Well meaning but erroneous…that’s what sums up Lion, the movie running to rave reviews across the globe. Two actors, Dev Patel and Nicole Kidman, are already nominated for the Oscars, as expected. From the dusty hills of Madhya Pradesh to the sun-kissed beaches of Australia, it is a poignant, touching and yet, never melodramatic tale (underlines intended). Lion is openly a tear jerker, based on the true story of a little-boy-lost, miraculously reunited with his family after two decades. It’s meant to put Slumdog Millionaire in its place by showing the world, yet again, how neatly Hollywood can make you cry, just enough so that you don’t choke on the popcorns but actually enjoy the feel of those precious tears. Unfortunately, it is precisely this loud and clear Oscar-oriented marketing that serves to mar a film with many a possibility.
— kaahon (@kaahonwall) March 1, 2017
The story is a real life incident that grabbed media attention in India and Australia in 2013, with Saroo Brierley’s remarkable autobiography, ‘A Long Way Home’. The film opens with a teenage boy, Guddu, stealing coals from a train in Khandwa, Madhya Pradesh with his 5 year old brother, Saroo. They have a baby sister, Shekila, and live with their mother, Kamla, who is a labourer at a nearby stone quarry. The father is not around. Despite their poverty, it’s a cheerful family. One night, Saroo, very attached to Guddu, insists on going to work with him. Saroo falls asleep on the train journey. He remains drowsy even when they get down. Guddu leaves for work and Saroo gets up in an empty train where he dozes off again. When he wakes up, the train is speeding through unfamiliar landscape. A terrified Saroo is forced to travel in the compartment where he is locked for a couple of days till he reaches Kolkata, 1500 km away from his hometown. He manages to survive for two months despite threats from child traffickers, including an incident where he is led to her home by a sweet lady who is actually interested in selling him off. A young man notices him one day and deposits him with the police who are unable to trace his family based on the scant information he offers. Saroo is placed in a crowded children’s home from where a kindly social worker rescues him by offering him to an Australian couple for adoption.
Thereafter, Saroo lives in Hobart, Tasmania, where his foster parents adopt another Indian child. Twenty years later, Saroo goes to Canberra, Australia to study Hotel Management. He gels in with a largely Indian student group and even gets an Australian girlfriend. But Saroo is a troubled young man with his lost family haunting him constantly. On the advice of an Indian student, Saroo starts using Google Earth to try and locate his home. This obsesses him totally. One night he manages to locate Ganesh Talai, a small Khandwa village, based on Ganesh Talay, the only name he can remember since childhood. An elated Saroo then travels back to India and is reunited with his mother and sister, though, as he learns, Guddu had died in a train accident the night he got lost. Saroo assures his foster parents that they would always be an integral part of his life. The film ends with footage of the actual Saroo Brierley with his Australian and Indian mothers hugging each other in Ganesh Talai.
Good things first. Cinematographer Greig Fraser gives a uniformly smooth experience, editor Alexandre de Franceschi could have given us a better film if he wasn’t bound by the flaws of the script. Sunny Pawar and Abhishek Bharate are brilliant as little Saroo and Guddu respectively. Priyanka Bose as Kamla and Rooney Mara as the girlfriend have both done well. Tannishtha Chatterjee, Deepti Naval and Riddhi Sen shine in their cameos, while Nawazuddin Siddiqui and Kaushik Sen are both unnecessary in their bit roles.
Now for the problem points. Keshav Jadhav growing up to be Divian Ladwa in the role of Mantosh, Saroo’s adopted brother, is just as apt as Sunny Pawar growing into Dev Patel is unacceptable. It’s the Angrezi return of the old Bollywood formula – no matter how dark and cute the little boy is – bees saal baad he would reappear as a fair hunk who is the ruling hero of the day. Is this the fault of casting director Kirsty McGregor or simply a marketing policy for the Oscars? Similarly, Nicole Kidman and David Wenham are at times strangely stiff as the Australian couple. And overshadowing everything is the overwhelming presence of Google Earth.
Director Garth Davis is primarily known for the many ads he has directed as well as an acclaimed television series. Similarly, scriptwriter Luke Davies is well known as a poet. But in carrying out a policy of pleasing all partners, sponsors and financiers with a sure-shot Oscar, they have both sacrificed on crucial points of what creates a more engaging movie experience. Saroo Brierley’s book reveals that he used Google Maps, Google Earth, Facebook, a trip to India and asking around local people to locate his family. Why Google Earth in particular? Saroo only knew that the station where he got separated from his brother started with ‘B’ and he belonged to a locality probably called Ginestlay. At the same time, he remembered details like local landmarks, topography – things one can locate with Google Earth. But that tool was obviously not all, as the film claims. Garth Davis loses his touch with Earth in a bid to strengthen his bond with Google; while Luke Davies concentrates so hard on poetic moments between foster mom and son that he fails to establish life in Australia as well as he might have. At the end of the day, the marketing policy of Lion (inspired by Saroo’s actual name, Sheru) prevails over the film making policy of Lion.
Garth Davis has been working on another film in the meanwhile, based on Mary Magdalena‘s life. As audience, we hope to end up with a better movie soon, from a calmer director with the much coveted Oscar finally crowning his head.
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