‘I have to find my way back home.’ These words, spoken by Dev Patel – playing the real-life Saroo Brierley – is a pledge to accomplish something seemingly impossible to achieve. Adopted by his Australian foster parents, the Brierleys (Nicole Kidman and David Wenham), at just six-years-old, he knew just one thing: that one day he had been waiting for his brother at a train station near his home in rural India, when he had accidentally fallen asleep aboard a train. Waking up, he found he had been carried for hours and hours straight into the poverty-stricken urban jungle of Kolkata, a place so different that he didn’t even speak the local dialect. His only knowledge of his mother and siblings are scraps of names and faint memories. Lion follows his desperate search for home.
Geography is at the heart of this film. Firstly, it revolves almost entirely around place. Where was the train station at which he had fallen asleep? How much distance could he have covered in the time he was on the train? 1,000km? 1,500km? More? From that small station, where was the shanty town where his family lived? Almost the entirety of India is a potential search area. ‘It would take a life-time to search all the stations in India,’ comments a friend. Thousands of miles away, in Tasmania, Australia, Saroo’s mind obsessively transports him back to rural India time-and-time again.
As was widely reported in the news media at the time, Saroo used Google Earth to backtrack his route on the train. He plotted a radius outwards from Kolkata to identify the stations from where he could potentially have once lived, those satellite images which matched the mental maps torturing him inside his head. Cities, train lines, infrastructure, maps; it’s a rich geographical feast, and a highly salubrious one at that.
Second, it’s about people, and cultures. Saroo wrestles constantly with his identity; not just the obvious biological non-relation between him and his adoptive parents, but his nationality as well. ‘I’m not really Indian,’ he states, despite having been born there and Hindi being his mother tongue (his loyalty to the Australian cricket team, and his inability to eat Indian food properly nevertheless support his assertion). But the memories linger; the sights, sounds and tastes of his former life. His determination to answer the questions about his past is what drives him forwards, over several years.
Furthermore, we are treated to so many sweeping landscape shots of both India and Australia – viewed from inside various modes of transport – it’s difficult not to compare the two. Consequently, it’s impossible not to reflect on the juxtaposition between the comfortable, suburban, middle-class upbringing Saroo enjoyed in Hobart, and the tough, dirty, poor lifestyle he inadvertently escaped back in India. The notion that a bedraggled street child in the slums of Kolkata can easily become a healthy, intelligent Australian adult if only given the right opportunity is a subtly provocative political narrative, and one which the producers of the film – who are actively using it to highlight the tens of thousands of children who go missing on India’s streets every year – are understandably keen to reinforce.