Lion tells the tragic story of a lost boy. With stunning imagery, and based on real events (see http://tinyurl.com/kwsy4es), the movie recounts the separation of five-year old Saroo (Sunny Pawar) from his older brother Guddu (Abhishek Bharate), after they set off for a week-long job that Saroo, although not prepared for, begged to join. Raised by a single "mum" (Priyanka Bose) in abject poverty in a remote Indian village, the boys set off on an overnight trip until Saroo is physically exhausted. Guddu tells him to remain on a train station bench, and when Saroo awakens frightened in the middle of the night, he finds his way onto a resting train that locks and resumes after the boy falls back asleep, forcing him on two-day journey to Calcutta, 1600 miles from home. Upon arriving there, the young boy's inability to convey critical details is exacerbated by the different languages, Bengali in Calcutta, and a Hindi dialect in his home village, the name of which he cannot quite pronounce.
The movie displays India's profound poverty, with clustered children sleeping on cardboard mats, bait for sexual predators masquerading as concerned adults. Viewers are left to wonder if Saroo will suffer a fate worse than starvation. Saroo's honed street smarts somehow exceed those of the adults who find him, but at the price of months-long isolation under a bridge. Through the kindness of one stranger, and the incompetence of the police (unable or too impatient to decipher the off-pronunciation of Saroo's home village), the boy is taken to an orphanage, which a girl rightly describes as a "terrible place." Although it is unclear why, Saroo cannot remain there, and his only option is adoption by a couple living in Tasmania, half a world away. His new parents, John and Sue Brierley (David Wenham and Nicole Kidman), especially adore the oldest of their “two brown-skinned boys,” as Sue had dreamed of adopting since she was a young girl, and they give him every opportunity to thrive. He does, growing into a charming young man (Dev Patel) whose primary conflict is with a younger adopted brother, Mantosh, also from India, a possible victim of PTSD, Autistic, or both. The loving Saroo's only apparent weakness is an ironical lack of empathy for his empathy-deficient brother.
At the University in Melbourne to study hotel management, and triggered by seeing a Jalebi, an Indian pastry he had longed for as a child, Saroo's promising life begins to unravel. His intense focus on finding his home and biological family derails his studies, undermines a romantic relationship, and strains his adoptive family. The quest seems insurmountable as his only recollections are "mum," "Guddu," a mispronounced village name, and two days trapped in a train en route to Calcutta. Even Google Earth has its limitations.
Although based on a true story, the movie depiction is reminiscent of Paulo Coelho's famous novel, The Alchemist (http://tinyurl.com/knc9t5t). There a boy sets off in search of a wonderful treasure, instead taking a prolonged journey that reveals life's greatest treasure is finding one's purpose and identity. The literature on happiness shows that what we claim to value, what we think will give us pleasure, is often quite different from what brings true pleasure. Happiness is not immediate, hedonistic, gratification; it is finding true meaning. Lion juxtaposes the deepest of poverty, the dangers of predation, with material comforts in the context of a dedicated and loving family. But something is missing.
For Saroo, there is a deep void, one that he feels some responsibility for having created, and without doing all he can to fill it, the creature comforts leave him empty. He despairs. In the pivotal scene when he solves the mapping puzzle, expanding the search radius, he gains a laser like focus, a true mission, and a deeper sense of self. It is a cliché to say that the journey is more important than the destination, and perhaps it is also untrue. Journey and destination are not always easily separated. The human mind is complex, non-linear. Opposing emotions loop around in our minds, evoking like responses: in Lion, intense sadness and intense happiness join in tears of lost opportunity, along with the joy of renewed connection and love. There are reasons for both emotions, and either is sufficient for the intense embrace, and the tears that flow, for a man, whose real name is Sheru, meaning Lion, and his mother, who have not seen each other for twenty-five years, and perhaps most of all for Saroo's eventual realization of yet another profound loss. As the credits close, we realize that for Saroo, the real treasure will not be uncovered in a single place called home, but rather will remain with two homes, and two families.
Lion is a movie about love, family, commitment, and journey. It is also a movie about what makes us happy, truly happy.
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