Directed by Garth Davis
Weinstein Company, 118 minutes, Not-rated (in English, Hindi, Bengali)
* * * *
Unless you swore off movies two decades ago, you know the East-meets-West genre—the one in which some circumstance (comic, tragic, romantic) thrusts postindustrial Westerners into close contact with someone darker-skinned with a different world view. Distrust, misunderstanding, and broad humor eventually mutate into acceptance and/or respect and/or friendship/love. British directors, in particular, find the urge to use Pakistani and Indian actors as irresistible as the American compulsion to have characters shoot each other. Lion is different—a film that stands high above the pride of cookie cutter banality.
Maybe it helps if the story is true. This one is based on an autobiographical book by Saroo Brierly that covers his life from ages five to thirty. Young Saroo (Sunny Pawar) spent his first five years in a Bengali-speaking peasant village with his mother (Priyanka Bose) and older brother Guddu (Abhishek Bharate). Theirs is life at the margins—the sort in which the two boys hop freight trains and poach coal to trade at the local market for two small bags of milk that their mother will use to make their evening meal. But Saroo is content, as long as he gets to follow his brother around like a faithful puppy. He even begs Guddu to let him go along to a nearby city for an all-night job.
That’s where the trouble begins. Saroo can’t stay awake and Guddu can’t walk away from a job that helps put food on the brazier. Guddu tells Saroo to sleep on the train station bench and await his return. One of the many things director Garth Davis does well in his directorial debut is convincingly take us inside the mind of a five-year-old. At what point does a small boy imagine he has waited long enough and set off to look for his brother? Saroo searches the cars at the railhead and is trapped when the doors lock and the train begins to move. It is the start of a journey that will take him more than a thousand miles from home—to Kolkata. Put yourself in Saroo’s sandals. He can’t even ask a policeman for help as they speak Hindi there, plus the cop probably wouldn’t care—India has an estimated 30 million street children. Plus, it’s Kolkata—a chilling mise en scene for the first half of the film. The city may have its charms, but what’s depicted here invokes the Black Hole of Calcutta.
Saroo becomes one of Kolkata’s street children—dodging all manner of dangers—until he’s scooped up and deposited in an orphanage so vile it would have made Charles Dickens sick. He still speaks only rudimentary Hindi and he’s still five. He is asked: “What is your mother’s name?” “Mom,” he replies—a single word that will tear out your heart. You want cultural misunderstanding? When Saroo asks a caseworker if they’ve looked for his mother, she indignantly tells him they published his details in a Kolkata newspaper read by many millions. Umm… Did it not occur to her that a Bengali-speaking boy probably isn’t from around those parts? Or that, like most peasant women, maybe his mother is illiterate? Watch out for young actor Sunny Pawar, who is cute as a button but also exudes precocious acting chops—a bit like Dev Patel, who made his acting debut in Slumdog Millionaire and plays older Saroo in Lion.
Young Saroo’s life takes an unlikely turn when John and Sue Brierly (John Wenham and Nicole Kidman), an Australian couple living in Tasmania, adopt him. We watch him and another boy try to shed their Indian skins and adapt to Aussie ways, then the film jumps ahead twenty-five years. Saroo (Dev Patel) has more than adapted. Although he hangs out with some other Indian lads at college in Melbourne, he has a white girlfriend (Rooney Mara), has lost patience with his brother’s bad behavior, and when asked by his peers who he favors in a cricket test match between India and Australia he replies, “Australia, of course.” But a small trigger sets off something deep inside and Saroo finds himself obsessed by his birth family. Here is where Davis shows a remarkably light touch. He does not opt for any sort of clichéd search-for-roots sentimentality—Saroo doesn’t want to be Indian; he’s consumed by the sad thought that people have wondered about him for twenty-five years. John and Sue are his mom and dad as far as he’s concerned, but he needs to see if it’s possible to find his birth mother. But remember—he was five when he left and his only firm memory of his hometown is a non-descript concrete water tower. He has no idea of what his town was named. Can he find out in the age of Google Earth and online archives?
Both halves of this film are deeply affecting. Patel has grown into a strikingly handsome young man and as an actor has begun to shed the frippery displayed in earlier films such as the Best Exotic Marigold Hotel franchise. Lion surprises you at numerous steps, probably because the things we see really happened and life isn’t subject to script-washing. It is easily the best new film I’ve seen in the past few months. Check it out—you may be traumatized in places, but you’ll leave the theatre satisfied. By the way, you’ll need to stay for the credits to find out why the film is named Lion.