Lion movie review: Dev Patel roars in this Oscar-worthy triumph. 5 stars
Director - Garth Davis
Cast - Dev Patel, Sunny Pawar, Nicole Kidman, David Wenham, Rooney Mara, Priyanka Bose, Deepti Naval, Tannishtha Chatterjee, Nawazuddin Siddiqui
Rating - 5/5
When someone tells you a truth you do not want to hear, it is not uncommon to lash out in anger. There is confusion, there is shame, there is embarrassment, and when it all gets too overwhelming, when the mind loses its ability to think rationally, or speak, there is fury.
Not only does Lion make you confront these truths – it does, in the most devastating manner – it leaves you stranded with them.
For almost a decade, I have avoided re-watching Slumdog Millionaire; not because it isn’t a good film, but because it is a great film, because the truths it told were too uncomfortable, too close to home. Even now, after all these years, hearing the briefest melody of AR Rahman’s score, or inadvertently coming across a glimpse of Jamal selling knick-knacks on trains is difficult to process, simply because of the dormant emotions these images and sounds revive.
For 9 years, there has been no other film that has pulled those same triggers. Until now. Until Lion.
It’s the incredible true story of Saroo Brierley, a child who is separated from his poor mother in rural Madhya Pradesh, and after surviving on the streets for months, 1600 kilometres from home, is adopted by an Australian couple. Years later, as an adult, still haunted by the fading memories of his childhood, the sights and smells he grew up with, he attempts to find his birth mother.
For close to an hour, Lion is tremendously difficult to watch. We observe, as a young Saroo fights away the monsters that lurk behind corners to lure him into their dens, from behind a thin veil, separated by a movie screen, unable to reach out, helpless, forced to look at a reality that we usually ignore. Those opening scenes have a relentless Dickensian harshness to them that ends only with the arrival of Nicole Kidman and David Wenham, as Saroo’s saviours (and in many ways, ours). And then, further reassurance that the worst is truly behind us arrives when the film jumps forward 20 years, and Dev Patel takes over as Saroo from the magical Sunny Pawar.
For a film that is essentially a two-act piece, this is the respite it sorely needed. The memories of the past will forever be etched into our minds, as they are in Saroo’s, but now, we can begin the journey to recovery, with Dev Patel leading the way like he never has before.
There is an argument to be made against Patel’s nomination for Best Supporting Actor at the Oscars, but let’s not get lost in meaningless semantics. This film deserves more than that. He is the star of the show, and if the frankly dubious workings of awards season politics help him win that golden statue, then so be it. Because that is what he deserves.
But if praise is being heaped, and there is no other way to address this film, then it must also be directed towards director Garth Davis, who, unbelievably, is making a feature debut here. Together with his DP, the extraordinary Greig Fraser and his composers, Hauschka and Dustin O’Halloran, they’ve captured a reality about our country that I believe is impossible for an Indian to. Some truths, it is clear, can only be seen by foreign eyes.
The film floats in and out of an almost dreamlike state. To balance the grimness of Saroo’s life – especially when he is lost in Calcutta – Davis adds a touch of magic realism. It is the only way that we, as an ignorant and pampered audience, can participate in this story. We weep not because we see a young child lost in a big bad world, but because we cannot do anything to help him.
Because the poverty that we see every day, the poverty that we choose to ignore every day is no dream. The tiny faces that scurry around on our streets, the same faces that disappear only moments later, consumed by our unforgiving cities; the faces that rap on the windows of our cars, and the faces that we see sleeping on train stations, scarred, dirty, limp hands by their sides, finally freed of the damp rags that they’ve been clutching all day. They’re no dream.
And yet they haunt us, even though their impact rarely elicits anything more than sympathy, or sometimes, when we’re feeling especially emotional, guilt.
These aren’t pleasant thoughts, and in that respect, Lion is not a pleasant film, however cathartic that ending may be. But thank God it exists. We need more films like it, like Slumdog, to shame us into being better by showing us our worst, and to inspire us into being brave, by showing us our best.
“We swan about in our privileged lives… It makes me sick!” splutters Saroo in the film to his girlfriend.
This is the truth that we have been avoiding all our lives. It’s back. It’ll keep coming back. What’re you going to do about it?