|Dev Patel in Lion|
Pawar’s Saroo has piercing brown eyes, alert to both wonder and danger, and just as with the child Apu in Ray’s Pather Panchali and the opening scenes of its sequel, Aparajito, it’s through those eyes that we see his world. He lives with his mother Kamla (Priyanka Bose, in a performance of tremendous emotional openness), an illiterate laborer (she hauls rocks), his older brother Guddu (Abhishek Bharate) and his baby sister in a slum in rural Khandwa. Some nights Guddu, who can’t be older than twelve or thirteen, ventures out to find work, and on one of those nights Saroo persuades his older brother, whom he adores, to take him along. But Saroo can’t keep his eyes open, so Guddu lets him sleep on a bench on a train platform, planning to pick him up on the way home. Saroo wakes up in the dark next to a decommissioned train and, dazed, still half-asleep, wanders inside to look for Guddu; the train starts up and the child finds himself locked inside as it travels twelve hundred kilometers west to Calcutta, crying out vainly to the figures on other platforms as it speeds past them and calling out his brother’s name, as if he might magically pop up on one of them. When the train goes back into service and he’s finally released, he can’t make himself understood by the strangers he approaches – he speaks Hindi, not Bengali – and the name of the tiny town he comes from, his only marker, means nothing to any of them. (Moreover, as we learn later, his little-boy pronunciation distorts it.) Davis keeps us in Saroo’s emotional point of view so his terror and confusion and loneliness are heightened for us, and Pawar renders them with exquisite clarity and specificity. At Calcutta’s train station, where homeless kids get temporary shelter in a corridor, he sleeps on a piece of cardboard an older boy offers him, then awakens to find them being routed by guards and barely escapes being run down by a bus as he slips away from his pursuers. He wanders along the waterfront, praying at a shrine and then stealing some of the food offerings. A young woman, Noor (Tannishtha Chatterjee), takes him home to her flat in a poor area of the city, bathes and feeds him and lets him sleep in her bed; she seems kind. But the man (Nawazuddin Siddiqui) she introduces him to in the morning, who promises to help him find his family, is a procurer. Fortunately Saroo has strong survivor’s instincts: he senses peril and runs away when Noor’s back is turned. For two months he lives under a bridge and scavenges in the streets of Calcutta, until he makes eye contact with a teenage boy through the window of a café who brings him to the local police precinct.
|Abhishek Bharate and Sunny Pawar|
At this point the movie advances twenty years and we see that Saroo has grown into a bearded Dev Patel, whose bright, attentive eyes and shy smile recall Sunny Pawar’s. Mantosh (Divian Ladwa) lives an itinerant, sometimes drug-addled life, his periodic disappearances plunging Sue into depression – though she’s forever defending him – and infuriating his brother. Saroo, by contrast, is well adjusted. He moves to Melbourne to study business, falls in love with an American classmate, Lucy (Rooney Mara, a welcome addition to any movie), and is befriended by some other Indians in the program. It’s at dinner at their home that Saroo has a sense-memory experience that brings him back to his childhood in Khandwa. His madeleine is a plate of jalebis (Indian fried pastries) in his hosts’ kitchen; the night he and Guddu were separated, he’d asked his older brother to buy him some. At dinner Saroo has told the others that he was born in Calcutta; now, as if were unearthing his origins for the first time, he comes out with the truth – that he was lost, far from home – though what he actually says is “I am lost.” The present tense is crucial here: Saroo now sees himself as lost still. He’s plunged back into his past, obsessed with it. At the end of the course he returns to Hobart with Lucy, but he becomes remote from her as his sadness and anger and restlessness overtake him. He begins to resent the privileged life he’s led while his family continued to struggle in poverty in India; he recalls the day when he was hit by a bicyclist in the street (he still has the scar) and Kamla’s anger at Guddu for not taking sufficient care of him (“Don’t you love him?” she demands in the flashback), and he imagines Guddu’s horror at returning to the bench at the train station and finding his little brother had vanished. Saroo quits his job; all he can focus on is his efforts to trace back from his journey to Calcutta, using Google Earth and the rates of speed of passenger trains two decades earlier, to locate his home. But it isn’t until he’s successful that he finally tells Sue and John what he’s been up to, because he doesn’t want them to think that he’s ungrateful to them or that he has stopped thinking of them as his parents. Naïve, and distracted by his own quest, he’s managed to misjudge them. Far from feeling slighted or undervalued, they share his excitement as he prepares to return to India to look for his family. He’s wrong about something else, too: he’s always assumed that they adopted him and Mantosh because they couldn’t have children of their own. It’s Sue who explains to him that a mystical experience in her own unhappy childhood brought her to the belief that she was meant to adopt children the world had discarded, and she fell in love with John when she found he thought the same way.
|Nicole Kidman and Sunny Pawar|
This is the third terrific movie I’ve seen in the past year about children who come from poverty; the others, both triumph-of-the-spirit films, are The Dark Horse and Queen of Katwe. Lion is the most remarkable of the three. At the end of the picture, after Saroo has discovered what became of his family, he walks the railroad track he used to traverse with Guddu as a child and he sees them in his mind’s eye as children once more. It’s a breathtaking moment, like the magic-realist reunion of the two brothers near the end of the great Italian epic The Best of Youth, but Davis doesn’t go the magic-realist route; he sticks to realism. You could say, in fact, that Lion achieves the realist ideal: its pellucid surface reveals unimaginable depths.
– Steve Vineberg is Distinguished Professor of the Arts and Humanities at College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Massachusetts, where he teaches theatre and film. He also writes for The Threepenny Review and is the author of three books: Method Actors: Three Generations of an American Acting Style; No Surprises, Please: Movies in the Reagan Decade; and High Comedy in American Movies.