The rate at which children mature is most often circumstantial. Street children, youth struggling under harsh circumstances, tend to have to learn the ways of the real world a lot quicker than those more fortunate. While they may take pride or revel in their freedom and independence (the allure of street life is reflected in Frontline’s India: A New Life), stark realities tend to be a lot more serious. Thankfully, through crafty strength and willpower, some survive, and flourish. In the first half of Lion, screenwriter Luke Davies and director Garth Davis bring the real life story of Saroo Brierley to screen, in all its Dickensian glory.
Filmmakers have been interested in depicting the struggles of street children on film, in both narratives and documentaries, for decades. Recent forays into the subject expose audiences to a breadth of different perspectives, geographically ranging from Romania to Morocco, and even to here in the United States.
Nominated for Best Foreign Language Film at the Academy Awards, Indian American director Mira Nair’s 1988 Hindi film, Salaam Bombay!, notedly used real street children, who were trained prior to filming at acting workshops in Bombay. The story is that of a young boy who gets in trouble with his mother, joins the circus and is theretofore abandoned by it. He hops on a train to Bombay, and there befriends some local thieves. The film, a hit in the US and abroad (winning the Camera D’or and Prix du Publique at Cannes), established Nair (who, before Salaam Bombay!, was a documentary filmmaker) as an international talent to watch. In tandem, Nair established the Salaam Baalak Trust (which NPR referenced in a 2011 piece about India’s street kids), an organization to help rehabilitate the kids from the movie. This organization, still in existence today, supports street children in Bombay, Delhi, and Bhubaneshwar.
Instances of street children in films from other countries include Children Underground, a documentary that follows orphaned children in Romania, and Ali Zaoua: Prince of the Streets (pictured above), a narrative revolving around a group of Moroccan street children attempting to give their deceased friend a proper burial. In his 2007 indie drama, Chop Shop, Ramin Bahrani takes another approach, crafting a narrative around a resourceful street orphan on the outskirts of Queens, New York. His attempts to make a better life for himself and his sixteen-year-old sister attest to his knowledge of street life.
While street children are not a uniquely Indian phenomenon, India is definitely the country most plagued by the issue, with upwards of 90,000 children going missing each year. Lion’s tale of Saroo is inspiring, but the issue does not end when the film does. Unlike Saroo, many of the street children in India do not have the means to escape their circumstances and find refuge. Sadly, they endure, but the prominence of charities focused on the issue is attempting to change. Two organizations that are attempting to mobilize corporate and political leaders to raise awareness are Railway Children and Childline India Foundation. Railway Children deals primarily with children in India who find themselves lost in chaotic railway stations. They work at the street, community, and government levels, creating child protection committees and attempting to make train stations more friendly. Childline India Foundation, on the other hand, has set up the first 24-hour crisis hotline for children in emergency situations. The organization has also installed kiosks at train and bus stops to help lost children, regardless of literacy.
To find out more information about these issues and how you can help make a difference, click here. You can also enter for a chance to win a trip to L.A. for a Lion celebratory toast with Nicole Kidman and Dev Patel.