Sunday, October 9, 2016

In Search of Lost Identity - A Response to Lion

Dev Patel (of Slumdog Millionaire fame) once again stars in a tale of transformation and miracles. He goes from a life of unmitigated poverty in central India to a privileged upper middle class existence in Australia, and then makes an incredulous return to his roots decades later. Lion is a film based on the book The Long Way Home by Saroo Brierley on the true story of his life. The arc of the story is simple, and the viewer is aware all along that Saroo Khan comes full circle, back to his dusty hometown in Khandwa, India, twenty-five years after his adoption.

Saroo is a childhood mispronunciation of “Sheru” (meaning lion). The movie begins with Saroo and his older brother Guddu stealing coal from a moving train, a foreshadowing of the pivotal role a train-ride has in the life of this lion cub. We get a glimpse of the harsh life the brothers lead, eking out a living through pilfering and odd jobs, interspersed by the warmth of their fraternal bond and the love of their mother, an illiterate laborer whose meager livelihood earned by carrying rocks in the sandy plains of Khandwa is supplemented by the proceeds of her enterprising sons. Saroo’s enthusiasm for helping makes him insist that he accompany his teenage brother on his night job. This ill-fated decision leads to him being stranded on a decommissioned train carrying him a thousand miles away from his hometown to India’s third largest city.

Saroo’s weeks in Kolkata are by themselves a harrowing tale of grit and survival. Forced to experience a range of hardships from scavenging for food to escaping the hold of predatory adults, 5-year old Saroo miraculously survives alone as a street child, eventually ending up in an orphanage. An inability to give specifics about where he is from keeps him from locating his mother and returning home even when genuine help is at hand. In 1987, he is adopted by a well-to-do Australian couple, and begins life in Hobart, Tasmania.

The movie is directed by Garth Davis, a TV and commercial director for whom this is a first feature length film, and a strong contender for his first Oscar. Nicole Kidman and David Wenham star as Saroo’s adoptive parents. The 5-year old Saroo, portrayed brilliantly by Sunny Pawar captures with equal skill the adoration Saroo has for his older brother, the anguish and desperation of finding himself alone on a runaway train, and the endurance of a street-savvy homeless child tempered by innocence. Although still a cub, Sunny Pawar is the true star of this film. The Lion, played by Dev Patel, enters the story after a gap of 20 years from where the cub leaves off. It is a role for which Patel underwent considerable preparation in accent and physique, and which he delivers with roaring success. In an artistic deviation from the appearance of the real Saroo Brierley, Patel sports a mane of shoulder-length wavy black hair that grows progressively more unkempt and disheveled as his obsession to find his hometown through Google Earth grows. In contrast, Kidman’s appearance as Saroo’s adoptive mother is fashioned after the real Su Brierley. The most poignant scene with Kidman is one where mother and son discuss the circumstances of their relationship, and Su Brierley reveals the true depth of her love for her children.

Sunny Pawer as Saroo

Lion is a tale of survival, loss, and yearning set in the backdrop of two worlds that could not be more different. It is a story about the power of memory in shaping our identities - images that are projected silently for decades provoking no action until years later when the time is right and the ally of technology willing. Old memories are unearthed by an accidental sense trigger which then unleash in Saroo the unrestrainable desire to find his mother and brother. This insuppressible urge is a testament to the idea that we are who we were. We are what we have been.

The Saroo Brierley story is an incredible tale of a search for lost identity. It illustrates the point that the existential verb “to be” is always used in the present tense when talking about one’s origins. We say “I am from India,” and not “I was from India” because you can never take back where you are from.

In 2013, twenty-six years after he was adopted, Saroo Brierley returns again to India, this time with his adoptive mother, Su Brierley, to meet Fatima Munshi. 

The story of Saroo Brierley is a life-affirming narrative playing out in the context of a harsh reality. As the movie website projects, there are over 80,000 children who go missing in India every year. The UN estimates that there are 150 million street children in the world today.

Lion is scheduled to be released by The Weinstein Company on November 25th 2016.

Sheru Munshi Khan with Fatima Munshi

Mothers and Son