Garth Davis’ first feature film Lion, from Luke Davies’ screenplay based on the book “A Long Way Home” by Saroo Brierley, follows the true story of a five-year-old boy who goes scavenging for food with his brother, boards an empty train carriage in Burhanpur, India, and falls asleep. When he wakes he is unable to escape the carriage until he reaches Calcutta, over 1,500 kilometres from his hometown of Khandwa.
The star of Lion, Sunny Pawar, plays Saroo throughout the first half of the film. Ever since the press inaccurately reported that the children of Slumdog Millionaire had returned to their former lives in the slums after the parade of award ceremonies in 2009 without seeing a penny of the money made, many are sceptical when it comes to “Hollywood” movies hiring child actors; particularly from Indian slums. In reality, director of Slumdog Millionaire Danny Boyle and producer Christian Colson had set up trust funds for the children in the film, as well as paying for their education. Similar has been attributed to Sunny Pawar, who was referred to, contemptuously, by the Daily Mail as a “slum-dweller”, and he has happily returned to his family home in Mumbai, where his mother says he will continue his normal life. Garth Davis also stated at the Toronto International Film Festival in 2016 that “we have our company over there in regular contact with [Sunny] checking on his welfare, and we’ve got things in place to support him through school.”
The film begins with various extensive birds-eye shots of India and Australia, emulating that of Google Earth, and the beautifully composed intro of Lion Theme from the movie’s score by Dustin O’Halloran & Hauschka (which you can listen to below). We are then introduced to Saroo, a young boy helping his brother Guddu (Abhishek Bharate) steal coal in Khandwa, India. With the audacity of a then 5-year-old boy, Saroo begs his brother to buy him some jalebis (a fried Indian sweet), and Guddu promises to get some for him one day. This reoccurs shortly after when Saroo begs his brother to take him to work with him and, after proving his capability by trying to lift a bicycle, Guddu takes him along. By the time the pair reach Burhanpur, Saroo collapses on the train platform from exhaustion and thus Guddu leaves him and tells him not to go anywhere. Saroo’s parting words to Guddu are “Bring me two thousand Jalebis!” Setting the theme of memory in motion. It’s these heart-warming moments that Sunny Pawar delivers which make his innocence such a charming and pivotal part of the light points, as well as the dark.
We continue to see the film through Saroo’s eyes as he reaches Calcutta and finds himself in a huge, busy train station where nobody understands him (he spoke Hindi and didn’t understand the Bengali language), calling for his mother and siblings and being manhandled by frustrated commuters. Sunny’s performance maintains Saroo’s semblance of naiveté even after escaping abduction and fleeing a seemingly kind-hearted woman, Noor (Tannishtha Chatterjee), and a slightly ominous man, Rawa (Nawazuddin Siddiqui), when they attempt to pursue him; it is hinted that they are part of a paedophilia ring, though it is never specified. Saroo eventually finds himself in an orphanage where steps are taken to find his mother but proved unsuccessful. It is then that Saroo is soon told he’s to be adopted by an Australian family in Tasmania.
When Saroo arrives in Hobart, Australia, we are introduced to his adoptive parents Sue Brierley (Nicole Kidman) and John Brierley (David Wenham). Saroo’s gentle nature allows him to adjust to his new circumstances quickly, shown through the adorable dinner scene in which a young Saroo requests “pepper” and “sauce” instead of salt, swiftly followed by Sue affirming her new role as a mother by bathing Saroo and telling him “I’m sure it hasn’t been easy, and one day you’ll tell me all about it. You’ll tell me everything. Who you are – everything. I’ll always listen. Always.” What follows is a montage of boat rides and games of cricket on the beach to contrast the imminent change in Lion’s spirit.
