In 'Lion,' A Man Uses Google Earth To Search For His Family

Nov 25, 2016
Originally published on November 25, 2016 5:29 pm
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ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

Here's an almost unbelievable journey - a 4-year-old boy swept thousands of miles from home who 25 years later struggles to find his way back. A few years ago when writer Saroo Brierley spoke to NPR about his early life, it sounded like the plot of a movie. Today, it is a movie, and critic Bob Mondello says "Lion" is quite a trip.

BOB MONDELLO, BYLINE: Saroo is 5 when we meet him, a kid who dashes confidently around his tiny village in India and who's adventurous enough to tag along when his older brother Guddu goes to look for work a two-hour train ride away. At a train station not far from their town...

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "LION")

SUNNY PAWAR: (As Saroo Brierley, foreign language spoken).

MONDELLO: ...They get separated. Saroo, played by newcomer Sunny Pawar, climbs aboard an empty passenger car looking for his brother...

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "LION")

SUNNY: (As Saroo Brierley) Guddu?

MONDELLO: ...And falls asleep. When he wakes, the train is moving and locked, traveling unoccupied to its home base in Kolkata, almost a thousand miles away. That's where Saroo finally manages to get off. But I repeat, he's 5. He doesn't know his town's name. He can't read. He doesn't even speak Bengali, the language most people speak in Kolkata. He's just one of many, many poor children sleeping on cardboard in the streets, scavenging for food.

Still, he's luckier than most. An orphanage takes him in, and when he can't tell the authorities enough for them to reunite him with his mother, they find him adopted parents in Australia.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "LION")

NICOLE KIDMAN: (As Sue Brierley) Hello, there, hello.

MONDELLO: A new language, unimaginable differences, the first refrigerator he's ever seen. Flash forward 25 years - Saroo is a college grad, now played by Dev Patel, and memories are stirring. He's always told people he's from Kolkata, where he was adopted, but in an ethnic section of Melbourne, he tastes a sweet Indian treat and remembers once asking his brother if he could have one.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "LION")

SUNNY: (As Saroo Brierley) Guddu, (speaking foreign language).

MONDELLO: His friends are concerned, as he seems to go somewhere else in his head.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "LION")

ROONEY MARA: (As Lucy) You OK?

MONDELLO: Though he doesn't know it yet, he's already made a decision to go there for real.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "LION")

DEV PATEL: (As Saroo Brierley) I'm not from Kolkata. I'm lost.

MONDELLO: Getting found, he discovers, will take some doing. As a friend points out, it would take him a lifetime to check all the train stations in India.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "LION")

ADITYA ROY KAPOOR: (As Vijay Vora) How long were you on the train?

PATEL: (As Saroo Brierley) A couple of days.

KAPOOR: (As Vijay Vora) A couple of days. Saroo, what was your hometown again?

PATEL: (As Saroo Brierley) Canastella (ph). I must have it wrong because it doesn't exist.

KAPOOR: (As Vijay Vora) But there must be something else that you do remember.

PATEL: (As Saroo Brierley) The platform I fell asleep on had this big rain tank.

MONDELLO: OK, that's something. In an age of satellite imagery, might a rain tank, a water tower cast a shadow? Director Garth Davis finds the visual tools to explore that notion. In the film's opening section, he uses aerial shots to depict 5-year-old Saroo as a tiny cork bobbing in a sea of humanity. Now aerials of a different sort come into play.

And though the latter half of "Lion" doesn't pack quite the same Dickensian wallop as the first half, the emotional stakes are never slighted. Just watch as Saroo's Australian mom, played with restraint by Nicole Kidman, wrestles with pain and pride as she realizes she's raised her adopted son to be the kind of sharp young man who'd go searching on Google Earth for the family he barely remembers. Patel's adult Saroo is intriguingly conflicted about this in the film's second half, helped immensely by the heavy lifting 5-year-old Sunny Pawar has done in the first.

There's a real-life revelation at the end of "Lion" that had many of the presumably hardened critics at one Toronto Film Festival screening choking back sobs. I won't pretend I wasn't one of them. I'm Bob Mondello. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.