Lion is a fine film. It is a little slow in parts, but even there it remains engaging due to the compelling nature of the story itself.
Lion is the tale (based on a true story, though since it’s a movie it’s safe to assume it’s loosely based on a true story) of an Indian boy named Saroo. In the first portion of the film he is five years old. (Until they mentioned his age, I took him to be about 8. 99% of the time in movies, kids are played by older actors, and it turns out this is no exception. Actor Sunny Pawar was evidently 7 or 8 when the movie was filmed.) In the second portion of the film he is an adult.
The 5 year old Saroo lives in poverty in rural India with his illiterate single mother and his big brother Guddu, whom he idolizes. Guddu and Saroo spend a fair amount of their time scrounging around picking up whatever little money they can through odd jobs and petty thievery, which the mother tolerates since they’re too poor for her to be real picky about where the money comes from.
One night Guddu sets off for what he hopes will be a decent-paying gig of some kind. Normally, due to the time of day and distance, this is the sort of escapade he embarks on alone without his little brother, but on this occasion Saroo is so insistent that he be included that Guddu ultimately gives in.
They arrive at a desolate train station some distance from their home, with Saroo predictably already falling asleep. Guddu is uncertain what to do, but knows he can’t physically carry his brother indefinitely, and so as the least available evil choice tells Saroo to stay put in the station while he goes the short distance to check on the work he hopes is available, after which he will return to let Saroo know what he found out.
So off he goes…but never comes back.
The understandably panicked Saroo (remember, he’s 5 years old, so he has little conception of such things as how much time has passed since Guddu left, where this train station is, which way home is, etc.) wanders around frantically looking for and calling his brother, to no avail. Eventually he falls asleep in an empty train.
He wakes up with the still-empty train in motion, putting him in an even more intense state of panic. He has no opportunity to get off the train until more than 24 hours later when it arrives in Calcutta (not that he has any idea it’s Calcutta). (By the way, I’m using “Calcutta” rather than “Kolkata” based on my general rule that any place that had a perfectly good name when I was a kid and learned geography and now tries to change it for no reason except to make my life more difficult should be ignored.)
From here, Saroo goes through a series of misadventures that I won’t detail, eventually landing in an orphanage or some such institution, from which he is adopted by an Australian couple.
This whole sequence of the lost Saroo is very well done and very powerful. The filmmakers and the young Pawar do an amazing job in conveying just how overwhelmingly scary it would be to be in Saroo’s shoes.
I mean, think about it. Think about yourself at age 5, or a 5 year old you know and care about today, and imagine that 5 year old being dropped into a totally unfamiliar environment, perhaps some forbidding major city, where everyone is a stranger, is twice or more his size, and is rushing about at a frantic pace.
This age child quite possibly doesn’t know his family’s last name, his address, his telephone number (not that a family that poor is likely to have a telephone), or for that matter how to use a telephone. You would hope that there would be a government agency or someone to help a lost kid like this, but how is a 5 year old supposed to know where to go or whom to ask for such help?
Actually, as much as I empathized with Saroo, I also found myself thinking about what a nightmare this must be for Guddu. Imagine leaving your little brother for a few minutes at an empty train station, rushing to take care of your business as quickly as possible because of your unease over whether that really was the best option, and then finding no sign of him upon your return. Of course, we don’t know at this point if or when he came back to the station, or whether he was delayed and why, but I just kept picturing him having to return home and explain how he “lost” his brother. For that matter, would he even have had the courage to go home? Would he have run away at that point, to avoid having to face his mother? (Which would mean she lost both her sons the same night, with no clue how. Yet another person from whose perspective this is all about as bad a nightmare as can be imagined.)
We see only a little of the young Saroo’s life with his adoptive parents in Australia, though it’s enough to learn that they shortly thereafter adopted a second Indian boy, and that the latter boy was clearly emotionally disturbed with major behavior problems.
When the film picks up with Saroo as an adult, his also now-adult adoptive brother remains emotionally disturbed with major behavior problems, while Saroo himself is seemingly a shining success story, a student studying hotel management with a steady girlfriend and an active social life.
It doesn’t take much, though, to get him thinking about his past, and about the fact that he never managed to find his way home. It’s not like his family died after all; he just lost contact with them. Though he is close with his adoptive family, for all he knows he still has a biological mother and brother and perhaps other relatives back in India, people he never left by choice, people he never stopped loving.
Should he resume trying to get home after a 20 year or so break? If so, how would he go about it? What likelihood is there that he would succeed? What would he find if he ever got back to the village of his early childhood?
I found the family dynamics of his Australian family quite interesting, but I have mixed feelings about that aspect of the film. We learn a little bit about how he was brought up there, the difficulties with his adoptive brother, etc., but somehow it doesn’t feel like the right amount. Insofar as we experience the film as the story of his getting lost at age 5 and then attempting to return home decades later, the Australian family drama stuff feels like a distraction. On the other hand, insofar as we experience the film as a fuller biography of Saroo, with his getting lost at age 5 obviously being a hugely important part of his life story but other things like his life in Australia with his new family also being very important parts of his life story, then it feels like if anything those Australian relationships are given short shrift.
Anyway, his Australian mother and father to all appearances seem like genuinely good people. Yet they’re the kind of people, especially the mother, who in another way make me uneasy.
They’re the type who go through life with an artificial cheerfulness, and seemingly with the attitude that the less you verbally acknowledge problems, conflicts, etc., the less real they are. They aren’t “phonies” in a derogatory sense, but they’re the kind of folks that construct a sort of happy space around them, where you know it’s taboo to confront them with something like honest communication.
It’s really sad at a certain level that you have these good and loving people, with one son with major problems dealing with life, and another son currently going through an emotional crisis concerning events from when he was 5 years old that he has never gotten over, and yet they can’t simply sit down together and talk everything over.
That is, talk everything over in the sense of truly being real and open with each other about all the things that are bothering them at the deepest level. Instead it’s a matter of ignoring, talking around, putting a happy face on, being passive aggressive about, etc. these things.
When there is finally some openness in the family late in the movie, it gave me the sense of, “Well, what took you so long? Do you see now what you’ve been missing all these years?”
The ending of Lion is quite powerful, though I’d still say I was most emotionally affected by the petrified, lost 5 year old. I loved, too, the way at the very end they show some of the real people from Saroo’s two families along with the actors who play them.
Actually, Lion had to be unusually good for me to enjoy it, since the day I saw it I happened to be sick plus the theater was packed, making for a very uncomfortable experience. And in fact it met that standard. It’s a film that provides much to ponder concerning family, trauma, love, communication, when to let go and when not to let go of the past, and more, all while telling a fascinating, suspenseful story.
This one’s a winner.