Lion (2017) traverses the life of a 5-year-old Saroo Brierley as he experiences separation from his family, survives the streets of a city he doesn’t even speak the language of, gets adopted by a loving Australian family, and finally embarks on a journey to find his birth home and family. This movie revolves around themes of identity, parenthood, adoption, and cultural heritage.
Watch the trailer of Lion here:
LION | Summary and Analysis
The movie spans 25 years of a boy named Saroo Brierley who lives in extreme poverty while helping his mother carry rocks while helping his brother steal coal pieces from moving trains. Saroo idolizes his brother, who is like a cool superhero in the wonderous eyes of a small child. His brother, Guddu, jumps on and off trains, gets coal pieces and produces miracle foods, such as milk and jalebis. One day, Saroo in his ecstasy of joining his brother in one of his ventures, falls asleep at a train station and on finding his brother absent, he steps onto a train but that train happens to be decommissioned and Saroo is trapped in the moving train, bound for an unknown destination. Saroo’s dawning realization that he is alone and trapped is accompanied by desperate shouts for his brother who is not to come. “Guddu!!” These visceral screams are cut off by a shot of the outside, the turmoil of a lost child is contrasted with the serene landscape and a moving train. The camerawork by the talented Greig Fraser smartly pans the camera to show the vastness of the world and the smallness of a lost child.
Saroo arrives in Kolkata, the bustling city filled with unknown people who speak an indecipherable language (Saroo speaks Hindi, whereas people speak Bengali in Kolkata). Saroo’s perspective is explored throughout his survival on the streets of Kolkata that do not care for a homeless and poor child. Human traffickers and child predators roam the same streets and almost capture Saroo at every turn of the road. Yet, the brave child Saroo is, he escapes the predatory hands of these beings. A year later, he is adopted by a loving Australian couple, Sue and John, who take him in and shower him with all the love in the world. A brush with jalebis brings to the surface lost memories and Saroo embarks on a journey to retrace his steps to his birthplace.
Dev Patel plays the older Saroo in search of his home through a harrowing journey spanning multiple hours on Google Maps and a complex maze of memories. The cinematography looks into the wandering eyes of Saroo and the roads and images he follows home. The camera pans from the blurry images on the screen to the vivid and sometimes hazy memories that Saroo retains from his childhood. The pacing of the movie takes the audience along with Saroo as he navigates the vastness of the world to find an identity. The audience doesn’t realize the destination that they’re hurtling towards, only a building tension and desperation that haunts Saroo and transforms him into a person that is looking for a place to belong. Adult Saroo’s haunting eyes and his need for a home are paralleled with the child Saroo’s survival through the streets of Kolkata. The audience is sharply and constantly reminded of the tough landscape that Saroo had to survive.
Dev Patel brilliantly plays the mature and more sensitive role of Adult Saroo. However, this would be groundless without the child actor, Sunny Pawar, whose big eyes contain the world and hope regardless of any obstacle that may come his way. Young Saroo sees everything and understands all that is happening. His sensitivity and empathy toward other people alert his survival instincts when to act and when to run away. The steadfast and sturdy nature of this young boy is both devastating and heartening to witness. This direction lets the movie unfold without the extreme melodrama of a child being tortured by his surroundings. Garth Davis weaves a rich tapestry of the determination of a young man in finding his home and finding a place in this wide, wide world to call home.
In the search for his birth mother and the existence of an adoptive mother, Saroo is now torn with the guilt of turning his back on his adoptive parents who gave him a future and raised him with so much love and adoration. The movie expertly grapples with the theme of adoption and ethnicity, along with the estrangement Sue, played beautifully by Nicole Kidman, feels with her son, Saroo. The delicate balance between adoption and parenthood unfolds over the course of the story. Saroo talks with his mother about how he feels having to adopt two kids deprived her of raising her own kids, the “blank slates” they would have been, instead, she was burdened with two strange kids with even stranger pasts. Sue’s confession about why she adopted Saroo and Mantosh would leave a shaking imprint on the viewer’s heart with the sheer spirituality of it. The act of adoption transcends the mere need for children and enters the realm of understanding and a human need to break away from abusive parenthood. The mere words, “we chose to have you,” shakes the entire foundation of the adoption industry. The act of adoption accompanied not by a need to adopt one because of a lack of choice, but by choice, by free will, provides new insight into the world of parenthood.
After the reconciliation with his parents, Saroo sets out for India, for the home he unknowingly left behind. The audience holds their breath at this point, as this is the moment the movie was building towards. Saroo is sceptical about whether he will be able to meet his family again or not. By some motherly instinct, Saroo’s mother stayed in that area for all these years. The reunion is as much a tear-jerker as it can be. This is short-lived as he is told that the brother he was dreaming about meeting no longer exists in the world. However, the simple act of embracing his mother and telling her that he is alive and well is a cathartic process that Saroo needed in his life. Saroo, now finally at peace with his inner child, calls his mother, Sue, on the phone to tell her that all is well. The knowledge that her son was safe all these years is enough for Shekila and that brings closure to an entire age of turmoil. The movie ends with real footage from the real Saroo Brierley as it is shown to the audience that he brought both of his mothers together in a subversive act of reclaiming his past and future.
The title is apt to the story and journey of Saroo. In a maze of survival and finding a home, Saroo doesn’t even know his name properly but emulates it perfectly. Sheru, it turns out, is the name of this child with lion-like perseverance and bravery. The story comes full circle and ends on a note of pure joy and healing.
The only undercurrent that the director failed to explore properly is the character of Lucy, Saroo’s unconditionally supportive girlfriend, played by the actor Rooney Mara. The actor’s potential doesn’t get explored much as she is relegated to the role of a girlfriend who listens and understands her boyfriend perfectly. Saroo might not have been able to traverse this rocky terrain by himself, but it doesn’t get translated properly enough into gratitude towards Lucy.
Lion won the Oscars and awards along with the hearts of the audience with its striking portrayal of what it means to belong, and the central theme of identity, parenthood, adoption, and cultural heritage.
– Shreya Singla