Following the adoption of another young boy from Calcutta, the situation becomes tumultuous. The young Mantosh (Keshav Jadhav) is portrayed as a reticent, withdrawn child who experiences sudden violent outbursts; hitting himself as well as others. While his actions are generally associated by the audience as a form of autism or due to a traumatic experience prior to his adoption, Mantosh’s behaviour becomes more complicated as a grown up. In their first scene together as adults, Saroo and Mantosh (Divian Ladwa) argue about Mantosh’s seemingly lethargical state, with Saroo retorting “Can you not do anything while I’m away that’s gonna make mum more unhappy than you already do?” to which Mantosh replies “Mate, why do you think I stay away?” Mantosh is portrayed as a glum and unwilling member of the family, and it seems through his dialogue that he can identify their emotions and how he’s making them feel, though makes no attempt to change it. It is also hinted that he struggles with drug addiction as well as mental health, although the film doesn’t dwell on this, or Mantosh’s life at all. It focuses more on Saroo’s resentment of his brother – something that isn’t quite as prevalent in the book.
Dev Patel has come far from his days as Anwar “buddha buddha cheese buddha” Kharral, or as Neal Sampat trying to prove the existence of Bigfoot and conspiring to commit espionage. Not only has he grown into a modest yet compelling actor (and boy, has he grown), but he has proved himself to be dynamic as well as being astute when it comes to choosing roles (a big lesson he learned from working on M. Night Shyamalan’s The Last Airbender, but we don’t talk about that).
When introducing himself to his Indian classmates who question him on his birthplace, Saroo admits “I was adopted. I’m not really Indian”. His identity struggle continues, as he’s invited to their home for an Indian meal where eating with his hands seems a challenge and has to be given cutlery (really?). Although, it’s when Saroo is alone in the kitchen and he notices the jalebis on the side counter that this scene really hits the mark. Saroo immediately stops in his tracks. We see a flashback to the moment at the market with Saroo and Guddu, and then we’re back to Saroo. That moment of realisation rests on his face for a while, until the moment is punctured by the entrance of Lucy (Rooney Mara) who asks “Are you okay?” and Saroo replies “I’m not from Calcutta. I’m lost.”
There is pretty much no point in Lucy, although at no fault of Mara’s. Mara’s character is but a plain and benevolent girlfriend type, who is there mainly to give comfort to Saroo as he faces this journey. Most of their time is spent in bed, which is ironic due to the lack of chemistry of any kind between Mara and Patel. Rooney Mara acknowledged her character’s stance in the story saying that “it was less about the character and more about supporting the overall story, which is really what my role was. I was there to support Saroo, and [in turn] Dev”.
The next phase of the film is mainly covering Saroo’s discovery of Google Maps, making calculations based on train speeds and following various tracks around India. These search-scenes are interrupted by moments such as a Brierley family dinner, where Sue looks evidently uncomfortable in Mantosh’s presence and struggles to keep her composure following another outburst from him after Saroo says “we’re not [brothers], we’re different”. The relationship between Patel and Kidman’s characters isn’t thoroughly laid open until their pivotal scene where Saroo’s absence has blatantly taken its toll on Sue emotionally and physically. Saroo tells his mother “I’m sorry you couldn’t have your own kids.” She stares at him for a moment before admitting “I could have had kids. We chose not to have kids.” Her emotional monologue that ensues captures the essence of the film and is Kidman’s critical performance of the entire piece, making her lack of screen time and god-awful red wig almost worth it.
Eventually, as Saroo begins to recognise areas of his hometown on Google Earth, emotion as well as anticipation is extant once again; Saroo’s discovery, albeit gradual, finally takes him to his home and to his past. This is where I believe the score comes to absolute prominence. Dustin O’Halloran & Hauschka’s entire film score is utterly beautiful, however, Home is with Me and Arrival stand out specifically. It’s brought to such a scale alongside Dev Patel’s performance as Saroo walks toward the mother he has been searching for, played by Priyanka Bose who delivers an equally heart-breaking and emotionally abundant performance, brings the film that was once momentarily lagging in vitality and hope – to a remarkably poignant ending.
Lion is a triumph, and its recollection of Saroo Brierley’s story is solid and moving – at least for the most part.