Translated from Hindi, the title of this heart-wrenching drama is derived from the name of our lead protagonist, Saroo. A brave and incredibly intuitive 5 year old, Saroo is separated from his family after accidentally falling asleep on an empty passenger train. After a 1,600 kilometer voyage, he arrives in Calcutta amid a bustling crowd of commuters. Lost in a foreign city, Saroo attempts to find home with nothing but his determination and a mispronunciation of his village’s name.
Despite the lengthy train ride that brings him from the countryside to the city, it is when Saroo arrives in Calcutta that the weight of his isolation is heavily depicted. As he exits the train, he becomes lost in an overwhelming crowd of busy adults. They tower over his tiny stature, seemingly unaware of his existence. When he establishes his presence at the ticket counter, we become further aware of how lost he is. Though his voice is heard and he is seen, no one understands his Hindi and he doesn’t understand their Bengali. So, he further loses himself in the city, eventually encountering a group of other homeless children. For a few hours, he finds a place for himself, until this fragile security is compromised by adults with menacing agendas. So, Saroo runs deeper into Calcutta, meeting new people and new threats along the way, until an orphanage provides a temporary, albeit less than ideal, refuge. All the while, he never stops trying to find his way back home.
Yet, during Saroo’s search and longing, a new home finds him. So, he moves from India to Australia, trading his Hindi for English and his native culture for a foreign one. At one point, an adult Saroo states, “I’m adopted. I’m not really Indian.” These words demonstrate the loss/found paradox that exists within our protagonist–a paradox that culminates in a strong inner tension. For twenty-five years, Saroo has been able to forget his past–his mother, his siblings, his home. Instead, he embraces a new world, accepting Sue and John Brierly as his parents. He finds a new sense of self, a new home, a new place. Yet, a reminder of his old home brings hidden emotions to the forefront. And Saroo realizes that despite everything that he has gained, he is still lost. He realizes that the only way to regain his sense of self is to find his biological mother and his siblings. So, he sets out to do so.
Take heed: this film is not for the faint of heart. As it addresses child abuse, familial issues, and identity, we, as the audience, are asked to navigate tumultuous terrain. In fact, the film compellingly uses setting, whether through natural landscapes or overcrowded cities, to evoke a sense of excursion and discovery. At times, we feel lost, just as Saroo does, looking for a place to rest and escape. Yet, thanks to a superb cast that includes Dev Patel (Saroo), Nicole Kidman (Sue), and newcomer, Sunny Pawar (a young Saroo), we are gracefully led through the story. Though we experience pangs to the gut and heart, they feel necessary, since we know that we’re being led to an unbelievably breathtaking conclusion.
Overall, Lion is a film about place, which makes sense, considering that Google Earth is an instrumental part of Saroo’s story. It’s about where we are and where we feel we should be and the outcome of this conflict.