Lion (2016) and me, thinking about “home”
[This review contains mild spoilers.]
I knew if I hung around my screen today, I’d be searching obsessively for information about the ninth circuit, so since it was cheap day at the cinema, I decided to go see two films (which was wise, because as I learned later, audio of the arguments were broadcast live, and had I listened to that, as I inevitably would have, the day would have been over for me). I saw Moonlight and Lion, both nominated for Best Picture. I’ll probably write about Moonlight later, as it’s Black History Month, but for tonight, I wanted to say something about Lion.
I had heard of the film, but in the end was pushed a bit to see it by our fellow Richard Armitage fan Emma’s review here. The film tells evocatively the near-miraculous but true story of Saroo Brierley, born in Madhya Pradesh in central India. (I’m being intentionally vague about the details here because they really make the movie worth seeing.) As a five-year-old, growing up impoverished, Saroo becomes trapped on a train to Calcutta (West Bengal) — a journey that ends after 900 miles. He can’t figure out how to get back and doesn’t speak the language there (perhaps unsurprisingly as there are 22 official languages in India and another 130 or so that are widely spoken), but manages to hang on through various disturbing misadventures for two months before someone brings him to the authorities. He is so young that he can’t even tell the police the correct name of the place he’s from. He is sent to a (frightening) orphanage while they try to find a relative by advertising in the paper. This is more or less pointless because of the extreme distance between his home town and Calcutta, and because his mother is very poor, and, I assumed, possibly illiterate. When no relative materializes, he is matched with an adoptive family from Australia, the Brierleys, with whom he develops a warm relationship — a fortunate instance, as international adoption is inherently fraught with difficulties even when done with the best of intentions (as the Brierleys’ relationship with their second adoptive son, Mantosh, also shown in the film, demonstrates).
As an adult, Saroo loves the Brierleys deeply, but something still nags at him. The second half of the film reveals how, once informed about Google Earth, he begins using the tool in combination with his fragmentary memories — which revive as he examines them more carefully — to figure out where has come from. Eventually he discovers geography that squares with his childhood memories, and is able to travel back to India. He has forgotten all of his boyhood language and another information about another tragedy awaits him in his birthplace, but he is able to locate and spend time with his Indian mother. In turn, answering this question about his past leads to his emphatic re-embrace of his relationship with his adoptive parents (I’m again being vague because these scenes are some of the most emotional of the film).
As did Emma, I loved this film and would recommend it highly. Please read her review for discussion of the performance of the child actor, Sunny Pawar, who doesn’t speak English at all; his performance was one of the best components of the film. But what touched me most was the adult Saroo’s struggle with the notion of home. Fellow Indians on a training course recognize him as Indian, but, as he is forced to admit repeatedly, he’s “not really Indian” — he has no language, he doesn’t even remember the proper manners for eating Indian food with his hands (scoop the food with the bread). He loves his Australian parents but still dreams of his Indian family. It’s clear all the way through the story from beginning to end that Saroo is an unusually resourceful, self-reliant individual. But even so, his past reaches out to pull at his heart and the film takes the viewer repeatedly through scenes of him walking through his childhood landscape, and particularly retracing his steps from the train station where he would beg to his home, with the various landmarks that he traces in his memories.
I found myself wondering, while watching these surveys of the landscape he preserved in his mind, what my comparable landmarks would be, and then I gradually started to ponder what it would be like to have a picture of home in my mind that I could never recreate, but which would not leave me alone, either.
A good deal of this blog has always concerned my struggle with the notion of home. I was one of those people who wondered about far away places, who needed to leave, definitely, but I always knew this place was here. There is a swell of land that I traversed when driving up from Texas that said to me, yes, here it is again, this place where you are from. There is a way the air smells in March, a way the light falls in November. It is perhaps nothing special, the route from church to my father’s house, or from here to the town where my parents grew up, but still, I know every inch, have traveled them hundreds, thousands of times and at the end point is always the same place.
And I’ve had exactly the experience that Saroo has in the film, that when one looks carefully at the images in one’s memories, that details unfold that one has forgotten that in turn take hold of one and don’t let go. I was happy that Saroo’s story found such a delightful resolution, but the story itself is so precarious that it could just as well have ended differently. The film left me wishing that just as Saroo eventually plumbs his memories to find his way home, everyone should be able to find — or construct — this place called home, where each of us knows every inch of the ground.
Saroo was able to do both. I’m worried we’re not going to preserve that possibility.