How 'Lion' explores identity, belonging and cultural heritage

20 Jan 2017 BY Kirsten Geekie in Film Features

7 mins

An unimaginable true story brought to life, Lion is an affecting yet life-affirming human drama about a young Indian boy who finds himself thousands of miles from home. Separated from his family for more than 25 years, the boy eventually attempts to find his way back home to his birth mother.

As a young boy, Saroo and his family lived in a rural village in northern India. Reduced to stealing coal to exchange for food with locals, his older brother Guddu would often head to a neighbouring town to find work. One evening, five year-old Saroo followed Guddu and waited for him to finish at the train station. While waiting, he wandered into an empty train and fell asleep, only to awaken with the train in motion, hurtling him far away from home. Terminating more than 1,500 miles away in Kolkata - a strange, frantic city, whose language he didn't speak - Saroo is lost in a seemingly hopeless situation. Narrowly avoiding being kidnapped, and with no paper trail or family name, he ended up in a local orphanage, from where he was eventually adopted by a couple in Australia, starting a new life on another continent.

The first feature film from Australian director Garth Davis, Lion is a film of two halves. Opening with the little boy's alarming journey into the dangerous melee of Kolkata, the first act immerses you in Saroo's experience. Alone and bewildered, the camera stays close to him, following him up and down the train as he screams for help. Deposited in Kolkata, the camera then draws out, revealing his small, vulnerable body set agains the huge crowds and unfamiliar landscapes of the big city. Overlooked and unable to ask for help (Saroo speaks Hindi, while the language in Kolkata is Bengali) he is destined to become one of the many street urchins that inhabit the city's alleyways and archways. Reminiscent of Slumdog Millionaire's frenzied, heady depiction of the slums of Mumbai, Lion puts you right there with Saroo, navigating the dark, murky underbelly of the city. 

Incredibly, Saroo survives the streets, and is sent to live with an adoptive family in Australia. Travelling to his new home in Tasmania, the film allows you a sigh of relief as the camera gently lingers on scenes of Saroo safe in the hands of his new adopted parents, mutely coming to terms with his new life. As he settles in, Saroo is joined by Mantosh, another Indian boy, who becomes Saroo's adopted brother. However, Mantosh struggles to assimilate to his new surroundings as comfortably as Saroo.

Where the first half of the film follows Saroo as a young boy, tossed around by the hands of fate, the second half transitions to 25 years later, with Saroo a university student in Australia. As an adult, Saroo is embracing the next phase of his life, with memories of his time in India lying dormant. Until, that is, at a party, when the smell of freshly made Jalebi - an Indian sweet - triggers old memories. This leads to a discussion of family and identity that comes to govern Saroo's journey throughout the rest of the film. Inspired by the development of Google Earth, Saroo becomes obsessed with retracing his steps back to the family he left behind. Only his long-buried memories can tell him if he is on the right path amongst the countless possibilities in the sprawling geographical radius.

For British actor Dev Patel, who plays adult Saroo, this is a film about love and the remarkable bond between mother and son transcending continents. Through tender memories, we see young Saroo working with his birth mother Kamla in the hills behind their village. The more Saroo scours Google Earth for clues to the whereabouts of his village, the more vivid the memories become, and the more his love for his mother is reignited. Meanwhile, we're shown the quiet dedication that his adopted parents have provided and the deep bond he has formed with his adopted mother, even if Saroo cant bring himself to tell them of his investigations for fear of hurting them and seeming ungrateful.

The film throws light on the sensitive issues around adoption and the motivations of parents who adopt children from different countries and cultures to their own. All the while, Saroo's relationship with Mantosh becomes increasingly strained - not helped by not knowing what became of Guddu. Acutely aware that Saroo's life would be very different if he hadn't been adopted, his memories wont let you forget that it was simply an unthinkable event that cruelly drew them apart.

Torn between two families in two different countries, landscape becomes a defining motif in Saroo's struggle to understand who he really is. Gliding aerial shots of the Australian countryside are compared to the rugged plains of India that Saroo's train travelled across. Director Garth Davis and Dev Patel both spent months travelling through India in order to help them emotionally connect with the story. Saroo's childhood memories revolve around the earthy hills he worked on with his mother, while as an adult he runs into the rugged wilderness of Tasmania for space to think, revealing the innate association he has with both worlds.

This conflict of identity is brought to the fore by a deeply affecting performance from Dev Patel. Through eight months of research, he perfected the Australian accent, travelled India, and even met with the real life Saroo. Similarly, 8-year-old Sunny Pawar is transfixing as young Saroo, despite having never acted before. As a more established actor, Nicole Kidman strikes a poignant chord as his agonised adoptive mother, torn between her love and his needs.

A real story told with raw and absorbing truth Lion is an important story with a huge heart that provokes fundamental questions around identity, belonging and cultural heritage.

Kirsten Geekie, Film Programming Manager

Kirsten Geekie, Film Curation Manager

MA (Hons) in English Literature & Film and Television Studies, University of Glasgow with a background in Film Festivals having worked for Edinburgh International Film Festival, Sheffield Doc Fest and BFI London Film Festival.

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