Screen stories of separated brothers and waiting mothers may be familiar (especially to Indian audiences), but Garth Davis’s Lion (2016) wipes off every “know-all” smirk. The 120-minute film is adapted from Saroo Brierley’s A Long Way Home, the author’s account of himself as a lost village child from Madhya Pradesh wandering the streets of Calcutta in 1986. Five-year-old Saroo was eventually adopted by an Australian couple settled in Tasmania. Some 20 years later, equipped with vivid memories and assisted by Google Earth, Saroo finds the long way to his real family, home and identity.
Sunny Pawar plays Saroo. When Lion was awarded in various categories at multiple international film festivals in 2017, nothing could rain on Sunny’s parade. His quaint, grainy voice, luminous eyes and sparkling smile had won him a world of virtual adoptive parents. Sunny Pawar was not just the debut kid on the screen – he was the tiddler who made it to the top, red carpet and all.
Davis said in an interview, “We never worshipped the child. We kicked him at ground level and never made him feel extra-special. And we tried to keep it as fun as possible, and I think that approach allowed him to do some really beautiful work.”
The age and therefore small size of Saroo make him both endearing and amusing in safe surroundings. He can ride weightlessly on his older brother Guddu’s shoulders and his legs can fit neatly between the handle bars of a cycle. He is a deft, invisible coal stealer, but he needs to stand on tiptoe to peer into a slightly raised kadai of sizzling jalebis .However, on the night that sets a chain of irreversible events in motion, it is Saroo’s size that makes his predicament all the more alarming.
Train scavenger Guddu (Abhishek Bharate) disappears into the night, leaving Saroo on a station bench. Saroo awakes alone, a desert of darkness around him. A water tank looms above him while he stands a bewildered midget below. The big close-ups of Saroo’s searching face and detail shots of his trotting little feet are poignant as he crosses the tracks and boards a stationary train looking for his brother.
Still drowsy, Saroo curls up on a seat and nods off .When he awakes, it is to the terror of a moving trap – the train is running away with him. After two nights, the train doors are opened at Calcutta’s Howrah station, and Saroo vanishes in a storm of luggage-laden passengers. It is only when he shins up a pipe that we realise he has not been trampled to death. Penniless and bedraggled, he practically hangs on his fingertips at a ticket window and asks unintelligibly for “Ginestlay,” (Ganesh Talai), his home, now 1,600 kms away.
A taller child may have been more noticeable. An older child may have pronounced the name of his hometown correctly. But Saroo cannot even pronounce his own name – Sheru (lion) – and now he is adrift in a sprawling city infamous on screen for its poverty, danger and cruel indifference.
What Davis describes on the Lion DVD extras to be Saroo’s “external journey” is particularly affecting because the script (by Luke Davies) cinematography (by Greig Fraser) and editing (by Alexandre de Franceschi) all work in tandem to make a scene-stealer of Sunny Pawar, so appropriately chosen by casting director Kirsty MacGregor.
“You are too little,” Guddu had once told Saroo.
“I am little,” Saroo had agreed, grinning. “But I am clever.”
In one of the best parts of the film (which is not in Brierly’s book), Saroo realises that the apparently generous Gold Spot-guzzling Noor (Tannishta Chatterjee, in a memorable performance) is not to be trusted any more than the sleazy Ram (Nawazuddin Siddiqui) she is in cahoots with. There are other departures from Brierly’s book, but we are spared the smarts of a typical screen urchin swept up in a meandering, gratuitous plot.
In his 55-minute debut performance, Sunny Pawar is also given scope to be a happier Saroo. A charming scene is when fortunate adoptees like himself learn dining table etiquette from the gentle Mrs Sood (played by thespian Deepti Naval). Another delightful moment is later in Australia, when Saroo surprises his adoptive parents (Nicole Kidman and David Wenham) with his first word – “payper” (pepper). Yet another is in a cricket match for three, when Kidman and Wenham let Pawar steal the show.
It seems Sunny Pawar is India’s Little Big Man. Bollywood A-Listers can eat their hearts out.