Lion joins a long line of powerful films with a focus on, among several other global issues, poverty. It’s the poor conditions in which Saroo’s family lives, in fact, that send him off in search of odd jobs, through which he eventually ends up lost. Highlighted here are additional films in which the protagonists and their families struggle with the harsh realities of hardship.
Pather Panchali (Satyajit Ray, 1955)
What better movie to begin with than one of the great classics of Indian cinema? The first film in the “Apu Trilogy,” Pather Panchali, follows the struggles of a family living in a rural Bengal village. When the father departs in search of work, the brunt of responsibility falls on the mother to take care of her two children, as well as her husband’s elderly aunt. Pather Panchali is, to say the very least, transportive — it’s easy to be fully absorbed into this world, with all of its strife. Perhaps most striking is how Apu and his older sister, Durga, despite the hardships, do their best to find simple pleasures in life. Durga even takes on a sort of caretaker role to Apu, with their actual mother already having so much on her plate in terms of taking care of the whole family. And, tragically, the film shows that sometimes it’s the children who end up suffering most of all in such a dire situation. It’s an absolutely heartbreaking movie, without a doubt, but it’s not without its small moments of joy.
Bicycle Thieves (Vittorio De Sica, 1948)
As a staple of Film 101 classes and one of the most well-known works of global cinema, Bicycle Thieves is, perhaps, the most famous movie of all time about the struggles of being poor. It tells the story of Antonio, a man who receives a highly-coveted position hanging posters, with the only requirement being that he own a bicycle. When the bicycle is stolen on the job, Antonio is absolutely distraught, as this simple job is all he had to provide for his wife and two children. Enlisting the help of his young son, Bruno, he goes off in search of the stolen bicycle. To say any more would be cruel for those who haven’t seen the film, but Bicycle Thieves, perhaps more than any other movie, captures the absolute desperation of a person faced with the prospect of being unable to support their family. Worst of all, young Bruno, full of innocence, has to bare witness to that desperation.
Winter’s Bone (Debra Granik, 2010)
Seen here is an entirely different view of poverty, far removed from a Bengal village or 1940s Italy. Though poverty may look different in Winter’s Bone, the fight to overcome it and deal with it–especially within the context of a family—is very much the same. In the film, a teenage girl named Ree, living in the rural Ozarks of the United States, is tasked with taking care of her entire family, including a mentally-ill mother and two younger siblings. The film does an excellent job showing how, sometimes, the burdens of poverty fall most squarely, not on the parents, but on the child (in a way, not dissimilar from the children in Lion who go off in search of work). Ree must make sure her family gets fed, and, of much importance to the film’s plot, ensure that they continue to have a roof over their heads.
Rosetta (Jean Pierre Dardenne and Luc Dardenne, 1999)
Rosetta, though filmed and set in Belgium, makes for an interesting companion to Winter’s Bone, as it’s also about a seventeen-year-old-girl (the title character) dealing with poverty. In this film, however, Rosetta’s goal is less to provide for a family, and more to simply keep down a job that will enable her to have a marginally more comfortable and stable life. But the simple act of getting and keeping a job that pays enough to support herself proves to be extremely difficult; at the same time, Rosetta is forced to move back in to a trailer park where her alcoholic mother resides. The movie does an excellent job showing lots of tiny little details of what it’s like to be poor, particularly the vulnerability of going place-to-place asking about openings for jobs.
With its strong, intuitive lead character, Saroo, Lion continues in the tradition of these films, rendering poverty, along with the families and children who suffer from it, in a sympathetic and realistic light on screen. One of the goal’s of a good piece of fiction should be to call the viewer to action. Each of these films, showing struggle in their own unique ways, have the power to make a small yet meaningful dent in the fight for economic justice.
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