The ancient Greeks believed that to truly understand life, one had to know onesself. To that end, should one focus on where they were born, where they grew up, or something else entirely?
LION is the story of Saroo (Sunny Pawar).
As a boy, Saroo lives with his mother and brother Guddu (Abhishek Bharate) in the small Indian village of Khandwa. He lives in poverty, but is surrounded by love and life, so poverty means very little to him. His only want in life is for his brother to buy him jalebis (a sweet snack). Other than that – things are good!
One day, Guddu declares that he will be taken a train ride, and Saroo begs him to let him come. By the time the brothers get to the train station, Saroo is wiped, and ends up falling asleep on a bench in the train station. When he comes to, Guddu is nowhere to be found, and Saroo boards the waiting train, assuming his brother is on it. No such luck – but that doesn’t stop the train from pulling out of the station and taking little Saroo all the way to Kolkata. He wanders for a bit, dodges a few ne’er do well’s, and eventually gets gathered up by social services.
After attempts to reunite him with his family prove fruitless, Saroo is placed up for adoption, and eventually sent to live in Australia with Sue and John Brierly (Nicole Kidman and David Wenham). There he flourishes thanks to their nurture – nurture that is so deep, the couple soon adopt a second boy from India named Mantosh…though he never acclimatizes to Australian life.
Twenty years later, Saroo is now a young man (Dev Patel) and beginning a course in hotel management. The course introduces him to a lot of new people, including his eventual girlfriend Lucy (Rooney Mara). One night while at a party, he takes a taste of jalebi and remembers the long-repressed memory of his years in Khandwa…along with his mother and his brother.
He soon becomes fixated on wracking his fractured memories and using Google Earth to hopefully pinpoint his past, and perhaps go in search of it. Unfortunately, his memories provide little useable information…and Google Earth gives him a search grid that is truly massive.
Sharoo is a man without a past…and it slowly begins to eat away at him.
Part of the story’s strength comes down to patience. We see the patience Sue embodies with both of her sons, and we sense Saroo losing it with his own quest. It infuses both characters with great amounts of pathos, and love from us as we watch and wonder if we would have the patience to endure what they do. How long before we wanted to wash our hands? How long until we wanted to just stay in bed? It’s finding the grace to push past those instincts that allows for true growth and self-discovery for all involved.
To watch Patel and Kidman go through their journeys is to have your heart-broken into beautiful little pieces. Kidman dials down the luminosity of her stardom to embody an everymum; the sort of woman who still believes in her family even though sections of it let her down repeatedly. Her version of Sue is a woman who is selfless, who believes, and who embodies the loving tenacity that great mothers seem to tap into.
Patel does something different; he expands as he comes into his own as a young adult, and then slowly contracts under the weight of his quest. When we meet him in his mid-twenties, he is an incredible specimen. He is warm, full of spirit, ruggedly handsome, and proud. In so many ways, he is leaps and bounds from the boy who got lost in the train station. As his inner struggle takes hold though, we watch him grow cold, vacant, give-in to anger, and become a physical shell of his former self. It’s a subtle transformation, but an amazing one to witness.
LION is a gentle meditation on identity. There has already been much filmed and written on the debate between nature and nurture, and this film won’t add too much to the discussion – except to suggest that the realization of the difference can be extremely difficult for the subject. If one knows that there was a journey from the former to the latter, it becomes the keystone to one’s identity.
Realize that keystone is missing, though…
No matter how difficult our life’s journey has been, the memory and understanding of every step we’ve taken goes a long way in shaping who we are. To learn that events took place that we do not recall is like trying to read a book with whole chapters torn out. It would leave one confused, upset, and deeply uneasy until the missing pieces fall into place (if they ever do). It doesn’t matter how much love one feels around them, or how supportive people are being. It’s something the psyche has to heal on its own, and sometimes that can take a long time.
That frustration is something that LION seems to understand well. It lays the groundwork in the way Mantosh never seems to fully adjust to his adoptive family. It builds upon that groundwork in the way Saroo spirals. To the casual observer, he might just be moping…wallowing in his frustration…”letting himself go”. But look closer, and you can see him slip through the seven stages of grief, with “breakthrough” ultimately taking the place of “acceptance”. It’s a difficult position to put Dev Patel into – a difficult position for him to play out of – but LION (and Patel) are equal to the task.
There’s a subtle beauty in Saroo’s ultimate realization; that no matter where he goes, he is someone other. His Indian appearance sets him apart in Australia, and his Australian demeanour and attitude set him apart in India. He is individual – a man in search of where he fits in, unaware that he doesn’t truly fit in anywhere. That probably seems tragic, but consider how few of us are truly unique, and you begin to see that subtle beauty.
Perhaps that’s what makes Saroo’s quest to find himself so difficult: there truly are so very few like him.