Lion, the Australian drama currently in the awards conversation, is based on the remarkable true story of Saroo Brierley—as documented in his 2013 memoir A Long Way Home—about an Indian man who crosses the globe and finds his way back to his birth family after being separated from them at a very young age. Not only does it have all the ingredients of a three-hankie weepie, it’s also enriched with the sensory experience of Dev Patel’s newly emerged sexual aura – with Samsonesque locks and smouldering shirtless looks aplenty. Unfortunately, the heartstring-tugging is an insidious distraction; Lion is yet another seemingly inclusive film that does little more than pander to its target white audience.
A young Saroo (Sunny Pawar) and his older brother Guddu (Abhishek Bharate) live with their mother (Priyanka Bose) in the small town of Khandwa, India. While asleep in an empty train carriage, Saroo ends up separated from his family and finds himself over a thousand kilometres away in Calcutta—in an alien town, amongst alien people and confronted with an alien language (Bengali). In his continued struggle for survival—various characters he encounters along the way try to take advantage of him—Saroo finally finds a safe haven with Australian couple John (David Wenham) and Sue (Nicole Kidman), who adopt him and bring him to the land of beauty, rich and rare. Saroo grows up (into Dev Patel) but continues to have existential nightmares about his biological mother calling out his name. How an older Saroo manages to trace his way back to his biological family forms the crux of the narrative.
It’s immediately apparent that Lion has good intentions. Sadly, that’s almost all it has. If director Garth Davis’ intended audience are only those white individuals who travel to “exotic” places like India to both experience the world and absolve themselves of their guilt of privilege, then he has hit the bullseye in terms of the film’s tone. Davis is content to play up the damaging stereotype of “happiness breeding in poverty” in the early scenes of the film where Saroo is with Guddu and his mother. His mother is a labourer and food is scarce, but the family give warm smiles to each other as the two kids share a packet of milk for a meal while their mother goes hungry. In that sense, Lion has a lot in common with Danny Boyle’s Slumdog Millionaire, an Oscar-winning act of white audience placating which parroted the same tiresome negative stereotypes about India: that it’s a chaotic, cruel and dirty place, and the majority of the people are poor, but all that is of little significance because the people have ‘big’ hearts.
Much of the current appraisal of Lion has centered around the emotionally powerful resonance of Brierley’s remarkable (and remarkably modern) story, at the expense of any discussion of the cultural markers within which this story takes place. This is an egregious mistake, alleging by omission that the story takes place in a cultural vacuum. That is not the case. In fact, the cultural specificity of this narrative is paramount to its effectiveness. This is a story of an Indian person, who gets adopted by an Australian family, and subsequently, has to come to terms with his identity and his own cultural history. The way these cultural markers are represented is where Lion ultimately proves to be fruitless: instead of adding any nuance or complexity to representations of India and Indian characters, it traffics in obnoxious generalisations and harmful stereotypes.
As Indian filmmaker Anurag Kashyap outlined to us last year, “Feel-good films don’t make the world a better place… They just make you feel good about yourself. They give you a false notion of your own greatness.” This is true, but feel-good films that claim an inclusive, multicultural mantle, only to go on and bungle it are far worse. They give us a false notion of our own empathy and understanding. Lion ends up being deceptively regressive: on the surface it feels progressive, because it has culturally diverse characters and is set equally in India and Australia. Beneath that superficiality lies a narrative template that reaffirms long standing prejudices of white audiences. The kind of pandering to narrow-minded views about India that is done is through the film’s heavy-handed act of contrasting locations. India is presented as a chaotic mess, a world full of shady characters who exist purely to cause havoc in young Saroo’s life. For example, the first character he meets in Bengal after being separated from his biological family (Tannishtha Chatterjee) attempts to sell him off to a child trafficking ring through her lover.
The literal darkness of India is swept away by the brightened hues of the Australian coastline. The pristine beaches, as captured by cinematographer Greig Fraser (most recently of Rogue One) feel like part of a Tourism Australia campaign. The distinction isn’t limited to cinematography, either. Just before making his trip Down Under, young Saroo is educated in the sophisticated art of table manners in order to better fit in with his adoptive family. It’s a scene intended for comic relief after an emotionally heavy first half but it completely misses its mark. The consequence of this quite deliberate juxtaposition is nothing short of cringe worthy: Saroo is ‘saved’ by Australia; the land that has etiquette and manners, is civilised—unlike India.
