The director Garth Davis has powerful material to work with, but he does little with it.
Halfway through Behind the Beautiful Forevers, a nonfiction account of a Mumbai slum, we learn about an anonymous injured man lying on a road near the international airport, someone in need of urgent medical attention. As the man’s condition deteriorates, scores of people walk past him, indifferent to his presence, doing nothing. A few hours later, the man dies. It’s later implied in the book that the man suffered that fate because the poor, especially in an Indian megacity, are so used to, and scared of, being exploited by the police that they’d rather be callous than helpful.
But there’s another facet to this indifference: That Indians—rich, poor, and the ones in between—are so inured to the concept of poverty, so used to its images, wails, and desperation that they either mentally autocorrect its despair or pretend it doesn’t exist. Which is why our first reaction—at most times—is no. Kids selling pens and books and trinkets on streets: no. Mothers begging for alms: no. Eunuchs promising blessings in exchange of a ten-rupee note: no.
In that case, in light of daily indifference and willful ignorance, can a fictional film, dealing with similar images and motifs, move us? Because if this is life, then what chance does cinema have? That question hit me hard in the first forty minutes of Lion. In this portion, a five-year-old boy, Saroo (Sunny Pawar), gets separated from his family, and, through a series of misfortunes, ends up in Calcutta, 1,600 kilometres from his home. A homeless kid in a big city—susceptible to pedophiles, organ traffickers, drug dealers—is a heartbreaking sight, and yet much of Lion’s first 40 minutes left me unmoved. I wondered why. Was it the inbuilt indifference or shoddy filmmaking?
Garth Davis, the director of Lion, has access to powerful material, but he does little with it. His inability to stay close to Saroo, adopt his point of view, understand his fear and anxieties, waters down the film. A major part of this segment is the audience looking at Saroo, not him looking at the world, sprawled in all its unfamiliarity and chaos. Besides, Davis, like many foreign correspondents, strains to find the beauty and hope in squalor: Saroo surrounded by colourful moths, kids singing in an orphanage, his friend telling him about Australia’s good life. To be fair, Davis’ gaze is neither exploitative nor patronizing, but it does look distant, giving the impression that he doesn’t quite understand what he’s up against. He does succeed, but only sporadically: Saroo shouting for help in a locked train compartment, while a girl on the field, presumably homeless herself, looks at him, confused and clueless; a street urchin looking at Saroo, silently extending a flattened cardboard, so he doesn’t have to sleep on the ground; Saroo picking a spoon on the road and, later, mimicking a man eating in the restaurant.
A few months later, Saroo, adopted by Australian parents, moves to Australia. From here on, Lion’s story changes, but its mediocrity doesn’t. And that’s so because Saroo’s ultimate realisation—that he’s at home, yet homeless—seems hasty and convenient. When a college-going Saroo, at a friend’s place, eats jalebi, the sweet he craved as a kid, he feels unanchored. But is this realisation his first? Twenty-one years have passed since he left home. Did Saroo not encounter fleeting images and thoughts of home (via food, conversations, and people) in such a long time? We aren’t quite sure, because once Saroo comes to Australia the film jumps 21 years within a few minutes. In absence of such vital information about its lead, Lion feels tepid and contrived. It’s also dramatically dead. Which may have worked for some other film, but not for something as inherently melodramatic as Lion, which wants to tug at our heartstrings, hoping we reach for our hankies more often.
Inspired from a real-life story, Lion is a film with a neat three act structure, predictable plot turns, and a crowd-pleasing climax. Or, to be less polite, it’s an Oscar-bait. But even some Oscar-baits—as safe and predictable as they are—tend to be enjoyable, because they stick to their basics, and execute them well. Lion, on the other hand, is simply insipid.
It could have been saved, to some extent, by its actors, but they too let the film down. Barring Sunny Pawar, who is credible as the young Saroo, and Rooney Mara in a bit role, the rest of the actors fail to leave an impression. Dev Patel’s performance is especially pedestrian and uninspiring, failing to elevate the film, add meanings to it. The fact that Lion has been nominated for six Oscars (including Best Picture, Best Supporting Actor, Best Supporting Actress—Nicole Kidman’s nomination is truly baffling) not only shows poor judgement but also exemplifies a forgetful year for Hollywood films.