‘We swan around in our privileged lives and it makes me sick’
80,000 children go missing in India every year. Read that sentence again. It’s a harrowing truth and deeply upsetting. It’s also the opening message and concluding statement of Garth Davis’ cinematic debut Lion, a profoundly moving film taken from the true story of a boy separated from his family by terrible misfortune. Lion begins with five-year-old Saroo (Sunny Pawar) and his elder brother, Guddu (Abhishek Bharate), stealing and selling from a coal train to support the rest of their impoverished family. Chaotic camerawork, so common in filmmaking’s approach to the fast and overpopulated Indian metropolis, follows the pair as they buy milk for their troubles and return victors of a very particular ‘hunt’.
Things go awry when Guddu leaves an exhausted Saroo on a station platform during a night job but does not return. Saroo’s journey as it unfolds hereafter takes the story thousands of miles further and results in his adoption and emigration to Australia to live with John and Sue (David Wenham and a masterful Nicole Kidman). It is a jump of twenty years into the future and the sensory awakening provided by an Indian treat from his childhood that inspires in Saroo (now Dev Patel) an emotionally destructive obsession with rediscovering his home.
Davis directs in stylistic blocks that blur across the chapters of Saroo’s life. Initial shots are tight and emphasise family intimacy so as to jar when the camera jumps back to mirror Saroo’s isolation and present him as a proverbial little boy lost. Each shot takes the perspective further back: from the tall aisle on the train right out to the shattering image of our small world in the infinite universe. Pawar is exceptional here – a real find for the film. Epitomising nuance, the young star has an assurance about him well beyond his years; he brilliantly meets the role with a heartfelt emotional resonance, whilst being undeniably cute.
As an older Saroo, Patel does his junior justice in picking up the role and bringing to it honesty in portrayal of the dislocation and fallout inevitable of such past tragedy. The necessity of the transition between the two epochs and actors in order to tell the story however is sadly less convincing.
The thematic shift from an international phrasing, reminiscent perhaps of films such as Samira Makhmalbaf’s Blackboards, to a more Hollywood aesthetic (the real Saroo wasn’t quite so buff) dislodges much of the filmic flow. That Lion does revolve around the disjointedness of Saroo’s life and the clash of Indo-Australian cultures is a fair point but can only work to its full potential if the quality of both halves are equal. Whilst first half is indeed compelling and incredibly powerful, the latter doesn’t quite manage to sustain this high level of involvement. In a morosely appropriate way you may find yourself mourning the loss of Saroo as a child whilst you adjust to the new mode and performance. ‘I am lost’, Patel cries.
Davis does manage to overcome, to some extent, the potential pitfalls of a descent into a film about someone on a web-mission however. One smart touch sees Google Earth imagery intermingled with genuine birds-eye shots of India, the mouse icon remaining a constant. Saroo’s adult guilt is also achieved well via ambiguous flashbacks and visions, his motivations allowed to develop intelligently. Motifs are also rather brilliantly deployed across the film. A bag of hard-earned milk in India is contrasted with a plentiful Australian fridge, whilst Saroo’s inability to eat without cutlery as an adult speaks endless metaphors in its own right. Throughout Lion, Davis runs far with the film’s title to play with themes and images. It is easy to see a rogue Saroo, bearded and uncombed, as being lost from the metaphorical pride. Likewise, careful attention is devoted to the physical contact made between between loved ones. In respect to Indian cultures, no one on screen is ever seen kissing but instead characters almost appear to ‘muzzle’ their affections like, of course, lions. Though the main attraction of Lion is its story, unfathomably true, the film’s investment is in exploring familial relationships and the importance of community.
Lion is a film that will inspire in you deep contemplation. Many, most even, will fall for its heart, performances and uplifting spirit and be swept along content. For me, it’s a film of absolute excellence in isolation that never quite grasps harmony as a whole.