By: Muneeb Arshid
Dev Patel has really embraced his ethnicity when it comes to choosing specific roles in his short, but strong career so far. His performance in Lion cements that versatility in him as a leading man in Hollywood.
However, Patel could easily have fallen into the trap of being that Indian actor who is typecast into specific roles. Yet, he has been quite picky in making sure that there has been diversity in the roles that he has chosen. Yes, he had his breakout in Slumdog Millionaire, but he has since starred in HBO’s The Newsroom, Chappie to name a few. But, he’s also taken those roles signifying his heritage such as The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel films as well as the recent The Man Who Knew Infinity.
Lion is the incredible true story of a boy named Saroo (played remarkably by Sunny Pawar and later by Dev Patel) who becomes lost on the train system in India after losing his brother at a train station. What comes next is the incredible journey of the young boy trying to navigate his way around the busy life in Calcutta while trying to find help in finding his brother and going back home to his mother.
After some time spent at what can only be called a “Lost Kids Jail”, Saroo is eventually adopted by Australian couple John (David Wenham) and Sue (Nicole Kidman) Brierley who bring Saroo to Tasmania and are able to provide a very stable environment for the young boy.
The film then proceeds to 20 years later where Saroo leaves for Melbourne to go to school. There, he meets Lucy (Rooney Mara) and the two become intimately involved. The couple goes to a house party hosted by an Indian friend where Saroo finds jalebi (Indian dessert) which triggers repressed memories of his childhood and is suddenly able to remember a seemingly lost childhood and becomes enamored with trying to find his village in India.
Thus, begins Saroo’s Google Earth search in trying to figure out where his village could be, especially since the only information that is available to him is that he has traveled 1600 kilometres to Calcutta, but nothing more than that.
The emotional journey that the adult Saroo has to endure after these flashbacks come back to him and start to take over his life are quite overwhelming, to a point where his parents and Lucy become extremely worried that Saroo might not be in the best state of mind and that something terrible may just happen.
The Film starts off with the highly emotional Indian portion of the film, showcasing the young Saroo and his brother Guddu (Abhishek Bharate) as they initially make their way to the worksite together (which is on one end of the emotional spectrum), and then Saroo getting lost on the train and in Calcutta and the other extreme of the emotions of Saroo’s state as being a lost child on the streets. The first half hour of the film is very well done in setting up Saroo’s past before even proceeding to Dev Patel’s Saroo.
Once we get to the adult Saroo, the film loses a bit more of its intensity of the first half hour and moves into a slightly more melodramatic turn. The few emotional bits of the rest of the film are not due to the impending danger of the young boy, rather, they are character moments between Saroo and his mother Sue (played by the now once again Oscar-nominated Nicole Kidman) or between Saroo and Lucy. There are moments of strength in the latter 2 acts in terms of emotion but it is very uneven of when it is occurring but also feels quite overwhelming to a point where “we get it, let’s move on, please”.
The melodrama doesn’t just seep through the story but also to the characters as well. Well, one in particular. Nicole Kidman plays the character of the mother as just being the brooding mother at home and playing her character as being depressed and unemotional even when there were moments of happiness. There was an air of emptiness and an air of being fake, which could be all her character but she didn’t convince me at all. However, I can understand why her “acting it up” has garnered an Oscar nomination for this film.
Dev Patel, however, is very convincing as the man who seems to be “normalized” with his adoptive family to start and then completely loses his sense of who he is once he starts having these flashbacks as to who he really was. Patel has shown that whichever role he takes on, he will tend to succeed for what is asked of him. Which is why he is being given these strong roles with auteurs in the film industry who trust him to be a strong, emotional leading actor.
Sunny Pawar, who is the young actor in his introductory role, plays that very tough role of young Saroo brilliantly. He emotes as well as any seasoned child actor in the different situations that he is forced to deal with both prior to and after losing his brother. The strongest scenes with Pawar are when he has to process and figure out how to live on the streets of Calcutta and eventually deal with the abuses in that “jail” after he is captured by the authorities. Very well done!
But, if there was one actor who I was even more disappointed with, other than Nicole Kidman, would be Rooney Mara. As far as her and Saroo’s chemistry goes, they work very well together. However, whenever she is required to emote herself in scenes where Patel is giving his all, her face is completely empty and void of emotion and is a stark contrast between the two characters. This is a huge disappointment for an Academy Award nominated actor who I have liked in the past especially in last year’s glorious Carol.
One consistent point in this film throughout is the astounding use of sound and music in the film alongside the cinematography, both working together to build these two contrasting worlds. Dustin O’Halloran and Volker Bertelmann and Greig Fraser bring together the music and camera work respectively in a way that distinguishes the worlds of India and Australia just with the use of the two film techniques. Of course, you can tell the difference between the two countries, however, if you were to close your eyes, you would be able to tell the difference just by the sounds but more importantly, the current plot theme of the film is distinguishable just with the incredible use of its emotional score.
Lion is a strong story, one that tells the tale of a boy who has to go through so much as a child who ultimately forgets what has happened to him. Cue, twenty years later, and the implications of these early experiences are heavily felt by the older Saroo.
What this film does, better than anything else is that it makes you wonder about how everyone around you, be it people you interact with or just random strangers, has their own story. You may not know that story, and you may not particularly care for it, but everyone has their own unique circumstances that they are attached to, which make them the humans that they are. And that is the biggest accomplishment of this film.
Lion, as well as being nominated for Best Picture and receiving other accolades at The Academy Awards, receives a grade of B (7.6/10).