There’s no consensus on whether marketing and prior expectations ought to factor in to a critique, and that’s a critical loophole I hope to take full advantage of. On paper, Lion is the kind of film that gives me pause, marketed as the story of an Australian adoptee reminiscing about and subsequently searching for his lost Indian roots, written and directed through a white, Western lens like so many other films that fall under the leering “poverty porn” category. Million Dollar Arm, Dev Patel’s own Slumdog Millionaire, and most Western films about Indians taking place in India. An “exotic” cultural disconnect between the storytellers who are perceived as “the norm” and subjects whose experiences can only be recognized if there is, in fact, a disconnect between worlds, leading to the lack of commonality becoming an inadvertent focal point. As it turns out, Lion is an entirely different breed. Saroo Brierley’s story is not told through flashbacks. This is key in understanding its narrative point of view. Not only does it make a distinct effort to focus on the narrow intersections on the aforementioned Venn diagram, but it does so with inside-out authenticity in a way that makes its inherent Eastern-Western cultural clash a key facet of its text, each continually rubbing up against one another in its devastating, expertly crafted second half.
It’s also one of the very best works of cinema in 2016.
The film opens in a small village in India, where it spends a significant chunk of its first act before moving elsewhere within the country, using the narrative’s entire first hour to establish the experiences on which Saroo’s struggle is based, and allowing us to experience their unfolding. His mother. His brother. His sister. The love they share even amidst abject poverty and subtitles that fall a tad too much on the side of literal. Eight-year old Sunny Pawar plays the young Saroo with the kind of wide-eyed simplicity and naïveté that makes his separation from his older brother Guddu all the more heartbreaking. After sharing in their mischievous dynamic, their desire to be able to afford jalebis (a sweet, inexpensive Indian delicacy) and the kind of warmth that makes their empty shack feel as full as a mansion, we’re left accidentally stranded alongside Saroo on a deserted platform with nothing but hazy memories of a water tower and a rusty bench. When Saroo wakes up in an out-of-service train car taking him thousands of miles away from his village, there’s little he can do to escape as the walls and sounds of the locomotive overwhelm him from all sides. Two days later he’s in Calcutta with no understanding of Bengali and no one to help him get home.
Hauschka and Dustin O’Halloran deserve all the accolades in the world for their music, primarily for refusing to fall back on the lazy tradition of Western composers using Sitar strings for no other reason than an Indian locale. Well, that and the fact that their compositions for the film are impeccable from start to finish, but this approach, in my mind, is emblematic of the rest of the film. The aspects of Calcutta and its surroundings that director Garth Davis focuses on go beyond the surface of economic appearance. I realize this sounds like an incredibly low bar (in all honesty, it is), but Davis’ approach to the facets of Saroo’s experience – say, the poverty he encounters along the way – are told through moments that unearth something fundamental about each situation he’s embroiled in. As Saroo yells out for help on his arduous train ride, a woman sitting on a piece of cardboard ignores his plight, for her situation is just as hapless. Later, Saroo ends up spending the night on a similar cardboard rag offered to him by a child. Rather than an aesthetic, poverty and hardship are treated as the root of apathy, an unspoken truth of Indian society and Saroo’s first brush with the world at large outside of his secluded village.
It’s in children that Saroo finds kindness, mostly children experiencing similar hardships, while all the adults around him don’t bother helping unless there’s an economic incentive. Even in his first brush with adult kindness since his “Ammi” (mother), he’s suspicious of the potential ulterior motives of the social worker who greets him. Once it’s clear that 1987 Calcutta is neither the time nor place to find his family, or his village that doesn’t seem to exist on any map, he’s yanked out of this narrative and his abusive orphanage when an Australian couple decides to adopt him. John and Sue (David Wenham and Nicole Kidman) are, as we might call them, the epitome of privilege, but within the context of the narrative they’re the only adults Saroo isn’t suspicious of. They have nothing more to gain by adopting Saroo than Saroo himself.
Much like Sunny Pawar, a child denied a visa for the film’s U.S. premiere, young Saroo learns bits of English to communicate with Sue and John, bonding with them over the great postcolonial equalizer: the game of cricket. Right off the bat (ha!), the kindly couple begins to find as many commonalities as possible for him to grow accustomed to life in Tasmania. This poor child whose only joy was once was frolicking in the streams with his brother is allowed to grow up by the shore, and when the film inevitably jumps forward twenty years, we’re re-introduced to Saroo as he floats in the water. We re-join Saroo at another pivotal moment of change, his departure for business management school in Melbourne and his goodbye meal with his parents. His family functions exactly like a family – that is to say, a dysfunctional one with regards to his unstable adopted brother – but he’s as far away from the Saroo of 1987 as can be, completely assimilated.
When he begins his schooling, the effects of globalism inadvertently challenge his assimilation, as he brushes shoulders with groups of Indian students, and the cultures and accents that are no longer a part of him. The complicated and all too familiar question of “Where are you from?” isn’t far behind (we Indians like to find our kin abroad), and his lack of a distinct answer reveals an emptiness he hasn’t let surface in decades. He has a good rapport with the Indian students, who joke about his support for “the Aussies” in cricket (again, the great equalizer) and both he and his American girlfriend Lucy (Rooney Mara) form a collegiate family with three Desi students from different parts of India, all with different accents and experiences. It’s Saroo’s first real return to any semblance of Indian culture since he was first adopted, but it isn’t until he heads to the kitchen to grab a beer that the shock of his lost identity finally hits him.
Right on the counter, completely within reach, is a box of jalebis. A reward he never got to share with his brother. An Indian experience he never got to have.
Slowly, Saroo begins to unbelong and unravel. He spends sleepless nights on Google Maps, charting out all the possible locations he might’ve begun his unwitting journey, calculating distances and train speeds as he wonders what “home” even is anymore. His dreams are plagued by a family he hasn’t seen in over twenty years, calling out for him, searching every single day, and he begins to spiral in ways that affect his health and relationships. Simply described in words, it’s constant Googling and tracing that leads him nowhere, but every mouse-swipe and every click is treated as a profound opportunity, and every unsuccessful search a monumental failure. His visions begin to collide with his reality, magnifying the stakes of his maddening search as he isolates himself from his parents in Australia. He no longer has any way to relate to the people around him because he has no way to relate to himself, unable to answer the fundamental question: “Who am I?”
Based on true events, Lion's beats are undoubtedly predictable, but they arrive with thunderous impact. Patel, expertly cast if you can ignore Pawar growing up to be a few shades lighter, gives a performance for the ages as a man lost, confused and trying desperately to find one family as he risks losing another. His eyes and the circles under them reflect the insane extent of his efforts, with his lengthening hair and fattening chin reflecting their physical toll. His “pursuit” barely takes him further than his living room, but even map interfaces on web browsers feel like gorgeous landscape shots when interrupted by radiant memories. Even the fictional Sue’s hokey explanation for adopting Saroo (regardless of its reality, it’s the kind of line that can sound awfully imperialist) comes off with the heart-wrenching sincerity that reminds Saroo of all the good in his life, and all that he’s putting at stake by searching for himself.
Lion could very well have ended up the kind of vapid, superficially “feel good” award-entry that you’d expect this time of year, but it gets between the layers of a modern story of cultural identity, exploring what that means in the 21st century. It intertwines the search for culture with the search for self by weaving together time and place in ways that only cinema could, and it uses as its vessel a magnificent, harrowed performance by Dev Patel, who stretches his heart and soul across the screen for all to experience.