Little Saroo (Sunny Pawar) lives with his mother (Priyanka Bose), sister (Khushi Solanki) and beloved older brother Guddu (Abhishek Bharate) in a village near Khandwa, India. One night, he follows Guddu to the station, where his brother plans to spend the night scavenging on passenger trains. When Saroo unwittingly falls asleep aboard a train, he is separated from Guddu – and finds himself travelling thousands of miles across the country, towards Calcutta.
Far from home and unable to speak the language, Saroo is swallowed up in the vastness of the city. Evading dangers at every turn, he ends up in an orphanage. The future looks bleak until he is told that an Australian couple, Sue and John Brierly (Nicole Kidman and David Wenham), want to adopt him.
Twenty years later, Saroo is a bright and athletic young Australian (Dev Patel) who is set to study Hotel Management in Melbourne. He meets fellow student Lucy (Rooney Mara) and begins to fall in love. But something is missing. The taste of a food from his childhood brings memories flooding back, and Saroo realises that he can’t rest until he’s found home.
The true story of Saroo Brierly feels as though it’s been lifted more from myth or fairytale than from the headlines. It’s a classic hero’s journey: the boy who travels a long way from home, passes through a series of trials, and then finds his way back again as a changed man.
This arc gives Lion an inherent power, which is harnessed by screenwriter Luke Davies and director Garth Davis to great effect. It’s a film of two halves, balancing India and Australia, boy and man, lost and found. Its greatest asset is tiny Sunny Pawar, who plays young Saroo with extraordinary spirit and naturalism.
The Australian segment of the film has a few on-the-nose moments, but largely succeeds in bringing Saroo’s story in to land. Dev Patel is excellent, as is Nicole Kidman, and winningly Lion does not shy away from the thornier aspects of transnational adoption. A second adopted son, Mantosh (Keshav Jadhav/Divian Ladwa), is shaped for life by his early traumas and proves a difficult addition to the Brierly home. Though he settles more easily at first, Saroo eventually finds himself haunted and in a sense homeless. Cut off from his roots, he cannot reconcile his childhood and adulthood selves.
Saroo’s story plays out on the painful fault-line between identities. Being brought to Australia has saved him from any number of terrible fates, has afforded him wonderful opportunities, and put him at the centre of his adopted parents’ love. And yet there is a sense in which he shouldn’t be there at all. He had a home, he had a family, and his separation from them was an injustice (on the part of the Indian authorities who failed to properly take up his case) and a tragedy.
Little Saroo isn’t just helpless because he’s little: he’s helpless, and is denied help, because his family is poor and illiterate. He’s just one more among thousands of street children whose lives are worth little to those in authority. While he is lost in the city we constantly see little Saroo trying to climb up for a better view, struggling in vain for some power over his situation. It isn’t until he is gifted the privileges of wealth and education by the Brierlys that Saroo is afforded the ultimate, literal aerial view – that provided by Google Earth.
It’s impossible not to be moved by Saroo’s bittersweet homecoming. It’s a big and a broken world, Lion reminds us: but just sometimes, by some miracle, a small piece of it gets put back together again.
- Did you enjoy the film, and why, or why not? Did you know Saroo’s story before going in?
- How did you respond to the first section of the story, as young Saroo became separated from his family? How did the filmmakers, and actor Sunny Pawar, convey the experience of a small child lost in the big city? Which details did you find particularly moving?
- What did you think of the film’s portrayal of India? How might filmmakers avoid stereotypes when portraying countries which are not their own?
- How did Lion portray Sue and John’s desire to adopt, and their experience of being adoptive parents? What might be the unique challenges, for parents, of adopting a child from another culture or with a traumatic background?
- Why is finding his birth family so important to Saroo? What risks does he take by starting the search?
- How might Saroo’s hunt for home reflect the universal human search for identity and belonging? What do we need in order to know who we are, and where we belong?