Director: Garth Davis
Cast: Dev Patel, Sunny Pawar, Nicole Kidman, Rooney Mara
Debut director Garth Davis shows that striking filmmaking isn’t just about panning a camera in exotic locales. It’s about capturing the claustrophobia of a child when lost in the jostling crowd of Kolkata. It’s also about encapsulating solitude in a quiet railway station at midnight. It’s also about seizing the melancholy of a subway swarming with beggars. In a sense, these western filmmakers seem to make cinema here that’s almost a lesson to many of our own.
Some of the opening portions of Lion are exquisite in every frame, breathtaking in intensity, gut-wrenching in emotion. Much like in Slumdog Millionaire, the opening portions are Lion’s best. I suppose you could even swap the portions without losing too much. Lion, however, doesn’t romanticize poverty as much. Here, it is shown for the struggle it is, for the menace it is.
Lion’s based on the true story of Saroo Brierley, as written in the autobiographical non-fiction, A Long Way Home. If you aren’t familiar with the story, it’d be impossible to tell where Lion is headed. There are also the pitfalls of sometimes being too faithful to the material. For instance, the character of Mantosh, Saroo’s brother, could have been completely removed with little effect on the material.
You never truly understand Mantosh or his troubles. I also cared little for Lucy (Rooney Mara), who seems to exist only so somebody can ask Saroo the questions the viewer wants to. However, these are small issues in an otherwise compelling true story.
If it weren’t for the true story the film is based on, I’d never have believed that it’d be possible for a man to draw from vague memories of his childhood, and use Google Earth to zero in on his home. Truth, it does seem, is stranger than fiction.
Lion is also full of surprises. For almost the entirety of the first half, the film plays as a highly stylized regional film, with all the characters talking in Bengali and Hindi. There’s little of the unconvincing English-speaking employed in Slumdog Millionaire. Lion prefers authenticity over convenience. You realise how much it does when at the end, the real Saroo Brierley, his Indian family, and the neighbors are all shown. There is no questioning the effort that has clearly gone into the casting, and their consequent transformation for the roles. Nicole Kidman, for instance, is marvelously understated as Saroo’s mother.
If Lion could be said to suffer from a problem at all, it is the leap of faith it expects from you when Saroo, the child (a wide-eyed Sunny Pawar), turns into Saroo, the adult (Dev Patel). I’d have loved to know the bits and pieces in between his transformation from an innocent urchin on the streets of Kolkata into a sophisticated Australian. His gradual forgetting of Hindi, his distancing from his family, his learning of English… some snapshots here and there would’ve helped our emotional investment with the child transfer more effectively to the adult.
Lion, however, is a winner for the robust sincerity with which it handles its complex topics. It tells you that if you want something badly enough, even vague memories can become able tools of assistance. It reinforces the importance of writing your wrongs, however unintended they may be, despite not really having to. Above all, Lion will make you actually think about the street children you encounter every day, even as you mull your finances for the month. And it will leave you feeling privileged, and helpless.