In 1985, the tiny 5-year-old Saroo pads onto a train at his Indian hometown of Khandwa, curls up and falls asleep. Several days later, the train arrives in Calcutta, stranding Saroo utterly helpless; unable to speak the local language, unable to pronounce the name of his hometown and unable even to recall the name of his mother ‘she’s called mum…?’. As serendipity would have it, he is adopted by an Australian family in Tasmania and quickly adapts to a Western privileged lifestyle. He has just began to hew out a successful life for himself when, 25 years later at a University party, he samples julebi (an Indian sweet) and experiences a Proustian moment. As a result of this, he resolves to find his family in India and thus begins his search-capacitated by Google Earth (in a entirely un–Black Mirror-esque way!)
Such a story must, surely make for a riveting drama. And to a certain extent, it does. But I’m not sure whether it is the film itself that should be lauded, or simply the unbelievable true story. It would be very difficult not to ask yourself ‘Why did his brother leave him in the station by himself?’, ‘Where is his family now?’, ‘Are they still looking for him?’, ‘Will he ever get back to them?’ and ‘How would they react if they saw him now?’. The urge to discover the answer to those questions was for me, a good enough reason to keep watching the movie. But as I was watching it, I thought it could have been a better film had the desire to have those questions answered been more urgent.
It would have been fascinating to compare Saroo’s life in Australia to what it could have been had he stayed in India. And to a certain extent, the film does allow for this: we first see the adult Saroo (Dev Patel) on a surfboard in the middle of the tranquil Australian ocean. We then shift to a scene in a modern glass restaurant in which he clinks champagne glasses with his family to celebrate his acceptance to University. Clearly, such moments are far removed from his life in India in which him and his brother sold coal that they had nicked from a train in order to support their family!
However, I think more could have been made of these comparisons. The second half of the film is predicated on Saroo’s exigency to return to India. For him, India appears to be a distant memory, the prequel to his real life. Yet for us, this is not a distant memory at all- we just watched it! So I think it might have been interesting to explore the story from Saroo’s point of view. For example, the temporality didn’t have to be linear. Perhaps the story could have started when he first met his adoptive parents and vacillated form the past to present day…
Although…thinking about it… I feel like maybe I’m trying to Hollywood-ize the movie a little too much… And there were actually so many things I really loved about it!
Saroo appears totally incognisant about everything to do with India: at one stage he asserts defiantly that he (obviously) supports the Aussie football (Rugby..? :/) team over the Indian team. Perhaps he doesn’t want to think about his childhood in India because he hasn’t really come to terms with what happened yet or perhaps he feels guilty about leaving his family (probably both!). But we get a subtle sense that Saroo is uncomfortable when it comes to India, and it is to the film’s credit, this isn’t overplayed. And Dev Patel’s performance certainly aids in this- he has come a long way since Skins!
Similarly, the ending could easily have been overblown and schmaltzy but it wasn’t at all. And I found myself genuinely moved.
Overall, I really enjoyed the movie. And, just because it has to be said, the kid playing Saroo is fantastic and absolutely adorable:
I guess one of the reasons I’m being so critical about Lion is because I’m comparing it to some films that weren’t nominated for Best Picture but that I think were far more deserving than this eg. Nocturnal Animals and Jackie. But I’d still recommend checking out Lion if you haven’t already.