Is it the journey, or the destination? Lion, a film based on a true story, goes for the tear ducts, and it is hard not to react emotionally to the story it tells throughout. I don't know whether that was the ultimate aim of Lion, merely the end result. Lion is a very moving film, though at times a bit too quiet for its story.
In 1986 India, five-year-old Saroo (Sunny Pawar) lives in poverty but happily with his mother and older brother Guddu (Abhishek Bharate). Saroo does what he can to help and looks up to Guddu. One night, Guddu goes to the train station where he will look for ways to make some money. The empty station lulls Saroo to sleep, and while Guddu tries to get his little brother to do some work (though Guddu didn't want to bring him in the first place), he tells Saroo to stay put.
Needless to say, Saroo doesn't. After waking, he looks for Guddu, and his search takes him to a train temporarily stationed there. He falls asleep again, and to his horror he finds the train is moving at a fast pace away from everyone and everything he knows. Eventually the decommissioned train ends up in Calcutta (now Kolkata), where this country child is lost, a bit scared, and having difficulty with the language barrier (most Calcuttans speaking Bengali, while Saroo speaks only Hindi). Calcutta is no place for any child unattended: the police round up orphans (Saroo managing to outrun them), and those who appear friendly are really agents for child sex slaves (Saroo's spidey-sense urging him to flee them too). Eventually, a man at a café observes Saroo imitating him from the outside, and being able to speak both Hindi and Bengali, takes him to the police.
In turn, the police put Saroo in an orphanage that isn't too terrible, and with the wheel of fortune spinning, Saroo is adopted by an Australian couple: John and Sue Brierley (David Wenham and Nicole Kidman). Saroo takes all this in stride, his first flight, his first television, his first plush toy (a koala), down to having a new brother a few years later, Mantosh, who unlike Saroo is deeply troubled.
Moving on decades later, and Saroo Brierley (Dev Patel) has grown up to want to pursue two things: a career in the hotel industry, and Lucy (Rooney Mara), the pretty American student studying in his international program. One thing Saroo doesn't want is Mantosh (Divian Ladwa), who is highly troubled to say the least. Saroo goes to an informal get-together with others in the hotel management program, which has a good number of Indians (though by this time, Saroo is more Australian than Indian). However, the scent of an Indian delicacy awakens deep memories of his brother and his very early years back in India.
Thus begins Saroo's search for his mother and brother, with only the vaguest memories of his lost hometown and family. Even the 'new invention' of Google Earth isn't helpful, and Saroo wants to keep his search secret from the Brieleys, but eventually all things are revealed, with Sue in particular not opposing Saroo's search. It is an arduous process: with India being so large and his memories so faint.
All that being said, Saroo, through work and a bit of luck, does, despite all the odds against him, find his hometown (which he had mispronounced as a child, thus explaining why he couldn't go back then). Google Earth did indeed help, and now, as a stranger in his own homeland, he goes to India to find his roots, with the results being, well, that I cannot say. I can only report that it is both happy and sad.
We also learn that Saroo had mispronounced his own name too. He is not Saroo. He is Sheru, which means, "Lion".
Lion has the benefit of being a 'based-on-a-true-story' film. As such, even if it took some liberties with Brierley's story, we can forgive it because it has a note of joy to it. I won't lie: I was emotionally moved by Lion. It's hard not to be, with this Indian version of Roots, or rather Roots: The Next Generations.
It's curious that the follow-up to the epic television miniseries about an African-American family came to mind while watching Lion, but I think it is because like at the end of The Next Generations, Alex Haley goes to an African village where he finds his long-lost ancestor, Kunta Kinte, mentioned as having been lost and now, his descendant has returned to the land of his distant past. Similarly, after being lost for decades, Saroo (as opposed to a child of his) has finally come home.
In terms of performances, we find some really strong ones from the main cast. I read somewhere, in what I figure is a snarky comment, that Dev Patel is condemned to play the adult version of traumatized Indian children (a callback to his breakout role in Slumdog Millionaire). I don't know whether the lack of parts for Patel is due to him being an Indian with a British accent or not. I can say that I thought him better here than in Slumdog Millionaire, for here he manages to be more proactive and less reactive, less shocked looking and more pensive, more anxious or angry.
I'm not saying it's a great performance or that Patel in particular is a great actor, merely that I thought he did better and has been going from strength to strength.
Kidman has stopped the slide into irrelevance with an equally strong performance, her scene where she tells Saroo why she chose to adopt despite being able to bear children (removing Saroo's misconceptions, no pun intended) is quiet, moving. It's a good reminder that Kidman can act, if given the right role and the right director.
The real star and scene-stealer is Sunny Pawar as the younger Saroo. He's enchanting, a loveable little urchin whom you grow to love. Sweet, natural, and endearing, Pawar also can communicate Saroo's suspicions on those who appear to want to help, and in little moments, like when the Indian child advocate is showing him and other adoptees how to use utensils and their English-language terms, or when he comes into the Brierley home, Pawar all but melts your heart.
Lion is a beautiful looking film with a wonderful score (from cinematographer Grieg Fraser and Volker Bertelmann & Dustin O'Halloran respectively). However, what criticisms Lion gets is the pacing. It takes its time in getting somewhere, anywhere. It is a very quiet film, sometimes too quiet, where one can wait a while before something happens. Oddly, even in arguments, whether it's Saroo and Lucy or Saroo and Mantosh, there seems to be a generally hushed tone. It isn't as extreme as Silence, but it pushes the slow and steady nature of the film.
The Lion doesn't roar, but purrs.
Lion moves one emotionally, and while at times a slow, quiet film (with unintentionally funny moments: the audience burst out laughing when they heard Google Earth referred to as a 'new invention', though it would have been when the events were taking place), it works in what it wants to do. A fascinating story, almost unbelievable and yet true, with a moving ending, it's a film that will touch hearts, especially those who have children.
I once was lost, but now am found...