Massachusetts Daily Collegian

Quiet beauty roars in ‘Lion’

By Donald Cadman

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Kolkata, West Bengal, India. A man eating soup meets eyes with a small, lone child outside, imitating him with a dirty spoon, and he smiles.

This child is Saroo (Sunny Pawar), the protagonist of Garth Davis’ film “Lion,” and his story is more than meets the eye. The film introduces him with his brother Guddu (Abhishek Bharate), scavenging whatever goods they can find to help their single mother (Priyanka Bose). Saroo, too tired to help Guddu work while on a trip, is left on a railroad platform to wait for his brother’s return. Alone, Saroo boards a seemingly abandoned railcar and falls fast asleep.

He awakens to a nightmare: the train is moving, and Guddu is nowhere to be found. Saroo is stranded 1,000 miles from home for two months, vainly asking passers-by for help, despite speaking a completely different language from them.

This failure of verbal communication is a boon for “Lion,” as our primary forms of communication in the film are the faces, the gestures and the silences.

Saroo cries for help to a hermit beside the tracks, who stares blankly like other passers-by. Later, we recognize the hermit through his stark eyes, as he gives Saroo a piece of cardboard as a bed. The suffering, yet unextinguished humanity whispers without a word.

Thus, we return to our spoon scene. Without hearing a word (not like he would understand it) the man recognizes Saroo’s acknowledgement of hunger, and takes Saroo off the streets to the police. Like the man, we as an audience find words irrelevant. The movie’s language is what we see, the bare soul of the film.

20 years pass, and Saroo (now Dev Patel) has been adopted by an Australian couple (Nicole Kidman and David Wenham). He is accustomed to his new world, yet not entirely removed from the old. When he discovers Google Earth, Saroo begins browsing India until his search becomes a full-blown hunt.

But Saroo’s ultimate Google search is not your typical click-and-find: It takes him nearly two years to find anything that matches his home. Similar to the craftsmanship shown earlier, the film stands beside him during his tedious quest, from his pin-pointing of possible locations on wall-covering maps, to his random, rapid clicking across India as he slowly loses hope.

His other conflict in finding home is not that of the physical terrain, but the consequences of separating from the family he has been given. His adoptive parents whom he has known longer, an aggressive and mentally unstable step-brother (Divian Ladwa), who causes his mother much torment, and a girlfriend (Rooney Mara) who vainly forces Saroo to accept his reality, further complicate an already near-impossible search for a life that is long behind him.

These conflicts add depth, yet they feel at times a bit too ambitious, with enough plot points in the second half to carry a film on its own. These feel more like add-ons that complicate the main narrative than complete story-arcs in their own right.

While these scenes do not achieve their full potential, individual moments are still moving, such as a scene when Saroo questions his mother about why she adopted him and his brother despite the emotional strife it has given her. Oscar moment, perhaps? Maybe, but the scene is straightforward and powerful enough to overcome how overwrought it can seem to some.

While this second act breaches the pure cinematic experience we were introduced to at the beginning, the strife we experience with Saroo nonetheless makes us empathize all the more for his decades-long journey, even in the later scenes. They would not nearly be as investing or moving if we were not able to see them at Saroo’s level.

“Lion” succeeds by resisting to rely on sentimentality, opting for bare-bones emotion that is universally human. Once we have seen what Saroo went through, the film’s characters, as well as the audience, have earned the right to be watery-eyed.

Donnie Cadman can be reached at [email protected]

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