very life is threatened, and to find a home with a loving adoptive family in Australia. Even more miraculously he manages to make it back home as a grown man. After searching for four years with all of the power of Google Earth to search every train station in Western India, he makes a lucky, last ditch swipe with the cursor that finally leads him down the right path. Finding his home, even with all of the power of the information age, is a miracle that boggles the mind and makes for a story that is terrifying at times but confirms the resilience of the human spirit and reminds us of our shared need to know where we belong.
In 1986 Saroo Brierley was a five year old boy living with his mother, brother, and sister in a poor neighborhood in Khandwa, India. As the film opens, he and his brother jump a train and begin loading pieces of coal into sacks before they are chased away by officials. The boys take the coal to a market and trade it for two pouches of milk, which they bring home to their mother, who is overjoyed to have something for dinner. Impoverished and forced to work at a quarry carrying stones all day, the mother has little choice but to allow her sons to canvas the city looking for scraps of food and loose change. Saroo’s older brother, Guddu, leaves later that night to go to the train station. Against his better judgment, he allows Saroo to come along. Fiercely determined that he is a man, Saroo insists on going; however, only a few hours into the night he is overcome with sleep. Guddu places him on a bench and tells him to stay until he returns. When Saroo awakens, he is confused, and perhaps scared of stray dogs, he climbs aboard an idle train and falls back asleep. He is awakened the next morning by the movement of the train. Trapped, Saroo is forced to ride the train for two days, finally escaping in Calcutta over 1,600 kilometers away. Confused and scared, he stands on the platform, calling out for his brother and mother, who are a world away from a tiny boy who doesn’t know his mother’s name, his own last name, or the city from which he came.
A large portion of the film is devoted to Saroo’s journey to find physical safety. He manages to avoid predators and shadowy authority figures and finds himself in an orphanage that puts food in his belly but gives him little else. He is saved by an Australian couple, played by Nicole Kidman and David Wenham. If Saroo’s story were a fairytale, this would be the happy ending—the orphan who finally finds a family.
Saroo Brierley, however, is a real boy who grows into a real man. Despite loving his parents very much and growing up happy and well adjusted as their adopted son, he can never feel whole so long as he knows that his mother is somewhere still looking for him. For twenty years he appears to be content not knowing. Yet, when he attends a party with college friends and encounters a sweet Indian delicacy on the table, he suddenly remembers begging his brother, Guddu, for them. Overwhelmed by the memory of his original family, he breaks down.
From this point forward, Saroo dedicates his life to finding his family. His search consumes him, pulling him away from everything and everyone in his new life. Haunted by the mystery of a mother and brother he only remembers in fragmented impressionistic images, he cannot seem to move forward with such a hole in his identity. He also suffers from a certain amount of survivor’s guilt. His is a success story. As his mother tells him, he is the “little brown child” she saw in a vision when she was twelve whom she saved from suffering. His younger adopted brother, Mantosh, is not so lucky. He arrives emotionally damaged and remains fragile despite the Brierleys’ attempts to heal his wounds. Saroo additionally begins to see his brother, Guddu, everywhere he looks—staring at him from atop a cliff as he is jogging, eating the scraps from an abandoned tray at a cafeteria. Guddu seems to judge him for being saved at the same time he asks him to come home.
Few viewers will come to this film not knowing how Saroo’s journey end, yet knowing how it ends does not spoil this film just as knowing the true story behind any film does not get in the way of its message. Lion is a story of identity and what it means to find one’s place within a family. Saroo hides his search from his adoptive parents in fear of hurting them. When he sets out to find his mother, he finally confesses. He assures them that he does not seek to replace or renounce them as his parents; he only wants to put focus to those snippets of memories of his childhood—to find an answer to the question of who he was and still is inside. Saroo’s need to reach back to his birth mother is similar to many adopted children’s desire to find their birth families. The need for a mother is strong and one of the most basic of human imperatives.
First time director, Gareth Davis, captures Saroo’s search for home with honest and powerful emotional resonance by relating his journey through Saroo’s perspective. The majority of the first half of the film contains very little dialogue, but it is emotionally gripping. When Saroo wakes up on the bench the night he becomes lost, we only see what Saroo sees. His brother is gone, and we don’t know where he is or when he is coming back. We don’t know the men who come to round up the street children in the train station tunnel. We just know that Saroo needs to run, and we run with him through the corridors, hearts racing, not knowing if he has found a way out. Similarly, when Saroo seems to find a haven with a kind woman who takes him in, feeding and bathing him, we are relieved and only begin to feel dread as he begins to sense danger. Only when Saroo steps off the plane into the arms of the Brierleys do we relax. And, when a grown Saroo begins clicking through Google Maps, narrowing his search to his mother’s hut, we are right at his shoulder, anxiously hoping to see something familiar. When he does, it is a powerful moment because we know how much this means to him having journeyed with him all this way.
Beyond Davis’ directing, the principal actors also bring Saroo’s story to life. Dev Patel, as the grown Saroo is very good—he is the dutiful son yet also the haunted man with equal skill. In her one key scene in which Sue Brierley helps Saroo understand that being a parent is loving her sons for who they are not for who she wants them to be, Nicole Kidman captures a mother’s heart perfectly and frees Saroo to find his birth mother yet allowing him to embrace the life she has given him. Roony Mara, as Saroo’s girlfriend, is also well cast. The true soul of the film, however, is Sunny Pawar as the young Saroo. A tiny boy with skinny little arms and legs but big brown eyes, he steals the film from the adult actors. Equal parts vulnerability and resourcefulness, Pawar’s Saroo brings to life the humanity of a homeless boy trying to survive on the streets of Calcutta. He says very little, but everything he needs to say comes through clearly. At the end of the film before the credit rolls, we are given the statistic that there an estimated 80,000 children living on the streets of Calcutta, a figure that we are reminded of often but can seem abstract to the average person living in America. Films like Lion about little boys like Saroo Brierley properly jolt us awake. If for no other reason, learning to care for Saroo Brierley for two hours makes the film a powerful experience.
The other resounding message we are left with at the end of Lion is that we live in a remarkable world. Had Saroo Brierley been lost fifty years before he was, he would have never found his mother. Only through the power of Google Earth could Saroo even begin to search for his mother. Despite how much productive energy we lose playing on social media on a daily basis, Saroo’s story reminds us that the true purpose and benefit of the internet was always meant to bring us together, and in this case to shine a light on those dark alleys of Calcutta and find a home for boys like Saroo Brierley.
LION is showing at a/perture cinema through January 12th.