Last night Kish and I went to see Lion at the Drexel. It’s one of those independent films that lurk under the radar screen and never get shown at the local suburban multiplex — but that really have an impact, where you find yourself thinking about it hours or days later.
Lion tells the story of “Saroo,” a five-year-old boy growing up in a desperately poor family in northern India. To help his illiterate mother, who heads the family, Saroo and his older brother Guddu steal and sell coal and look for work whenever and wherever they can. When Saroo convinces Guddu to take him on a quest for “night work,” everything breaks down. Saroo finds himself trapped on a train that travels more than a thousand miles and deposits him in Kolkata, where he is alone and unable to speak the local language. He becomes one of India’s lost children. (Shockingly, the film notes, in the closing credits, that each year 80,000 Indian children become “lost.”)
The boy doesn’t know the correct name of his home town, or his mother, and has no way to return. The scenes of the small yet resourceful little boy trying to eke out a life in a vast city are unforgettable and heartbreaking — yet he survives, is eventually placed in an orphanage, and is adopted by an Australian couple who later adopt another Indian boy.
Twenty years later, Saroo has grown up in a beautiful waterfront home in Tasmania and speaks English with an Aussie accent. He begins to find himself haunted by memories of his long-lost mother and brother and an overwhelming guilt that they have been frantically searching for him for all those years. Using Google Earth, railroad routes and estimated speeds, and a lot of maps he starts a seemingly impossible quest to find his home town — a quest that complicates his relationship with his adoptive parents, his adoptive brother, and his girlfriend.
Lion is a well acted and filmed movie, with staggeringly beautiful scenes of the Indian countryside and overwhelming scenes of little Saroo abandoned in an uncaring city. Dev Patel is excellent as the grown up, obsessed Saroo — showing acting range far beyond the comedic roles I’ve seen him in previously — and Nicole Kidman is equally good as the strong and loving adoptive mother who resolutely tries to hold her diverse family together. But the movie is stolen by Sunny Pawar, who plays young Paroo with a genuineness that can touch even an insensitive brute like me.
Keep an eye out for Lion and try to see it in a theater, where you can fully appreciate the cinematography and really terrific soundtrack. And if you do, be sure to stay in your seat until the very end — when you’ll learn why the file is entitled Lion.