‘Lion:’ When the human spirit never gives up
By Wendell Gaa
In the film drama “Lion,” the predicament of homeless street children in India is given focus, but sadly their struggles could be said the same for thousands of orphans globally, including the Philippines. While tragedy does have a place in “Lion,” ultimately, it is a story about hope, love and the unrelenting pursuit of your dreams.
The film is centered on Saroo, a 5-year- old in 1980s India who together with his older brother Guddu live a poor but happy rural life together with their mother, who makes a living out of collecting rocks. One day, Guddu and Saroo decide to go out to play in one of the country’s many train stations. Guddu leaves Saroo at the station promising to return shortly; however, hours pass, and he never does. After calling out for his brother repeatedly around the station, Saroo realizes he is all alone, he hops onto one of the trains to desperately find his brother, but to no avail. The train then moves and he is forced to hunker down and sleep inside one of the train’s cars.
After what seems to be several days and hours, Saroo finally gets off the train to find himself lost in the streets of Calcutta (today known as Kolkata). He walks around the station and the neighborhood asking random strangers if they can help him find his way back to his home village, but no one can understand him given that the city residents all speak Bengali instead of his native Hindi dialect, leaving him no choice but to live as a homeless street child facing the urban dangers of Calcutta all by himself.
After several weeks of narrowly escaping child abductors and shady city dwellers, Saroo eventually finds himself in the care of a sympathetic orphanage. The administrators there are unable to figure out where exactly in India does Saroo live based on his vague memory and limited communication ability, so his face is posted on different spots around the country in the hopes that eventually someone can help identify who he is and where he is from, but it is all in vain. This entire sequence was particularly moving for me given that I have actually visited an orphanage in Kolkata founded by the late Saint Mother Teresa, and the faces of the kids here reminded me so much of the real-life orphans I met during my 2009 trip to India.
Saroo is finally adopted by a kindly Australian couple living in Hobart, Tasmania, John and Sue Brierley, played by Aussie actors David Wenham (“Lord of the Rings” and “300”) and Oscar winner Nicole Kidman. The Brierleys lovingly help Saroo adjust to life in Australia, providing him a healthy and happy home as he grows up, and soon they adopt another orphan from India named Mantosh, who becomes Saroo’s new brother.
Fast forward to the late 2000s, and Saroo is now a bright, energetic youth in his early 20s who travels to Melbourne to study hotel management at school. He forms a close knit of friends at his university, and bonds with a fellow student named Lucy (Rooney Mara), who becomes his girlfriend. Everything in his life seems to be on a positive direction, yet he is continually haunted by the memories of his harrowing childhood in India, having been separated from his biological mother and brother for so many years. He grows a longing to find his family again. He decides to embark on an epic quest to reunite with his long-lost family in India by utilizing the Google Earth device.
The power of love and determination to commit oneself to finding family in spite of insoluble geographic and physical challenges is the emotionally powerful central premise of “Lion.” As simplistic and redundant as this theme may be for a movie, it works so very well in this particular case.
The question of identity is also strongly addressed, and its inspirational message of the human spirit never giving up hope resonates so very well, correlating with the knowledge that this film was based on a true story.
The cast is near perfect. Child actor Sunny Pawar is just adorable as young Saroo and he nearly steals the entire movie in spite of the fact that his screen time is limited to much of the film’s first quarter. I’m glad to see how British-Indian actor Dev Patel is continuing to wisely choose his post-“Slumdog Millionaire” movie roles and it shows through his pensive Oscar-nominated performance as an adult Saroo. And David Wenham and Nicole Kidman are both just splendid in their supporting roles as Saroo’s loving adoptive parents.
It is for all these reasons that “Lion” is my personal pick for this year’s Best Picture winner at the 2017 Oscars!