What’s worse is that when the film does attempt to be nuanced, for example, in engaging with the ethics of adoption and relocating to a new country, it feels disjointed. For young Saroo, the adoption process unfolds swiftly, in a happy-go-lucky montage, as he looks wide-eyed from the window of his flight that takes him all the way to the land of the ‘fair go’. However, when it comes Saroo’s other adopted brother Mantosh, things aren’t as rosy. The audience is given no indication of where Mantosh came from, how he got there and what kind of trauma he has been through; though it’s clear there’s been some trauma involved in his childhood. Mantosh is just there one day, almost as if he is magically willed into existence.
Don’t get me wrong, I’m happy there are more culturally diverse stories being told, and that films with these intentions are reaching a wider audience. That’s something to be celebrated. But, it’s not enough for a story to be set in a different culture, if it neglects in doing due diligence to how that culture, its people and peculiarities, are represented on screen. The first half of the film is set in India, and yet all the Indian characters we meet in that duration are one dimensional caricatures. For example, the exceptionally talented Nawazuddin Siddiqui (Gangs of Wasseypur, The Lunchbox) is asked to play a generically insidious character in a short appearance who has plans to sell off Saroo into child trafficking. Other Indian actors such as Tannishtha Chatterjee and Deepti Naval function purely as catalysts for the narrative lacking any in-depth characterisation: an obstacle for Saroo to overcome, a danger for him to evade or a friend that helps him in his eventual journey to Australia. Priyanka Bose and Abhishek Bharate share an even worse fate. After their initial appearance as Saroo’s biological family, they are relegated to recurring flashbacks and stop existing as actual persons; they morph into physical embodiments of an abstract concept of what an adult Saroo believes his ‘home’ ought to constitute. Their positioning as a recurring abstract concept goes well beyond what is required for the story to be effective: in one flashback, we see a young Saroo trying to help his biological mother pick up rocks, while in another, she offers him a ripe mango to eat. In another flashback, his elder brother Guddu, is shown walking on the train tracks, calling out to Saroo to walk with him. This sort of rendering only cheapens their presence in the narrative and incidentally reflects and affirms the film’s approach to Indian characters more broadly.
There are fleeting moments of a more compassionate and less insulting film. Sunny Pawar as young Saroo is an exceptional talent and is able to communicate more with just his eyes than anyone else in the cast. The highlight of his performative prowess—and my favourite moment in the film—is the scene where after spending a day on the streets, lost and hungry, Pawar sitting outside a restaurant locks eyes with someone enjoying their meal inside. As their eyes lock, Pawar slowly starts mimicking the action of the gentleman inside—taking an imaginary spoon and bringing it to his mouth. In a film that is mostly convinced of its own righteousness and looking to play each and every emotional beat to the galleries, this is a remarkably powerful and understated sequence and I dearly wished for more like it.
Dev Patel nails the Australian accent and his shirtless dishevelled look, but not much else. His stoic facial expressions help little in conveying the inner emotional turmoil of his character. His love interest, played by Rooney Mara, has not much to do except play an emotionally manipulated Ophelia to Patel’s postmodern, angst ridden Hamlet. But it’s Kidman who hams to the maximum. Her character Sue’s great ‘reveal’ about why she chose to adopt Saroo—because of a dream she had as a young girl where she sees a ‘brown boy’—made me facepalm, which is in itself a kind of achievement. In all this madness, Wenham is the only one actually interested in underplaying his character’s emotions. It’s a little unfortunate then that the focus is on Kidman and Patel, who seem to be engaged in a competition of one-downmanship.
Lion is proof that good intentions are not enough to make a good film. If this is what we come up with when we think of making a film that centers around adversity in a culturally diverse narrative, then we are asking the wrong questions. There is a strong, emotionally resonant and nuanced film waiting to be made from Saroo Brierley’s amazing journey. Lion is definitely not it.