Five-year-old Saroo gets lost on a train which takes him thousands of Kilometers across India, away from home and family. Saroo must learn to survive alone in Kolkata, before ultimately being adopted by an Australian couple. Twenty-five years later, armed with only a handful of memories, his unwavering determination, and a revolutionary technology known as Google Earth, he sets out to find his lost family and finally return to his first home.
Based on an incredible true story, Six-time Oscar nominated film “Lion” is a story of two-halves: one half providing the audience the anguish, distress, and loss of losing your loved ones as a child, and the other providing the journey of vanquishing those emotions as an adult to find the ones you’ve lost through the powers of modern technology. At times incredible…harrowing…heartbreaking, but let down by a slow second hour after a masterful first.
Shot beautifully by cinematographer (and now Oscar-nominated) Greig Fraser, the film begins with the five-year old Saroo (played by newcomer Sunny Pawar) and his big brother Guddu (Abhishek Bharate) climbing onto a coal-bearing train and stealing the coal so they can sell it at the local market to buy food. They are very poor, living in a mud-hut with their little sister and their mother (Priyanka Bose), who goes to work all day to break rocks at a construction site. One evening, Guddu tells Saroo that he’s been given some work to do and will be out of the home all night. Saroo wants to help so tags along with his brother. They reach the nearby train station, where Saroo becomes too tired to go on with his brother. Guddu tells Saroo to stay put on the station bench whilst he heads off to work. Its the middle of the night now and with Saroo becoming a bit anxious, he sees a dormant train nearby to search for his brother. He can’t find him but seeing that the train is not moving, he stays put in the train and falls asleep whilst waiting for Guddu’s return. And so begins a heart-breaking turn of events: the train rushing thousands of kilometres away from his village to a city where the spoken language is not Hindu, surviving alone in a city where everything around him towers above his size, and avoiding dangers that so many lost children face in India every year. With a fortunate turn of events he gets adopted by an Australian couple (Nicole Kidman & David Wenham) and the film switches to a 26-year old Saroo (played by Dev Patel) who during one friend’s house party starts having flashes of his past, and with the suggestion of his friends, uses Google Earth to retrace his steps from the flashes he is getting to find his way back home, in turn isolating everyone who cares about him (including his girlfriend Lucy, played by Rooney Mara).
It’s extraordinary to think that this is a true story and the things that real life Saroo had to face to find his Indian family. At times, “Lion” is a tear-jerker with the standard “pulling the heart strings when it needs to” moments that you would expect from a story like this. But my main issue with the film is the way each half of the film (Saroo’s younger self and his older self) is played out which imbalances the film as whole. When you are following the tale of Saroo as a five-year old (which is half of the film’s running time), it is one of the most harrowing, terrifying, and heartbreaking hour of film I have watched in the last year. This little boy all alone in a city where everything is alien to him, and where dangers lie everywhere whilst somehow trying to find his way back home is pulse racing stuff. It was like watching a Dickensian tale play out. That whole hour is anchored by THE MOST incredible child actor in the form of Sunny Pawar. It’s insane to think that this is his first film and I don’t understand how he has not been nominated for his performance at the Oscars. The film belongs to him.
The second half with the older Saroo in the shape of Dev Patel, who puts in a career-best Oscar-nominated performance, becomes so much more slower it became distracting to me. Not to say that it’s a bad half as it is interesting to see his dynamic with his adopted parents (most notably with an in-form Nicole Kidman), how he uses Google Earth to find his way back home, and the troubles his character is feeling when wondering what his Indian family must’ve been feeling when they lost him. But there is so much of looking on the internet and the clicking of the mouse that the film can drag out and the viewer can take. There are moments in this half which the older Saroo does that just annoyed me, particularly his relationship with his girlfriend (the talented Rooney Mara wasted here). Because of this, the crescendo ending didn’t have a tearful impact for me as I hoped it would.
An incredible true story told in two halves: A masterful and harrowing first half anchored by a powerful performance by 7-year old newcomer Sunny Pawar, let down by a slower second half, even if we get a career-best performance by Dev Patel. If you’re going to watch it with your children, you’ll end up never letting them go after watching this.