LION. Directed by Garth Davis and starring Dev Patel as Saroo, Rooney Mara, Nicole Kidman and David Wenham as Sue and John Brierley. Based on Saroo Brierley’s A Long Way Home.
Halfway through LION, in a random moment, a young man named Saroo Brierley tastes a pastry called “jalebis” (an Indian fried-dough treat) This “Madeleine” moment, a la Proust, triggers events that will cast his mind back to a lost childhood in India and forward to an odyssey in search his true identity.
LION is one of the most powerfully affecting films of the year. The year is 1986 when five-year old Saroo is separated from his older brother and his mother in the small province of Kandhwa, India. Left to roam the streets with his older brother in search of coal to trade for milk, a series of accidents separate them, and he finds him trapped in a fast train bound for Calcutta. There, adrift in the push and shove of the city, unable to understand the Bengali language, he survives by sheer pluck and good fortune. In one narrow escape he is taken in by a lovely young woman who, it turns out, is a member of a child kidnapping ring. Instinctively, he senses something wrong and he flees. Later, he is taken to what seems to be an orphanage, where there are hints of physical and sexual abuse. But a kindly agent from a Lost Child organization intervenes and Saroo is sent on a long journey to the island of Tasmania in Australia to meet his adoptive parents, Sue and John Brierley. A new world opens up to the child.
Twenty years later, Saroo, now a handsome young adult and loving family man, enrolls in a Hotel Management program in Melbourne, where he meets lovely young Lucy, and seems headed for a lucrative career. But then, there is that momentary taste of the pastry he had so loved as a boy in Kandhwa. As the days and weeks pass, Saroo begins to think about his lost childhood and the fate of his mother. He is haunted by the pain she must have felt all these years, searching, searching for the boy lost to her. Saroo’s preoccupation grows into obsession as he studies his wall map and gazes at the computer Google Earth search screen. Increasingly frustrated, he grows distant from his parents and withdraws from his girl friend. And then, magically, one night, he falls into a trance as watches the marker on the computer screen moves restlessly across the global map—like the marker on a Ouija board?—coming, inevitably, to rest on a small dot on the global map. It’s a marvelous sequence, as the film cross-cuts from him tracking the computer screen, to recollections of the child he was, back and forth, as if the child he was is guiding the man he now is. Here is a superb demonstration of the power of editing.
Off to India, Saroo reverses the journey begun more than twenty years before. Ironically, when he finds his tiny village, he no longer can communicate in his native tongue. Language was an obstacle when as a boy he couldn’t speak Bengali, and now it is his own native tongue, Hindi, that is lost to him. But the encounter with his ageing mother, the prolonged embrace, the growing excitement of the villagers surrounding them is a powerfully emotional moment. This affect is compounded in the closing images from the real-life reunion in Kandhwa of Saroo’s adoptive parents with his newfound biological family.
The stunning first half of the story is virtually wordless, with an untrained newcomer, Mumbai native Sunny Pawar, quietly amazing as the boy Saroo.
The best is saved for last. A title informs us that Saroo had been mispronouncing his birth name. With the proper pronunciation, the name means—