Stricken by abject poverty and burdened with the responsibility of helping their single-mother provide for their family, five-year-old Saroo (Sunny Pawar) and his older brother Guddu (Abhishek Bharate) pick up odd jobs in rural India that some may find immoral. The film opens with the brothers stealing coal from a train to sell to street food vendors before Guddu has to leave for a week-long job. Even within the first five minutes of Lion, it’s clear how deeply the brothers love each other, so it’s no surprise Saroo doesn’t want his big brother out of his sight and begs to go on the job with him.
Eventually, Gudde relents and brings him along, which turns out to be a horrible mistake as the brothers get separated and Saroo ends up on a train that takes him thousands of kilometres away from home to Calcutta. There, the child survives dicey situations and sketchy characters before being adopted by an Australian couple, Sue (Nicole Kidman) and John (David Wenham), and grows up in Tasmania.
Years later, as an adult, Saroo (Dev Patel) feels an overwhelming urge to retrace his steps and find his mother and siblings. What follows is a long and painstaking process of figuring where in immense India Saroo’s train started from using Google Earth, and then searching for an insolated village whose name he doesn’t even remember very well.
Lion has bagged six Academy Award nominations, including two Best Performance awards for Patel and Kidman, and deserves every single one of them. Lion is a heart-wrenching and heartwarming true story that effectively uses music and camerawork to keep the film moving at a smooth and engaging pace. The way flashbacks are incorporated into Saroo’s adult storyline also helps to make his journey feel like one cohesive story rather than two parts of the same story, which is the way many films that’s based on two periods of one person’s life can feel like.
Little moments to highlight Saroo’s life in India serve only to reinforce what a surviver he is. His way of life is conveyed in a very matter-of-fact manner, with little sugar coating, and audiences will feel his joy, fear, confusion and sadness. However, the depiction of his poverty is never made into a call-for-action for India, but it does leave you thinking, especially when adult Saroo discusses with girlfriend Lucy (Rooney Mara) his “privileged life.”
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Patel, British actor of Slumdog Millionaire fame, nails the accent and mannerisms of an upper-middle class Australian in Hobart. He masterfully conveys the full emotional journey of growing up as one person and then drowning in the desire to find the other person he was back in India. He’s also a very human character. He’s charming and sweet, but also flawed and hurts those who love him.
As his adoptive mum, Kidman’s performance is equally touching. One particularly emotional scene towards the end where she explains why Saroo was adopted brought tears to every eye in the cinema, and the mother-son relationship between the two nominees span every human emotion and makes it feel very relatable.
With such a compelling storyline and strong performances from an incredibly talented international cast, Lion, even though it’s not CGI-packed superhero movie, is a film you want to experience on a big screen.