Lion is based on Saroo Brierly’s book ‘A Long Way Home’, which chronicles his search for his biological mother from whom he was separated under strange and devastating circumstances when he was five years old. The first third of the film (the best part), details how Saroo (brilliantly played by youngster Sunny Pawa) was living in a poor village in India with his mother. Despite protests from his older brother Guddu who insisted he was too young to accompany him to steal coal for resale at the local market, Saroo accompanies him anyway. While Guddu wanders off after telling Saroo to wait for him at a nearby train station, the younger boy falls asleep and when he wakes up, Guddu is nowhere to be found.
Thus begins the tragic saga of Saroo, who, looking for his brother, found himself trapped on a decommissioned train headed for the eastern part of India, thousands of miles away. He ends up in Calcutta where they only speak Bengali and is forced to fend for himself in a teeming strange city where he doesn’t know his surname and is unable to pronounce the name of his hometown correctly.
It’s a gripping, brilliant first third of a film, chronicling how Saroo almost ends up in the hands of a child sex smuggler, braves horrendous conditions at a state orphanage and is finally adopted by loving Australian parents, who bring him back to Tasmania and raise him as their own.Flash forward to 2007 when Saroo is now a grown man and is determined to find his lost family. Unfortunately, Act 2 of this compelling story is nowhere as good as the first. The film’s scenarists have trouble fleshing out the character of the adult Saroo, now played by the noted Indian actor, Dev Patel. The problem is that his one-note obsession transforms him into a one-dimensional depressive. Saroo’s downbeat demeanor prevents us from embracing him as we did when he appeared as that endearing five-year-old.
The elder Saroo’s angst causes him significant alienation from his girlfriend, his brooding mother (Nicole Kidman)–who feels she’s being rejected for the biological mother–and his adopted brother, who has learning disabilities and emotional problems that he is unable to overcome.
Ironically it’s not the melodramatic troubled family machinations that lead us back to a positive spin in Act Three, but modern-day technology. Saroo solves the mystery of his lost hometown by obsessively poring over Google Maps until he hits pay dirt— there he glimpses the water tower that loomed in front of him as he sat on a bench at the train station so many years before.
Act Three turns out to be quite moving as Saroo has a joyous reunion with his mother. The homecoming however proves bittersweet upon his discovery that his older brother passed away shortly after he was lost. Lion also features some additional moving closing credit clips of Saroo’s adoptive parents journeying to India to meet his biological mother.
Lion’s mother/son reunification coupled with a brilliant first act is worth the price of admission despite some not so solid second act machinations involving that family angst.