Based on the memoir A Long Way Home by Saroo Brierley, Lion is (in short) the story of a little boy who gets lost and finds his way back to his mother. However, Saroo’s journey is complicated by the fact that he is five years old, ends up hundreds of kilometres from home by himself, can’t remember his mother’s name or his hometown, has to survive by wit and luck, and ends up happily adopted by a couple in Australia. By the time he is able to track down his mother in India, the boy is a grown man, and he does so by painstakingly searching on Google Earth.
I read the book prior to seeing the movie, intrigued by the premise if anything else. It was not the type of story that one would make up when sitting down to write a script. It was an odd idea for a movie. I decided to read the book because I wanted to understand the story before I saw any dramatized version of it.
Both the book and the film are told in chronological order, but the book is able to draw on the wealth of knowledge that Saroo learned from his biological family later in life, so he is constantly telling it from the perspective of an adult as well as from that of a child. He also is able to go into detail about his adoptive family and their backgrounds, as well as lots of details about his childhood in Australia. These details do not all make it into the film, but certainly give added context to the story. Having read the book also prepared me for the alterations that the film had made. I was able to see why the filmmakers made these changes: namely, for better pacing, more dramatic potential, and for less distraction for the audience.
The film also proceeds in chronological order, but we as an audience are drawn into little Saroo’s journey and his perspective. We don’t get to see the larger picture. We only know what he does, except for a few intertitles that explain where we are and the distance travelled. We know how hopelessly lost Saroo is before he does, and if we were paying attention, we can also see why he had so much trouble trying to find his hometown later. However, we are otherwise as confused as he is.
We also get to see him eventually find a new home in Australia after a long and painful struggle. It is slightly jarring to see him suddenly grown up and culturally Australian, but it fits the story. The first third of the film is its own story, namely the story of the poor little boy who survived the streets of Calcutta and the orphanage to be adopted by wealthy parents. It is a “happy ending” that merits further exploration. After all, Saroo is no orphan – he was simply lost. And even though he loves his adoptive parents, his new home, and all of the opportunities that this life has given him, he still wants to let his mother know that he is all right.
Lion is a cinematographically-beautiful and character-driven film. The plot itself, as I have described, is fairly straightforward. It also would not really be worthy making a film about if Saroo’s search was not ultimately successful. There is no mystery here. Instead, we are following on his journey, first as a child, and then as an adult. It is well-acted by all, especially by the leads playing Saroo as a child and adult (Sunny Pawar and Dev Patel, respectively). As an audience member, I was simply drawn in at the beginning and kept watching raptly. I knew what was going to happen, but I did not know how it would proceed. I was especially amazed at how the filmmakers portrayed Saroo’s endless Google searches without constantly portraying a computer.
It is also a very spiritual film, although that was perhaps not the intent. The only actual portrayal of religion in the film is when little Saroo prays at a shrine on his first night in the streets. (From both the book and the film, it is clear that he was raised as a spiritual agnostic for most of his life.) It is not a religious film at all, but there is a lot of elements of faith to be taken from it.
Saroo’s journey is one of having fallen away from his home (and getting lost as a result) and finding a new one that was not complete. Only by finding his mother again could he have a more complete life. He needed her forgiveness, one might say. Despite how futile his search seemed, he continued at it, even when his family and friends began to fall away. There were times when he lost faith in ever finding his mother again, but he eventually kept looking. Finally, when all seemed like it had fallen into place, it was clear that this was not the end of his journey. Rather, now he could actually begin it.
Another thing that I noticed was how Saroo finally managed to get help as a child. He was naturally mistrustful of police (and of adults in general), but he caught the eye of a young businessman in a café window. Neither averted their eyes, but instead, Saroo began imitating the man’s actions with his spoon. The man found this endearing and actually decided to go talk to him, going as far as taking him to the police station and translating for him. How many of us would simply think “how cute, that little boy is imitating me!” and go on with our day? Especially in a city where little street children are a common sight? Who knows what the man had scheduled for the rest of the day? But he decided that this child, whom he did not know, was more important. He had created a bond of trust with this child and he needed to follow through with that, meetings or going home be darned. Are we not all called to be more like that?
In short, this is a wonderful movie! I strongly recommend seeing it.