Cast: Nicole Kidman, Dev Patel, Rooney Mara, Sunny Pawar, Abhishek Bharate, Deepti Naval, Priyanka Bose, David Wenham, Divian Ladwa
Director: Garth Davis
The print media has often published stories of Western-adopted/educated Indian orphans who seek closure about their parentage and return to the land of their birth. Adapted from a 2013 memoir (by Saroo Brierley and co-written with Larry Buttrose) called “A Long Way Home,” the film “Lion” is a poignant, beautifully crafted true story of one orphan’s quest to find his roots. Adopted as a small
boy (an effortless, award winning performance by Sunny Pawar) and taken to distant Tasmania, the adult Saroo (Dev Patel) is galvanised into unearthing his background after celebrating Indian style
festivities with his classmates in Australia.
Director Garth Davis begins the film in 1986 with an extended preamble in rural Madhya Pradesh where two brothers, 5-year-old Saroo (Sunny Pawar) and his older sibling Guddu (Abhishek Bharate). They are extremely poor and scavenge for coal and detritus in the area while their mother Kamala (Priyanka Bose) slogs in a quarry.
One night, Saroo gets separated from Guddu at the railway station. Saroo clambers into an empty train compartment, and falls asleep. The train takes him far from home, far away before it finally halts at Calcutta (now Kolkata). Saroo settles on the streets, running for dear life from traffickers while cops stand idly by. Months later, Saroo is taken to a state-run orphanage where he becomes dimly aware of predatory paedophiles. Again, the authorities are complicit. In the book, Saroo writes strangers climbed the walls and no attempts were made to evict them and always, there were the piercing screams of children before the men went away.
Saroo catches the attention of a social worker (Deepti Naval) who tells him efforts to locate his parents’ has been futile. So Saroo is placed for adoption, and taught table manners with other kids who are sent abroad. Saroo goes to a loving couple Sue (Nicole Kidman) and John (David Wenham) Brierley who could have had kids of their own but choose to adopt. The scene in which Sue shares this with the grown up Saroo (Patel bearded and intense) is one of the most moving in this beautifully directed/acted/photographed film. Sue tells Saroo her father was alcoholic and life was hell. Then she had a vision of a “brown-skinned child in a field and I felt good and I knew it was going to be fine.”
The adult Saroo leaves their idyllic seaside home to study hotel management school in the metro where his girlfriend, Lucy (Rooney Mara, absolutely lovely) is also a student. Interestingly, Saroo has a troubled relationship with his emotionally unstable adoptive brother Mantosh (Divian Ladwa). (In a postscript, “Lion” points out those more than 80,000 children go missing in India each year) A festive celebration in town and the sight of jalebis in the fridge jogs a dormant memories of the sweet he wanted to eat by the kilo. Of his loving mother. His baby sister Shakila. And above all, Guddu.
Saroo turns to Google for help. He is grateful to the Brierleys but memories tug at his heart: “I have to find my way back home,” he tells his loving foster mother who can only weep she will lose her son. Adoption was not a substitute plan, she tells Saroo “From the moment you came into our lives, you were all that we could’ve hoped for…but your birth mother needs to see how beautiful you are.” when he does, eventually, finally meet his birth family, I’m afraid I cried.
As a pro-life what can I say but that I loved this film? Where is Saroo’s father in all this? Non-existent in the film, but not the book in which Saroo says he was absent most of the time, since he had a second wife. After he abandons them completely, Saroo’s mother breaks rocks to make ends meet. Life is nasty and cheap. But also, there is great love. As our titular hero sums it succinctly,” “I have two families but only one identity. I am Saroo Brierley.”