Lost at the age of five, adopted by an Australian family, and back home 25 years later with the help of Google Earth – the facts of Saroo Brierley’s life are the stuff of Oscar-nominated fiction.
Lion, the feature debut of Australian television director Garth Davis, is based on Brierley’s deeply affecting 2013 memoir A Long Way Home. Brierley writes about growing up dirt-poor in a slum near Burhanpur in Madhya Pradesh, being separated from his older brother Guddu, landing up in Kolkata in 1987 and wandering the city’s streets before being taken to a children’s home. Brierely was adopted after a few months by an Australian family from Tasmania. Twenty five years later, he retraced his steps through the Google Earth programme and returned home to visit his mother.
Lion follows the memoir’s double-weave of Saroo’s past and present. Brierley’s head is bursting with vivid images of his childhood and the Kolkata streets, on which lurk angels and human vultures. “If you survive, you learn to trust your instincts,” Brierley writes. Davis beautifully films this observation by regarding the first 52-odd minutes through the preternaturally wise and curious eyes of debutant actor Sunny Pawar. Born to face the camera but seemingly unaware of its presence, the tousle-haired Pawar is a find. The diminutive boy in his extra-large shirt and short pants delivers the film’s strongest and most memorable performance, matching wits with the estimable Nicole Kidman and overshadowing Dev Patel as his adult self.
In Lion, Patel sheds his tendency to play his characters broadly. But Pawar easily eclipses his efforts. As the young Saroo relies on his intelligence and instincts to survive the streets and overcome the loss of his mother Kamla (Priyanka Bose), Pawar proves that he is a natural.
Although Saroo’s plight ends with adoption by Sue (Kidman) and John (David Wenham), he never forgets Kamla and Guddu (Abhishek Bharate). The arrival of a second adopted brother also from India, Mantosh (Divian Ladwa), completes the Brierley family unit, but a Proustian moment involving a jalebi reminds Saroo of the past he cannot leave behind. The discovery of Google Earth consumes the young man, and he obsessively tries to retrace his journey, imperiling his relationship with his girlfriend Lucy (Rooney Mara).
Lion’s impact is inversely proportionate to Saroo’s age. The second half is altogether weaker and rushed, with numerous montages of Dev Patel working far too hard to earn his Oscar nomination in the supporting actor category.
To inject further drama into the necessarily passive nature of Saroo’s computer-aided quest, screenwriter Luke Davies broadens the story to explore Saroo’s relationship with Mantosh and Lucy. Saroo’s emotional journey is marked through melodramatic flashbacks and visions of Guddu. As Saroo stares at his computer screen, Davies and Davis underscore his anguish and dilute the impact of some of the film’s most affecting moments.
Among the noteworthy cameos is Deepti Naval as Sood, the woman who arranges the adoption and rewrites Saroo’s destiny. In real life, Saroo tracked down Sood, who was by then in her eighties, after returning to India, but the encounter has been excised from Lion. What could have been the perfect coda to an unbelievable story is kept firmly on the pages of Brierley’s memoir.