I’ll be very honest and say that I was underwhelmed with the trailer of Garth Davis’s Lion. Little boys running atop a coal train, walking around in a slum neighbourhood, going manual scavenging in trains, it seemed like the trailer had a massive Slumdog Millionaire hangover. I remember groaning out loud the moment I saw Dev Patel, and giving considerable thought to writing something snarky on social media.
The movie had good reviews but I still wasn’t very keen on it. Feeling bad for Dev Patel, I eventually did sit down and watch it. Fast forward to two hours later and I couldn’t stop gushing about it. The flaws didn’t matter because the film moved me in a way I seriously hadn’t expected. And as someone wise (I assume) said, there is no greater joy than being surprised inside a movie theatre.
Lion is not the best film of the year. It is definitely not the most clinically perfect film of the year. It might not go on to win in a majority of the six categories it has been nominated for at the Oscars, but that will not matter. Australian director Garth Davis’s debut feature film is one of those stories which would be dismissed as BS, if it wasn’t based on a life account of Aussie lad Saroo Brierley. What was most impressive about the movie was how diametrically opposite it was to Danny Boyle’s Slumdog Millionaire, which I felt it strongly resembled at first glance.
It uses a lot of the similar elements like a boy growing up with limited means, escaping unspeakable horrors of the world to finding himself fully transformed in the end. Where Boyle’s film used these tropes to create a commercial potboiler from 1970s Bollywood, Lion is a much more sombre film minus the bling. The simple story never tends to make the film simplistic, even when it glosses over a life which seems to have been harder considering the circumstances.
One of the biggest revelations for me was child star Sunny Pawar’s almost flawless performance. Apart from the fact that his small face and squeaky voice made my heart melt, I thought it was a massive achievement for a six-year-old to hold the audience’s attention throughout the first half with barely 10 lines of dialogue. A huge part of this credit, is also probably due to director Garth Davis for extracting a performance as natural as this. Cinematographer Grieg Davis manages to capture the filth of Kolkata adding a hint of magical surrealism to it, and the music by Dustin O’Hallaran and Hauschka make the little boy’s journey almost poetic to watch.
Dev Patel, the lanky kid from his Oscar-winning debut has been through a journey of his own, as he has starred in big-budgeted duds (M Night Shyamalan’s The Last Airbender), played the Indian stereotype in Aaron Sorkin’s Newsroom to now this. A large chunk of his performance in Lion requires him to feel very honestly about his character’s journey from the dusty roads of Khandwa to the posh surroundings of Tasmania. And he does it quite convincingly, hence making us to make us root for his return to meet his biological mother. Just look at that scene when he takes a bite out of a jalebi and his eyes well up, reminding him of his elder brother. As Dev Patel’s ‘mother’, Nicole Kidman, lends herself completely to the part of Sue Brierley, putting a price on her tears and ensuring it isn’t a moping fest.
With Lion and its six Oscar nominations, Garth Davis has made a rock-solid debut and will be an exciting talent to watch out for. But what has me more interested is what will happen to our little leading man Sunny Pawar, and if he will break through the status quo and go on to star in more films. The story behind the name of the film reveals itself in the final moments, surmising the triumph of human spirit. It has a loud, beating heart which makes us more than willing to participate in this tale of ghar wapasi.
It will in all probability not be the most successful movie this year, but you need to ask yourself if; it touches your heart then does anything else really matter?