A lost boy and his very long journey home

Hollywood likes to present adaptations of true-stories based on a person or a book but often, the story lacks attention to detail or ends up becoming a glorified version of the original tale. Lion by Garth Davies is a film which goes beyond the typical stereotypes of the genre.

Set in India during 1986, the film is based on the non-fiction book A Long Way Home by Saroo Brierley and Larry Buttrose. It is an account of a little Indian boy who is separated thousands of miles from his home by a cruel twist of fate. Growing up in another continent with only a few childhood memories, a determination to trace his real family and Google Earth, he journeys back to where it all began in search of his lost past.

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A young Saroo and his brother Guddu. Image from Film Comment

The film opens up with a five year old Saroo and his older brother Guddu who wander about the streets collecting rocks to sell in exchange for food; they get split up at the railway station one night during a trip to the city in search of work. Unknowingly, Saroo falls asleep in rusty compartment in an empty train, waiting for his brother to return. To his horror upon waking up, he is far away from home ending up in the chaotic Kolkata where the language barrier proved problematic. He can only speak and understand Hindi but not Bengali which is the language that the locals spoke. The feel of claustrophobia and the panic of being lost is conveyed with frantic camera movements from the cinematography of Greig Fraiser and acted fantastically by Sunny Pawar. Almost half of the film is in Hindi with English subtitles that brings an authentic touch to the story– a rare commodity in Hollywood films.

As the story develops, we see Saroo using his street knowledge to dodge predators who stalk in the night in search of children sleeping rough in underground tunnels (kidnapping them to use for cheap labour or other illegal means), to running away from perverted men who had other intentions in their mind instead of helping a disoriented child. The screams of the children trying to escape their fate will remain in your mind, a kind of haunting backdrop.

Seeking help from government offices with lack of information to guide them as no one knew where his village was or if it exists, we later find out he mispronounced the name, using a childhood reference of the village. He ends up settling in the relative sanctuary of an orphanage– away from the previous chaos. However, Saroo still finds himself surrounded by children with mental instability and overworked social workers with lack of funding. He is finally adopted by a kindly Australian couple (Nicole Kidman, David Wenham) from Tasmania and has a happy childhood even with his troubled adopted younger brother Mentosh.

In the second part of the film, we see an older Saroo (played brilliantly by Dev Patel), enrol on a course in hotel management where he meets Lucy (Rooney Mara)– who later becomes his girlfriend. He seems to be leading a comfortable life in Australia however one late afternoon at a friend’s dinner party, he tastes his first jalebi, a red coloured curly sweet that him and his brother dreamed about back in India. Dev made you feel the character’s pain by the way he looked at the sweet; his mind being miles away to another lifetime.

Prompted by his friends to use a new tool called Google Earth, Saroo becomes obsessed in the search for his family, quitting his job, losing his girlfriend and causing more strain to his already suffering mother. She has lost one son from his wayward behaviour, she does not want to lose another one.

It all concludes in a bittersweet moment, (tissues at the ready), reuniting with his real mother and younger sister but learning that his older brother died not long after Saroo’s disappearance. The moment felt so real, it was as if you were a bystander witnessing the event.

The story and script never wavers to a one-dimensional narrative, rather it provides a backbone to the stellar performances of the actors without going overboard. There may not be much dialogue in some parts of the film, however, the camera captured sincere emotions of the actors with a musical score by Hauschka and Dustin O’Halloran that complemented the film from beginning to end.

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This film is more than just a tale of family ties and the struggles of being a parent. It highlights the underlying problem of poverty, lost children and child exploitation – a big issue in India and elsewhere around the world. It also raises the question of whether one can fully adapt in a new situation as an adopted child.

Dev Patel, Sunny Pawar and the real life version Saroo Brierley. Image from CBC

A deeply moving and heartwarming film.

Writer and visual artist // I write about culture and societal issues with a focus on the effects of colonialism, globalisation and capitalism.

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