In an “only in the movies” story, little Saroo is separated from his big brother at a railway station near Khandwa, Madhya Pradesh. He accidentally takes a train that lands him in Kolkata, hundreds of kilometres from home. Living on the streets he evades some very unpleasant people and situations before being taken in to an orphanage. He is adopted through an organisation called ISSA and placed with a middle class Anglo family in Hobart, Tasmania. When Saroo moves to Melbourne for uni he starts to admit to himself that he really wants to know who he is. He can’t forget his family, especially his mum and older brother Guddu, and knows they must have been looking for him all these years. His friends suggest using Google Earth to try and find landmarks he remembered. It’s a struggle as Saroo deals with his feelings of betraying his adoptive parents, his complex relationship with adopted brother Mantosh, his whiny girlfriend Lucy (Rooney Mara), and the sheer time and energy to do the work. But he never completely gives up, and he does find his way.
Lion is based on Saroo Brierley’s autobiography, The Long Road Home. I was fortunate enough to attend a preview introduced by Saroo and his mum Sue. They had input into the screenplay adaptation, and both said they were pleased with the results. Garth Davis uses landscape beautifully to reflect Saroo’s journey and to ground his memories. The scenery in Tasmania is pristine and lovingly shot, with a sense of order and calm. In contrast, Kolkata swirls with movement and energy as little Saroo (Sunny Pawar) darts through crowds and runs his heart out in search of home. The film is as manipulative as can be, but it’s the kind of emotional push and pull that made me want to buy into it. He’s a good kid, and you want him to be happy.
Sunny Pawar is that rarest of creatures – an Indian child actor I don’t want to slap. Apart from being ridiculously cute he conveys emotions with clarity and a sense of genuine feeling. Saroo couldn’t speak to anyone much about what had happened as he was a little kid, only spoke Hindi, was illiterate, and had no idea how to find his home. He was selected by Mrs Sood (Deepti Naval) as a good candidate for overseas adoption and before long, he had a new home.
Twenty years later, Dev Patel is Saroo. He has great hair, and a good Aussie accent. I’ve not been completely convinced by some of his past work but I felt he really inhabited Saroo and was just brimming with energy and life. He had a typically Australian slightly inarticulate, good natured, blokey feel about his character but could also show great depth of emotions. Patel’s scenes with Divian Ladwa who plays grown up Mantosh were full of love and disappointment and rivalry, being mean in ways you know will hit hardest, always internally comparing this brother to long lost Guddu. He had a strong connection with Nicole Kidman and David Wenham as his parents, and a relaxed playful rapport with the ensemble of his friends. The latter section of the film drags a bit as Saroo wallows in his angst, but it does make the payoff all the more sweet.
Sue’s dedication to having an adopted family made me slightly uncomfortable in the film, but not when I heard her speak in person. Possibly it was the tight close-ups of Nicole Kidman and her fierce emoting that made it seem too much. You know when you inadvertently see a display of intense emotion that was not meant for you, you just want to look away and give that person back their privacy. David Wenham has long been a favourite actor of mine. I would probably watch him watching paint dry, and find it fascinating. He plays John as a typical dad with a big heart and a few bad jokes, trying to keep his family of diverse and strong personalities together and happy through their ups and downs.
The casting really is excellent and I think it shows their commitment to getting things right. The Indian cast features some excellent character actors including Nawazuddin Siddiqui, Tannishtha Chatterjee, and Deepti Naval in small but impactful roles, with Priyanka Bose as Saroo’s birth mum Kamla. Melbourne girl Pallavi Sharda and local soapie actor Sachin Joab play a couple of Saroo’s uni mates. Abhishek Bharate delivers a good performance as Guddu, with a cocky swagger and a warm smile that made him so unforgettable for his little brother. Rooney Mara is stitched up with a fairly insipid role as Saroo’s girlfriend. Her character Lucy just doesn’t have the same complexity and depth as the others and she comes across as more of a plot device than a person.
I think Lion is going to be interpreted quite differently depending on your perspective. Many Australian viewers would have no idea who Deepti Naval or Nawazzudin Siddiqui is, so there’s that. I may have been the only person in the theatre to whoop when Prabhu Deva appeared on the telly in the background of a scene! And I doubt the 1980s approach to intercultural adoption, which was heavy on assimilation, will sit well with everyone. I was adopted as were several of my friends, and we all had diverse experiences and have made our choices about finding birth parents, so this resonates strongly with me. Sue is clear that she wants Saroo to tell her all about himself and what happened before the adoption, so it isn’t a case of ignoring his personal history. It’s more that there seemed to be no acknowledgement of his existing language or culture, only his misfortune of being a lost boy. Because the film jumps from the start to the end of Saroo’s personal journey, there is a whole other story in the middle that we don’t see. Saroo mentioned he might be working on a prequel so perhaps there will be a companion piece to come. Whatever your views, Saroo seems to have turned out to be a very generous and grounded young man who both his families are proud of.
See Lion for a beautiful story of identity and home and family, for the unashamed tugging at your heartstrings, for the excellent performances. Take some tissues because at least one of the Saroos will probably make you cry!