Apart from the all-encompassing luminosity of little Sunny Pawar — so young yet so wise — the one aspect of this soul-stirring journey into the incandescent side of the diaspora, is just how Indians are at heart. This film about a boy from a remote village in India adopted by an Australian couple.
Think Lord Krishna. Think of his two mothers. Think of the old Kishore Kumar song “Hey re kanhaiya kiss ko kahenga tu maiyya, ek ne tujhko janam diya re ek ne tujhko paala (Oh Lord Krishna, whom would you call your mother, one gave you birth the other brought you up)”.
“Lion” plays with the idea of a duality in self-identity, and in the cultural spiritual and geographical existence for its protagonist Saroo with an enrapturing earnestness. Director Garth Davis and his writer Luke Davis walk that extra mile to penetrate into the deepest recesses of the diasporic heart.
The film is unabashedly sentimental and, dare one say, unapologetically manipulative, specially in the first hour of playing-time when little Saroo is lost to the world… HIS world of his mother (Priyanka Bose, hamming it to the hilt) and his elder brother Guddu (Abhishek Bharate).
The images of little Saroo racing in an empty train that hurls him into the unknown, and then trying to find his way through the cold almost impersonal crowds of Kolkata, are profoundly moving. The lost child is a distant cousin of Chetan Anand’s “Aakhri Khat”, although he doesn’t even know it.
Cinematographer Greig Fraser’s view of Kolkata is very different from the way the city was shot in Roland Joffee’s “City Of Joy” 25 years ago. There is more of everything in the Kolkata of “Lion” including corruption debauchery and child abuse. The images of little Saroo trying to survive in the pitiless city are harrowing and magnificent.
In the sequence where Saroo phantom-feeds himself with a spoon I was left sobbing unabashedly.
Yes, “Lion” plays it high-stakes for tears, nowhere more so than in the dingy orphanage where little abused hungry sleepless children gather their little voices together to sing “Chanda ko dhundne sabhi taare nikal pade”.
Occupying centrestage in this dark and desperate world of poverty is little Saroo played with such intuitive wisdom by Sunny Pawar he makes all the acting schools of the world appear redundant. I am afraid the spark of genius dims in “Lion” once Sunny Pawar grows up into Dev Patel who makes Saroo’s cultural and geopolitical desolation seem far too cerebral and far too little reflexive.
A lot of times Patel is seen playing with his flowing tresses or blinking back elegant tears. He is looking at his character’s poignancy rather than getting into it. His relationships in his Australian home are way too sporadic and fleeting. That goes for Saroo’s half-hearted relationship with his girlfriend Lucy (Rooney Mara, in a criminally underwritten part) and more so with his half-brother, the psychologically disturbed Mantosh(Divian Ladwa).
In the one important sequence that the two brothers share — predictably at the dinner table — Saroo is shown to be distinctly mean towards Mantosh triggering a psychotic response in the latter.
Yes, there ought to have been more of the two brothers in the plot, and of the Australian mother Sue’s valiant but failed attempts to hold together a dysfunctional family. Nicole Kidman as Sue is grossly underused. In her one BIG SCENE where she tells Saroo why she didn’t have biological children her evangelical confessions are squandered in an almost biblical austerity of cinematic expression.
The film is edited so severely you feel it’s exercising a savage economy over Saroo’s emotional spaces which transcend unplumbed stretches of cultural specificity to occupy a kind of baggy free-spirited global significance that could have made for unwieldy cinema. This world of the translocated Indian urchin needed to be restrained. Garth Davis makes sure there is nothing over-done in the presentation.
Very often we get the feeling the director, an exceptional storyteller, is holding back the emotional torrent to avoid creating epic volumes of sentimentality. Nonetheless we wait for Saroo to journey back to his village in Madhya Pradesh to be united with his biological mother, only to be deeply let down by the hammy reunion sobs and atrocious old lady’s makeup of Priyanka Bose.
From the Indian cast, Tannishta Chatterjee and Nawazuddin Siddiqui fare much better in spite of their brief roles. But clearly and without a shadow of doubt “Lion” belongs to little Sunny Pawar, a natural-born actor of such indomitable power, it’s scary. Scarier than Saroo being lost in Kolkata is the thought of Sunny Pawar not being found to play Saroo.
Impressive even awe-inspiring in its emotional velocity “Lion” is a film that will stay with you for a long time. At a time when Indian cinema has become distinctly shy of wearing the heart on the sleeve here is a film that just lets it all hang out unconditionally and wholeheartedly.
Film: “Lion”; Director: Garth Davis; Cast: Nicole Kidman, David Wenham, Dev Patel, Roony Mara and above all, Sunny Pawar; Rating: ****(4 stars)