Film review: Lion (2016)

I was quite disappointed with this highly acclaimed film, based on a true story, that was nominated for six Academy Awards (though it did not win any) including for best film and for best supporting actors for Dev Patel and Nicole Kidman.

The first half of it is about a five-year old boy Saroo in India who lives in a remote town with his mother, older brother Guddu whom Saroo idolizes, and sister Shekila. His family is extremely poor and his mother works as a laborer gathering rocks in the heat of the day. Guddu and Saroo engage in petty thievery to buy food for the family and help out their mother. But one day while he and Guddu are out on another such mission, Saroo gets separated from his brother and, after falling asleep on a train, ends up in Kolkatta, a teeming city over a thousand miles away. After wandering the streets fending for himself and fending off people who seem friendly initially but have darker motives, he ends up in an orphanage with a large number of other street children. A kindly official, after failing to locate his mother, arranges for him to be adopted by an Australian couple (mother played by Kidman) living in Tasmania.

I found this first half of the film utterly engrossing, thanks to tight storytelling and highly engaging performances by Sunny Pawar as the young Saroo, Abhishek Bharate as his older brother Guddu, and Priyanka Bose as their mother. The scenes with the two boys together and then Saroo alone as he lives on the streets of Kolkatta, not speaking any Bengali, and trying to figure out where he is and get back to his adored elder brother and mother are very affecting.

The film then jumps twenty years into the future and the young man Saroo (played by Patel who seems to have become the go-to actor to play young Indian men in western films) suddenly decides to try and find his birth family using Google Earth and his few memories of what the place he grew up in looks like.

I thought this second half of the film fell flat and lacked focus even though this was where the big-name actors Patel, Kidman, and Rooney Mara (as the older Saroo’s girl friend) took over. While you really cared about the young Saroo, Guddu, and their mother, one never felt the same connection with the older Saroo and his new family and friends. Their relationships and motivations were confused and their overly emotive acting only made it worse. My interest flagged during the second half of the film and perked up only when there were flashbacks to the times of the younger boys and their mother.

Interestingly, although Saroo’s Australian mother hardly ages over the twenty-year lapse, his Indian mother ages greatly. I initially thought that this was a little incongruous and due perhaps to the filmmakers wanting to preserve Kidman’s glamorous looks, though Bose is also very attractive. But later I reflected that it was realistic. Kidman plays a well-to-do Australian living in comfort, whereas Bose plays a woman living a life of grinding poverty and hard manual outdoor labor, coupled with the grief of losing her child and not knowing where Saroo was. The ravages of time would be much more visible on her face.

Here’s the trailer.

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