Lion is based on the heart breaking true story of Saroo Brierley who was just a young boy when he was tragically separated from his family in India. Saroo (played by Sunny Pawar) convinces his older brother Guddu (Abhishek Bharate) to let him come along to his night shift at the train station. Tiny Saroo struggles to stay awake during the shift so Guddu instructs him to nap on a bench until he comes back. When Saroo awakes, he searches for his brother on a nearby decommissioned train. As exhaustion creeps in, he falls into a deep sleep on the train seat. He wakes up horrified to discover the train he boarded is now speeding across the country with no signs of stopping. Unbeknownst to Saroo, it’s headed for Kolkata, Bengal; a city over 1600 kilometres away from his hometown. When he arrives there a few days later, he’s unable to find his way back home and is forced to survive the city’s merciless streets. He’s eventually put into an orphanage and adopted by a loving Australian couple, played by Nicole Kidman and David Wenham. The film then jumps forward twenty years and we meet Saroo as an adult, (now played by Dev Patel) who has forgotten all memories of his life in India. He suddenly remembers fragments of his childhood while at University and becomes plagued by memories and visions of his forgotten birth family. As a result, he becomes obsessed with tracking them down and reuniting with them after all their years apart.
Lion is split into two halves. The first half of the film depicts Saroo as a boy on his harrowing journey from India to Australia. In the second half, we’re introduced to a now twenty-something year old Saroo who is desperate to reunite with his family. The film maintains a slow pace throughout yet director Garth Davis excels at keeping us engaged. He injects the film with a feeling of gut-wrenching despair, which keeps our eyes glued to the screen and tears running down our cheeks. When Saroo wakes up on the moving decommissioned train, he desperately tries to get off but finds the carriage doors locked and the windows barred. Panicked, he starts screaming Guddu’s name at the top of his lungs. The more he screams, the more haunting the scene becomes and Davis amps this up with handheld shaky shots. Saroo’s fear heightens when he arrives in Bengal. He doesn’t speak a word of Bengali so communication is impossible. He wanders the city aimlessly, moving alone amongst large crowds of people. Davis frames him in the centre of these shots, drawing more attention to his vulnerability and creating an unwavering sense of loneliness.
We’re next introduced to him as an adult, now played by Dev Patel. Having lived in Australia for twenty something years, any hints of his Indian upbringing have been washed away. Dev Patel certifies this with his impressive Australian accent, long shaggy hair and Timberland boots. His character’s sudden recollection of life in India triggers the start of a downward spiral. He becomes obsessed with using Google Earth to try and locate his hometown but given the sheer size of India, it’s like looking for a needle in a haystack. Saroo’s Google Earth searches are shown in montages that are too short and snappy. Patel’s unkempt hair and dirty clothes are the only indicators of his character’s lengthy searches on the geo-programme and even that does nothing to convince us.
The second half of the film feels rushed. It seems to be told in about half the time of the first, which is frustrating as we have about two decades of catching up to do. The lack of dialogue does nothing to bridge the twenty-year gap so we’re left with no choice but to fill in the blanks for ourselves. Davis’s shots are so effectively framed that they each speak a thousand words but they alone cannot carry the second half of the film and are in need of a heavier dialogue to lean on. Patel and Kidman do their best with what little script they have. Kidman in particular makes a strong impact without delay; she embodies a motherly figure, one that cares deeply for her family. Sadly, even their top-notch acting isn’t enough to make us connect with Patel like we did Pawar and so it’s Pawar’s family reunion that we’re rooting for.
Saroo’s older brother Mantosh (Divian Ladwa) is also adopted. He’s emotionally disturbed and struggles with fragile mental health. The very obvious strain this puts on the family comes to a head at a tense family dinner. Mantosh has a violent episode caused by an angry outburst from Saroo. He relentlessly hits himself on the head while Sue does her best to calm him down. It’s awful to watch yet it’s equally as refreshing. Lion doesn’t pretend that the adoption process is always smooth sailing. It shines a light on the complexities that can arise when adopting and shows them in all their tragic glory.