Lion is the true-life story of Saroo Brierley, a young man on a quest to find his family. The opening sequences depict a home life that, while far from idyllic – they are desperately poor: Saroo’s mother is a manual labourer, collecting rocks from dawn till dusk; Saroo and his brother steal coal to sell for milk; none of them can read or write – is nevertheless loving and nurturing.
What follows is startling and devastating: at the train station, five-year-old Saroo, told to wait for his brother, seeks a place to sleep on a decommissioned train. When he awakes, the train is on the move, and it doesn’t stop until it reaches Kolkata – 1000 miles away from Saroo’s home town. Saroo doesn’t speak Bengali, and he doesn’t know the proper name of his village, so he can’t tell anyone who he really is. It’s utterly heartbreaking to see the plight of the street kids he joins: the dangers they face, and the sheer numbers of them. (And Sunny Pawar, who plays young Saroo, is just delightful, all big eyes and vulnerability. He’s definitely one to watch.) Eventually, Saroo is placed in an orphanage and, from there, adopted by a kindly couple from Tasmania.
The second half of the film has a more sombre feel; it’s less immediately engaging, but compelling nonetheless. Adult Saroo, played by Dev Patel with customary aplomb, is an all-Aussie guy, a surfer with long hair and a promising career ahead. He has a girlfriend, a good relationship with his adoptive parents; things have worked out well for him. (Sadly, life has not been so kind to Mantosh (Divian Ladwa), the second boy adopted by the Brierleys, whose past demons won’t let him rest, and see him seeking solace in heroin.) But when Saroo spends an evening with Indian friends, buried memories are evoked, and he embarks on a lonely mission to find his long-lost family – using Google Earth to assist his search.
It’s a deceptively gentle tale of love and loss, offering insight into the moral and social complexities of adopting children from poorer lands. The film is not overtly political, and it doesn’t dwell on the causes of the poverty that lead to Saroo’s suffering. But neither does it shy away from showing us grim realities: this is one man’s story, a microcosm of a larger problem. It’s impossible not to feel moved and humbled. And very thankful that, for Saroo at least, it has a happy ending.