Movie Review – Lion

Lion: Sher Waapsi

‘Lion’ has been making its roar heard across the world and setting the international awards scene ablaze, garnering six nominations at the Oscar’s and five at the BAFTA (winning two: Best Supporting Actor and Best Adapted Screenplay.)

Based on the book, ‘A Long Way Home’ which is the true story of Saroo Brierley, the movie traces the journey of a lost, bewildered little boy who is transported in a bizarre journey from the slums of Khandwa in Madhya Pradesh, to Australia.

Saroo (Dev Patel) is a faithful shadow of his loving older brother Guddu (Abhishek Bharate.) The two steal coal from moving trains and somehow make ends meet along with their mother (Priyanka Bose) who works as a labourer at construction sites, breaking stones. The family is poor, but raised with love by a single mother. One day, the brothers go to another town for a job. Guddu tells a tired Saroo to wait at the train station and that he would soon be back. The day passes…and the five year old child finds himself all alone on the deserted train platform in the pitch black night in a desolate area. He climbs aboard a train and falls asleep. Two nights later, the train arrives in Calcutta. The child’s fear is further exacerbated by the fact that he does not understand this unfamiliar language (Bengali.) When asked: “What’s your mother’s name?” he replies simply: “Ammi.”

From almost being abducted along with other street children to almost being sold into sex slavery, Saroo faces it all before winding up at a government orphanage. Dicken’s Oliver Twist couldn’t have put it any better – what deafening cacophony; one can’t help but feel for the miserable wretches trapped in there under the guise of government care and rehabilitation. Indeed, there is a scene where a young boy is woken in the dead of night and sent out with a man, even as the warden indulges in a wink-wink-nudge-nudge moment; paedophilia is rampant in such institutions and it is a shame those in our elected government continue to turn a blind eye to this.

Saroo turns out to be one of the lucky ones – an Australian couple are looking to adopt him. The social worker assigned to his case (Deepti Naval) teaches him the rudiments of English and table manners and Saroo soon finds himself in a plane, en route to John Brierley (David Wenham) and his wife Sue (Nicole Kidman.)

Cut to twenty years later and Saroo is studying hotel management. Sitting with his friends one night, he tells them all about how he was adopted and how he has always yearned to find his natural mother. Unfortunately, he is not able to find this village called “Ganesh Talai.” One of his friends gives him the idea of trying to trace the speed of passenger trains in those days and the nights he spent travelling in the train and so hope to pinpoint the village Saroo came from. Many dizzying Google map shots later, Saroo finds it and plans to go visit. Meanwhile, his romance with Lucy (Rooney Mara) which had been skidding off the rails, rights itself and she promises to wait for him.

Saroo does make it to India and does manage to find his real mother. There are some powerfully emotive moments as the old lady with her gnarled hands lovingly caresses this tall stranger whom she had never given up hope on seeing again this life. Saroo now learns that the reason his brother never came to fetch him is because he was hit by a train the same night and died. He also finally learns that his name is actually “Sheroo” a diminutive of “Sher” (hence the movie’s title, ‘Lion’) As a child, he used to mispronounce his name and ‘Saroo’ stuck for life.

Dev Patel has matured after ‘Slumdog Millionaire’ and has performed admirably; one wonders how it is that he has been nominated for a supporting role only. Regrettably, there isn’t much of a bonding between him and Rooney Mara. David Wenham brings a certain warmth and empathy to his role although one can’t quite say the same for Kidman, who has an innate frostiness in her demeanour. However, beyond a doubt it is the little Saroo (Sunny Pawar) who steals hearts, ably abetted by Bharate. Nawazuddin Siddique and Tannishta Chatterjee have cameo roles and both turn in commendable performances. Deepti Naval is a waste.

Most movies that are biopics tend to show photos of the real protagonists juxtaposed somewhere in the film. ‘Lion’ does that and more. There aren’t just photographs but actual video shots of the real life mother and son meeting, as also the adoptive mother meeting the biological one, set against the rolling end credits…more than anything else, this brings a happy tear to the eye, that some fairytales do indeed come true.

A truly powerful story, made all the more poignant by the fact that it is a true account. It is a pity then that the movie tends to drag, especially during those endless and mind-numbing Google search shots. This is Garth Davis’ directorial debut in the world of feature films. It is a decent enough effort, although he would do well to bear in mind that a feature film must of necessity be shorter than a television series and therefore, we cannot have the indulgence of mundane shots. However, he has handled all the youngsters in the film brilliantly.

First and foremost, ‘Lion’ owes its identity and strength to the very compelling true-life tale. The book is written by Saroo himself along with Larry Buttrose,  giving Luke Davies a fairly easy time of it as screenplay writer, who stayed so true to the book that at his door must lie most of the blame for the tedium in the film. The real Saroo spent five years on Google Earth to try and track his village down and Davies presumably thought the audience wouldn’t get the point unless he hammered it home well and truly. As editor, Alexandre de Franceschi is also to be faulted; he should have remembered this is a feature film and not a documentary. He is unable to sustain the brilliant pace the movie started off with.

Greig Fraser behind the camera is to be commended for those sweeping, aerial, panoramic shots of Australia, lovingly captured through his lens for eternity. There is an absolutely fantastic long shot of the boys on a train passing through a tunnel; both the director and the cinematographer deserves kudos for this, as also for the realistic shots of the grime and darkness of Calcutta.

All in all, ‘Lion’ is a recommended watch, first for its actual story, then the child actors, the cinematography and lastly, the rest of the cast.

*Written exclusively for The Screenwriters Association of India

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