By Jessamy Baldwin
Lion’s plot is so flawlessly ‘made for cinema’ – with its dramatic separation and reunion of characters, vast geography and complex human drama – that it’s hard to believe the film is entirely based on a true story.
In 1986, two young brothers, 14 year-old Guddu (Abhishek Bharate) and Saroo (Sunny Pawar), travel one night to try to find work in local town Khandwa, before becoming separated at a train station. Whilst searching for his missing sibling, five year old Saroo boards an empty carriage, only to fall asleep and wake up on a non-stop decommissioned train which is heading to Calcutta 1,000 miles away. A vulnerable and homeless Saroo, who cannot remember his mother’s real name or where he boarded the train, must learn to survive alone.
Eventually, he is adopted by an Australian couple (David Wenham and Nicole Kidman) who bring him to Tasmania to raise him as their own. Twenty-five years later, Saroo decides to trace his past. Armed only with a handful of memories connected to his Indian roots, his dogged determination and a nifty new geobrowser known as Google Earth, he sets out to find his lost family and seek closure.
Director Garth Davis (Top of the Lake) goes beyond easily adopted clichés of big-movie drama. Most notably, the first half of the film has subtitles and we experience this former section of the film solely via the perspective of Saroo. Filming is often at his eye level allowing us to see the world from his perspective.
When the bewildered youngster finds himself in Bengali-speaking Calcutta where locals do not understand his native language, Hindi, he is not alone. Due to the subtitles, we – like Saroo – are placed out of our linguistic comfort zone, enhancing the cinematic experience of his vulnerability and frustration.
Lion speaks magnetically to core human fears and desires. The journey of personal identity, inescapable connections with our past, and love that defies geography, time and cultural boundaries, are experiences to which we can all relate. Their exploration therefore echoes powerfully with the movie’s audience. We see ourselves in each of the characters. We all know what it’s like to get lost as a child – we’ve all been there albeit on a far lesser scale. We all know the deep-set power that childhood memories can have over the present. We have all felt the pull of ‘home’.
Lion is a ‘true’ story. And by true, I don’t speak to its basis in reality, but to its genuine ability to take its audience on a kaleidoscopic journey of anxiety, fear, beauty, love, loss and closure in just two hours. In the words of poet and novelist Ben Okri, a good story ‘makes the heart bigger’. And that’s a perfect way to describe how you feel after leaving the cinema. With a full heart.
Dev Patel is stunning and Sunny Pawar – as the young Saroo – is captivating. Indeed, their combined performances produce nothing short of magic.
It’s hard to fault Lion. From its beautiful cinematography, complex characterisation and unique storyline, it is profound. Step aside LaLaLand (no, really).
(Featured Image – Mark Rodgers/Long Way Home Productions 2015)