A week ago, I went to see the film Lion.
Seems like I’ll be taking back what I said in my last film review about being someone who rarely cries at movies – this also made me sob like a wuss. What the hell is happening to me?
I imagine that in most reviews of Lion, somewhere the word ‘poignant’ will pop up. And it’s true, if there’s one adjective I’d use to sum the film up, ‘poignant’ or ‘moving’ would probably be my best bet. It would be dismissive to say that this was only because of the narrative. Although it’s true that as a director, already having an intensely emotional plotline to work with (especially based on a true story, like this one) can make your job a bit easier, it doesn’t 100% assure that the emotion will translate onto the screen and into a viewer’s heart. The director, Garth Davis, does an astounding job of submerging viewers beneath the surface level of what they can feel, of developing emotion rather than expecting it to develop itself. We truly sympathize/empathize (depending on your life experiences) with the characters. There is a lot of face-touching. But as the apparent sap I am, I have no qualms with this.
The film is about a 5-year-old boy named Saroo who lives with his mother, sister, and brother called Guddu, in India. One night, Saroo is sleeping and is woken by the stirs of his older brother who is leaving in the middle of the night to go to work. After much persuasion, Guddu finally allows Saroo to accompany him on his night shift. Initially, this short, understated scene is innocent and actually quite funny. In comparison to other scenes, it doesn’t seem to stand out as anything specifically important. It was only during reflection that I realized how modestly significant and heart-breaking the scene is, as it incites the idea of decision making; how one seemingly inconsequential or trivial choice (often not even our own) can change and affect a whole host of people’s lives. Unknowingly to Saroo, the course of his life changes from the moment his brother gives in to his pleas. He gets lost, and won’t find his way back for 25 years.
Lion is a modest, subtle film; it is one that refuses to draw attention to the techniques that it makes use of. It’s this modesty which creates its artistry and meaning. The camera tends to move – pan and zoom – very slowly, soaking in the imagery and dragging out important moments so that their sentiment has time to resonate. Nothing ever feels rushed. Most of the music is orchestral and non-diegetic, such as swelling piano or strings, which complements the pace. In comparison to most 21st century films, the dialogue is quite sparse, particularly during the second half. I remember it was about 30 minutes into Dev Patel’s part when I realised that he doesn’t really speak a lot for a protagonist. No one does. Close-ups are very frequent, and often it’s a character’s silence or facial expression that hits the hardest. Although it’s not a silent movie by any means, Davis decides to evoke most of our emotion through imagery and camerawork, demonstrating that less really is more.
Another reason why the film doesn’t draw attention to its own film-making is because it wants to stay rooted in realism. Being based on real-life events, one of the things I love is that it never sugar-coats Saroo’s story. It submerges us into the frightening reality of our own world. When Saroo is lost, nobody helps him. He witnesses children being kidnapped. He is almost kidnapped himself. He goes hungry. He lives on the streets, and when someone finally takes him in, we discover that their intentions are depraved. All the while, as a viewer, we’re implored to always bear in mind that this wasn’t and still isn’t fiction.
I couldn’t write a review on this film without mentioning the acting of Sunny Pawar. There is an ancient adage in Hollywood: ‘don’t work with children or animals’, and this kid is a prime example of why that can be poor advice. Sunny Pawar steals the show; his performance as young Saroo is so convincing and powerful that it’s impressive not only because of the actor’s age but regardless of it.
Typically, when films have a ‘younger version’ character, their part doesn’t run for very long, usually a maximum of 30 minutes or so. Lion completely throws this format out of the window, essentially splitting the narrative into two, young Saroo’s story and older Saroo’s story. Each one gets roughly an hour of screen time, and for the most part, this works. It shows that both journeys are as important and as reliant on the other; that a background story in a character’s past is critical to understanding the character’s present. The theme of past and present is a thorough exploration. Even the most passive of movie-goers can’t overlook how deeply Lion delves into a multi-faceted idea of time.
Out of everything Lion does well, the bits I appreciated the most were when Davis mingles the past and the present. This is done in the 2nd half of the film, when 20 years later, older Saroo is literally confronted with his past. For instance, he begins seeing images of his brother Guddu in his everyday life. (When, by the end of the film, we discover that Guddu died the same night Saroo got lost, it would make these scenes unnerving to re-watch, as it’s like he’d been seeing a ghost.) Although it’s kept unclear whether these are actual physical hallucinations or more symbolic, what they do show is that to Saroo, despite the huge gap in his timeline, certain elements of his ‘then’ and his ‘now’ are inseparable. Also, after spotting an entrée of jalebis at a party, he immediately remembers them as food from his childhood. Smelling and seeing them, his senses transport him to old memories.
Because Saroo can’t escape his past, he does the opposite. He chases it. He becomes motivated by a deep desire to understand: to understand what happened to his mother and brother; to understand how he got lost; and perhaps most importantly, to understand his identity. This juxtaposition of past and present creates a paradox which translates on screen beautifully. But the theme of time is perhaps always conveyed in regards to another theme: family. We observe their effects on Saroo’s life whilst also being encouraged to reflect on our own. Through Saroo’s misfortune with his time and his family, we leave the cinema with a new sense of humility, not wanting to take those we love and the short time we have with them for granted.
A great scene, one which really gripped its hooks into my heart, is when older Saroo is talking to his adoptive mother who’s sitting down, looking teary-eyed and drained. The almost apologetic, euphemistic way he speaks to her, as though he believes that his role in her life has ultimately been a burden or that she’d have been better off without him, is so sad to watch (“when you adopted us, you also adopted our pasts”). The scene develops in a way which shows the selflessness, care and devotion of his mother, and reinforces the fact that he, Saroo, was always wanted. The dynamic between them is interesting and beautiful – I wish the film would’ve explored their relationship more than Saroo’s relationship with his on/off girlfriend.
Since the invention of film, adding unnecessary romance to a narrative is such an overused trope to the point where it’s basically one of cinema’s greatest downfalls, and sadly, Lion falls into this trap. Although I like Rooney Mara as an actress, and I thought her character, Lucy, was interesting in showing another aspect to the theme of love, she is not super important to the plot – it’s a drama, not a romance. The film favours the relationship between Saroo and Lucy at the expense of his own characterisation. I wouldn’t have scrapped Lucy’s character completely, but I think it would’ve been better to have put more emphasis on getting to know and understand present-day Saroo individually, like we did with his younger version. I imagine that most people watching Lion will feel a lot more for the child than they do the adult even though they’re the same person. Furthermore, despite being told that Saroo is searching for the town from his past, we aren’t really physically shown this. We’re only shown when it’s being found, rather than the actual process of finding it, and I think that’s a real shame.
At the end of the film, Saroo tracks down the town he’s been searching for, and goes there to be reunited with his mother. (In real life, his birth mother never left the town because she had hope that her son would return. When she saw him again, she remarks that she felt a happiness ‘as deep as the ocean’). If this wasn’t heart-rendering enough, the film then shows a clip of the real life mum and adoptive mum meeting, and embracing. Watching a clip like that, a true moment, affects you more than any acting could do, and it somewhat took me aback. It shakes you from inside – you’re suddenly reminded that this was someone’s actual life, and even though you’re told that all along, without the clip I don’t think it would have had the same effect. It was a perfect way to cement the realism and bring the viewer back to Earth. When the lights came on, I don’t think there was a dry eye in the audience.
Overall, Lion is intimate and meditative both narratively and cinematically. What it sets out to accomplish, it does whole-heartedly: to tell an important story with grace, dignity and respect. With The Oscars coming up soon, I really hope it’s given the acclaim it deserves.