When Dorothy Gale realized that “there’s no place like home,” she had to rely on her wits, her besties, and a pair of ruby slippers. Even in the magical, mystical land of Oz, Google Earth hadn’t been invented yet.
Lion, the wonderful film by first-time feature director Garth Davis, can be described many ways. It’s a rags-to-riches story of Dickensian proportion. It’s a gorgeous cinematic travelogue with magnificent footage of India and Australia. It’s a meditation on the meaning of self and family. But, perhaps above all else, it’s the most effective advertising ever made for Google’s virtual mapping application. And it’s true.
Lion isn’t simply “based on a true story” (those words always make me a little suspicious). It’s a fairly faithful adaptation of Saroo Brierley’s international bestselling memoir A Long Way Home. In fact, Davis and his team purportedly turned down major U.S. studio budgets and distribution because they wouldn’t change a locale from Tasmania to the United States. The project has clearly been a labor of love for those involved, and their passion has paid off.
The first half of the film follows the story of 5-year-old Saroo, a tiny boy with an infectious smile who lives with his mother and siblings in a remote Indian slum. His mother moves rocks to support the family while Saroo, and his older brother Guddu steal coal from moving trains and forage in and around a nearby station. One evening, Guddu explains that he’s going to travel farther away to find work and Saroo convinces his brother to take him along. They’re separated and Saroo ends up asleep in the locked passenger car of an out of commission train. He is finally released a couple of days — and about 1,000 miles — later in Calcutta. He is lost and alone and can’t even communicate (he speaks Hindi, not Bengali); he seems doomed to join the seemingly countless children of the street. For an American audience, the abject poverty, shot from the perspective of a tiny child is stunning.
After some near escapes (although never fully explained, it’s apparent that there’s a thriving trafficking market for these homeless children), Saroo eventually attracts the attention of a kind man who brings him to the authorities. He’s sent to an orphanage, which is really more of a prison, but by some miracle is adopted by a kind Tasmanian couple.
The second half of Lion jumps ahead some twenty years. Saroo has grown into a handsome young man. He leaves Tasmania for Melbourne to study hotel management. There, he makes an international group of friends, some of whom are Indian. He starts to articulate his own background as they introduce themselves. “What part of Calcutta are you from?” he’s asked. “I’m not really Indian,” he stumbles, “I’m Australian.” Soon, though, triggered by a sweet he had craved as a child, he begins to remember things: his mother, his brother, and a train station with a water tower. A classmate suggests that he use Google Earth to try and locate his village. At first, he dismisses the idea, but over the next couple of years, Saroo becomes obsessed with his search, turning away from his job, his supportive English girlfriend, and his loving adoptive parents. An integral part of him is missing and he’s haunted by the idea that his mother and brother might still be looking for him.