Director: Garth Davis
Cast: Sunny Pawar, Dev Patel, Rooney Mara, Nicole Kidman, Priyanka Bose
Straight off the bat, it’s easy to see why Lion – essentially a “desi” film made by an Australian director – invokes direct comparisons with Slumdog Millionaire, the Mumbai-underbelly-centric Oscar winning underdog story directed by British filmmaker Danny Boyle. It’s not only because both star Dev Patel, the lanky young British-Indian actor who has virtually made a career out of bridging the controversial cinematic gap between the ‘Reality’ and ‘Expectation’ panels of modern India’s Hollywood sojourns.
I’ve personally been guilty of dismissing such films as ‘poverty porn’ or ‘the India they want to see’. But over the years, I’ve grown to appreciate, and even admire, this distinct Western gaze through which we often see our country on universal screens. The list includes Gandhi as well as The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel franchise.
Firstly, I’ve learned to drop the tag of “exoticization”; cinema, by definition, is a medium of hyperbole and romanticism. As long as royal elephants aren’t shown invading cities, any visual dramatization of geography is well within the rules of creative licenses. Confusing aesthetic choices and tasteful – unusual – palettes (for instance, Lion ends with an upbeat Sia pop hit) as lack of authenticity or tasteless denationalization is not a different ideology from, say, the chaps who insist you stand for the national anthem before every screening.
Perhaps it’s down to insecurities of our own, of having to watch them come here – as if invading our sensibilities and downtrodden villages – and film our lands, and then have the gall to land global award nominations with this work. To grudge the ‘white world’ for representing our country for what it is – and this is, in fact, the real India, all seventy percent of it – is sort of self-defeating. The muck and the grime and the shady, colourful characters may be things we either take for granted, or have enough of in our own hinterland films, but that shouldn’t necessarily impact our perception of foreign (which is vastly different from “alien”) perspectives.
Garth Davis’ Lion indulges in the framing and conditioning that we are known to despise; it spends several minutes at a go exploring muddy lanes, crowded stations, insidious faces and the general ‘brown’ chaos, at times without a line of dialogue, with Dustin O’Halloran’s urgent strings conveying the claustrophobia of Boyle’s hyperkinetic camerawork from Slumdog Millionaire.
To be fair, there’s a separate honesty about this vision – the kind you sense when you hear tourists excitedly narrating tales of hidden Asia, about places even us inhabitants haven’t bothered to reach yet. When it’s in our own backyard, a lot of romance, respectfulness and curiosity even, lose its way in artistic translation. Filming, and traversing, foreign destinations has its own charm; you observe harder, the nuances jump out bigger, almost with a child-like wide-eyed enthusiasm – much like we see young Saroo (pocket dynamo Sunny Pawar) for the first forty minutes of the film.
The kid is lost at a railway station, and watches haplessly as an empty train shuttles him miles away from his life, mother (Priyanka Bose) and brother (Abhishek Bharate). He reaches Kolkata, and escapes the exploitation grind before it’s too late, soon to be adopted by a gentle Australian couple (Nicole Kidman, David Wenham).
These initial portions are virtually wordless, simple without being simplistic, an extended montage of bad people aching to take advantage of a ripe, homeless boy. At one point, while escaping traffickers, he runs right past a cop, trusting his uniform as much as he could any shifty grown-up thus far.
Patel plays his adult version in Australia, two decades later, still haunted by images of his past. It turns into an annoyingly personal quest for him, perhaps guided by the same instinct that doesn’t allow me to ask for directions when I’m lost. The thrill of discovering it on your own is unparalleled, but Saroo’s predicament is exceedingly more important.
By now, new technology allows him to get obsessed with Google Earth and its likes, and his existential angst threatens to derail the life (and love, manifested in fellow student Rooney Mara) he is so generously gifted down under.
The problem with Lion, though, isn’t down to the lens it uses or its innate predictability. It’s just that this isn’t a remarkably unique movie; most of the time nothing is really happening, except Saroo’s overwhelming, abstract and somewhat un-filmable urge to find his roots. It’s this relentless moodiness that perhaps leads us to believe that maybe this journey isn’t as important – or intriguing – as it’s made out to be. It’s a true story, yes, but much of the magic already lies in its circumstances; you don’t need to see repetitive memories and hallucinations to imagine the pain and guilt of being yanked away from home.
The final hour is, for lack of a better term, quite boring. Extensive hooks are given to Kidman and Mara, but they never really add anything to the heft of an against-all-odds lost-and-found screen adaptation. That the film’s crucial scene, the revelation, is more spiritual than methodical doesn’t quite fit in with its desperate search; surely, the era’s technological boom could have been roped in more appropriately.
Patel is pensive, and considerably low-key compared to previous performances (Newsroom remains his best), but close-ups of his scruffy face spiraling into darkness are overstated – visibly willing us to “feel” the buildup to an end we all know about. When it does arrive, tears flow. But this isn’t because of the film that precedes it. We feel the kind of generic emotions that could well have been without context – even the result of a random YouTube soldier-coming-home video, or a short owner-meets-dog-after-decade clip. We feel deeply, not because the film has led us to wait for it (and it did, needlessly, forever), but because this moment is universal in its power. It could stand alone and still tell us what the filmmakers take 120-odd minutes to depict.
A well-written article would incite similar reactions, which is where a feel-good tearjerker like this loses half its reason to exist. A pity, given that its ‘gaze’ is actually the only thing that affords Lion a belated, half-throated roar.